Biden’s Irish Roots

August 28, 2008

By Niall O’Dowd

SENATOR Joe Biden gave his most extensive review of his roots and his Irish heritage to Irish America magazine, our sister publication, in 1985. What follows is extracts from that interview which I conducted.

Biden hails from a Famine era family, the Finnegans, who fled Co. Mayo to avoid the Great Hunger. His great grandmother Finnegan was the only one who could read Gaelic, and she used to read letters in Gaelic for those who could not read the letters from home and she’s write back in Gaelic for them.

The Biden name appears to have come from a Huguenot family which has been traced to Liverpool in 1668. His father, a car salesman, insisted the name was Irish but Biden was never able to confirm that.

Biden was born in the Irish heartland of Scranton, Pennsylvania, one of the most Irish cities in America. There were already political genes in his DNA.

“Edward F. Blewett my grandmother’s father, was the first Irish Catholic state senator,” Biden recalled. “He was also the co-founder of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in Scranton around 1908. There is still a plaque in existence in Scranton showing he was one of the founding members.”

Biden stated that he grew up in Scranton in “a predominantly Irish neighborhood and an overwhelmingly Irish parish. The centerpiece of life in Scranton was the church, the nuns, the priest the monsignor,” he recalled.

“Everybody had a sister who was a nun everybody had a brother a priest. Vocations were a big deal.”

His first Irish memories are of his Aunt Gertie when he went to his grandparents’ house.

“I’d go upstairs and lie on the bed and she’d come and scratch my back and say, ‘Now you remember Joey about the Black and Tans don’t you?’ She had never seen the Black and Tans, she had no notion of them, but she could recite chapter and verse about them.

“Obviously there were immigrants coming in who were able to talk about it and who had relatives back there, She was born in 1887. After she’d finish telling the stories I’d sit there or lie in bed and think at the slightest noise, ‘They’re coming up the stairs.’”

Biden confessed to hating Irish wakes, which were a constant when he was a child.

“I hated it, you know, everybody sitting around and drinking and the corpse in the next room ... there is something about the Irish that knows that to live is to be hurt, but we’re still not afraid to live.”

Biden has read Irish history extensively, and to this day his hero is Wolfe Tone leader of the 1798 Rebellion.

“Wolfe Tone is the embodiment of some of the things that I think are the noblest of all. He was a Protestant who formed the United Irishmen. He had nothing to gain on the face of it but he sought to relieve the oppression of the Catholics caused by the penal laws. He gave his life for the principle of civil rights for all people.

“I view him as an honorable figure. He was obviously passionate which I admire. He had the ability to make his own comfort secondary to the greater good.”

Biden found that when he moved to Delaware that the experience of the Irish there was very different to what he left behind in Scranton.

“That is because they came over differently. The Dupont Company were sending ships back to Ireland and bringing back workers so the first people who did come did not do so as part of a famine. They were paternalistic, built their church for them. It was a different experience,” Biden said.

The new Democratic vice presidential nominee stated, “I see myself as an Irish Catholic. If we have a moral obligation to other parts of the world why don’t we have a moral obligation to Ireland? It’s part of our blood.”

White House to go green and red

Anna-Marie Flynn

MAYO could be represented in the White House if Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama is successful in his election campaign.

After announcing his running-mate as Senator Joseph Biden Jnr last Saturday, celebrations commenced in north Mayo where Obama’s right-hand man has strong family ties.

The Mayo townlands of Rappa and Cooneal, outside Ballina, were home to the Senator’s ancestors.
Third-cousin of Senator Biden, Brendan Blewitt, from Runagry in Knockmore, explained the family connection to The Mayo News following the announcement on Saturday evening.

“Patrick Blewitt emigrated from Mayo in 1835. He had a son called Edward who in turn had a daughter called Geraldine Blewitt. Geraldine would have been Joseph Biden’s grandmother. Geraldine settled in Pennsylvania. Looking into the family ties, that would make myself and Joe Biden third cousins,” said Mr Blewitt.

The 65-year-old senator was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania to a Roman Catholic Irish-American family and also has family ties in Derry, from where his grandfather came. Scranton has strong associations with Mayo, as huge numbers of Mayo emigrants settled there during the Famine. Marking the connections, Ballina and Scranton are twinned in a ‘sister city’ programme.

The Blewitts are now following up the family connections in more detail in a bid to get a clearer picture of the overall family tree. “We are thrilled he was chosen and we’ll certainly be watching his progress very closely!” added Mr Blewitt.

By choosing the veteran Senator, Barack Obama will add an expert in international relations to the Democratic ticket. As the current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he is familiar with foreign leaders and diplomats around the world. As a Roman Catholic, he will appeal to an important, and largely Irish-American, voting bloc.

The politician has run twice for the presidency himself.

Announcing Senator Biden as his campaign-mate, Senator Obama said: “Senator Biden is a statesman with sound judgment who doesn’t have to hide behind bluster to keep America strong. He is what many others pretend to be.”



Mayo visit for US Vice President-elect?

Anna-Marie Flynn

THE American Vice President-elect could be pencilling in a visit to Mayo in his schedule for 2009.
With talk of Senator Joe Biden travelling to Ireland with President-elect Barack Obama escalating since the beginning of the pair’s joint campaign, it is now hoped that the plans will become a reality.

And with Ballina twinned with Scranton, the home of Senator Biden, coupled with the fact that the American politician has family links just outside the town in Knockmore, Mayor Michelle Mulherin has led the charge to invite him to visit north Mayo.

At the December meeting of Ballina Town Council last week, Mayor Mulherin proposed a letter be written from the authority to congratulate him on his achievement and to formally extend an invitation to the west of Ireland.

“Senator Biden is a cousin of the Blewitt family in Knockmore and I think it would be a lovely gesture, considering our twinning relationship with Scranton, to invite him over,” she said.
The Mayo townlands of Rappa and Cooneal, outside Ballina, were home to the Senator’s ancestors, while his third-cousin, Brendan Blewitt, lives in Runagry, Knockmore.

The Mayo News has learned that the visit is increasingly likely, as Senator Biden has recently expressed personal interest in travelling to visit his relatives in Ireland, and the Blewitt family would be ‘thrilled’ to see him return to the place of his ancestors.

Last week’s proposal came on foot of an invite to Ballina Town Council from the Mayor of Scranton to attend the St Patrick’s Day Parade in the city.
Elected members voted that Mayor Mulherin be accompanied by Cllrs Frances McAndrew, Padraig Moore and Mark Winters.

Cllr McAndrew, who has played a leading part in the twinning process, formally thanked the Mayor of Scranton for his invitation. “I am extremely happy that this has come directly from the Mayor’s office and I think it will afford us a great opportunity to see Scranton celebrate its Irish links of which Ballina is such a vital part,” she said.