President Biden finishes his much-publicized trip to Ireland today in my tiny hometown. We're enjoying the pomp, but it's a reminder that the glory days of Irish America are well and truly gone.
BALLINA —U.S. President Joe Biden has come to visit my hometown of Ballina — population of just over 10,000. To put that in perspective, the press pack for his four-day visit to Ireland is around 1,000 people, or one-tenth of the town’s population.
On Thursday, the day before Biden's arrival, during a normally peaceful countryside walk, I saw the bizarre image of three large U.S. army helicopters landing on the football pitch of my old high school. They’re much bigger and even louder than they seem on television. They’re about 20 meters in length, and blowback from the choppers’ blades caused trees to bend almost to the point of snapping.
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The President himself wasn’t on board. He was still in Dublin, so this was presumably just part of the security detail's advance planning. Pray for those trees when the whole cavalcade actually arrives.
So, what is one of the most powerful people in the world doing in a small town in remote county Mayo, in the west of Ireland — a town that had previously been best known for its salmon festival?
Biden has always embraced his Irish roots, and referred to the trip as a “homecoming.” He speaks regularly of his heritage and quotes Irish poetry, and 10 of his 16 great-great grandparents were from Ireland.
A kind of homecoming
Well, a certain Patrick Blewitt, born in 1832, was Biden's great, great, grandfather, and was from Ballina, county Mayo, emigrating to the U.S. in 1850 during Ireland’s Great Famine, which killed more than a million people.
The town has been decked out in U.S. flags, and Biden will deliver an outdoor address.
Biden visited Ballina once before during his time as Vice President in 2016, when he did a one-hour walkabout around the town.
This time, the visit is much bigger, and so are the security arrangements for when a U.S. president visits. The town has been turned upside down — almost literally. Every manhole has been screened, teams of divers checked out the river andcouncil officials have drawn up 20 different traffic management plans to account for possible changes in the President’s route.
Still, people seem to be enjoying the pomp and ceremony. The town has been decked out in U.S. flags, and Biden will deliver an outdoor address, behind bullet-proof glass, at Ballina Cathedral to an estimated 20,000 people — twice the town’s normal size. Biden’s ancestors are believed to have provided bricks for the cathedral, adding extra resonance to the occasion.
The Cathedral of St. Muredach stands on the banks of the Moy River in Bellina, Ireland.
No longer the promised land
Biden isechoing a long tradition of U.S. Irish-American presidents making homecoming trips, starting with the country’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy.
But Biden is no JFK, and times have changed. As one of Ireland’s foremost political commentatorsFintan O’Toole pointed out that while “JFK embodied an idea of what Ireland aspired to be, Biden embodies an idea of what we used to be.”
One in 10 Americans claim Irish heritage, second only to German. So if Biden’s connection to Ireland sounds far-fetched, he could also be eyeing up a substantial voting bloc at home. But Irish America is ageing and not being replaced. Irish people emigrated in massive numbers after the 2008 crash, but we went to the UAE, Canada, Australia and to other parts of Europe.
These are places where you can have a decent life as a teacher, nurse, construction worker and so on. The idea we once had in Ireland while I was growing up, of America being the Promised Land, is long gone.
Ireland and Irish America have also never been further apart.Irish Americans skewed towards Trump, while Ireland has become much more liberal. Even here in rural Mayo, we voted to repeal abortion and approve gay marriage in the last decade.
Fake plumbing issues
The trip, like all U.S. presidential trips, is heavily stage managed — and you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were at least partly funded by Diageo, the owner of Guinness. Biden gave a speech in a pub surrounded by Guinness paraphernalia. Obama did the same during his trip here, saying “Guinness really did taste better in Ireland.” But there were strong rumors that the barrel his Guinness came from had been flown in from the U.S. for security reasons.
Those homecoming visits will be rarer.
What’s more, U.S. presidents finding long-lost cousins in Ireland is a trope so established it’s become a parody. In the 1997 film The Matchmaker, a Senator’s assistant is sent to find Irish relatives to whip up the Irish vote back home. The film plays on Irish America’s perceptions of Ireland as quaint and backward.
In one hilarious scene, when the U.S. media arrives, the relatives pretend not to have indoor plumbing and pass around a bucket, loudly arguing about how many more shits they can take in it before it needs to be emptied.
So Biden may be the last Irish-American president, and those homecoming visits will be rarer. Still, it’s nice to enjoy the ceremony — and it beats the salmon festival for entertainment.