In Ireland, Biden Draws on a Family Story Rooted in Hope

In front of St. Muredach’s Cathedral on the banks of the River Moy in Ballina, the town where his ancestral Irish relatives came from, President Biden drew from his family story to share a message of hope and optimism with the people of Ireland and to the rest of the world — a message that could fuel a final presidential campaign.

“Our world today stands at an inflection point where the decisions we make today are going to affect our futures for decades to come,” Mr. Biden said. “And it’s in these moments where we need hope and courage more than ever.”

Connecting his political worldview with his family story, the president told the crowd — and the world — that it was “a moment to recommit our hearts, our minds, our heart and souls to the march of progress. To lay the foundation, brick by brick by brick, for a better future for our kids and our grandkids.”

As Mr. Biden was leaving Ballina, he told reporters that he’d already made his decision and that he planned to run again. “We’ll announce it relatively soon,” Mr. Biden said. “But the trip here just reinforced my sense of optimism about what can be done.”

Few politicians in the United States get the kind of raw, unanimous shows of approval that Mr. Biden got in Ballina, with an address in front of an august cathedral, with rock-star lighting and an uninhibited roar from an adoring crowd. Earlier Friday, thousands of people stood along the river, braving cold weather and spurts of heavy rain, for the chance to see Mr. Biden. Musical acts played on large screens while the president slowly made his way across Ireland from Dublin Friday evening.

When he arrived in Ballina, the president flew in Marine One low over the crowd of thousands, drawing huge cheers amid the roar of the helicopter.

Mr. Biden drank it up, delivering a short but energetic speech that faces almost none of the policy scrutiny that may greet him when he returns to Washington. His speech was the emotional conclusion of a three-day tour that has been something of a personal interlude as he tries to maintain global support for defending Ukraine amid low approval ratings and an embarrassing series of leaks of classified Pentagon materials.

He is also facing persistent questions about his political future as he puts off an official announcement on a re-election bid. While on Irish soil, Mr. Biden mostly kept quiet about his political plans. Instead, he relied on Ireland — the distant backdrop of all of his most-told folk tales — to help make the case on his behalf, by highlighting a life story that has centered around resilience. His motherland, with its “Welcome Home Joe” signs, Biden-themed pints of Guinness and selfie-ready crowds, seemed happy to help.

As he introduced Mr. Biden in Ballina, Leo Varadkar, the prime minister of Ireland, called his country “a story of unimaginable courage in the face of loss. And above all, it’s a story of love. For country, for family and for community.”

He paused, then added: “It’s your story, Mr. President, as well as our own.”

Mr. Biden spoke as he stood in front of a cathedral where his great-great-great-grandfather, Edward Blewitt, made the bricks that were used to construct the pillars supporting the building’s nave: “I doubt he ever imagined as a great-great-great-grandson would return 200 years later as president of the United States of America,” Mr. Biden said on Friday.

Much of the president’s tour of the country wove together the threads of his life with the more pressing responsibilities he has assumed as president. On Friday, the last day of his trip, the itinerary included a stop at the Knock Shrine, where Mr. Biden was told by a priest there that a friar who had administered last rites to his eldest son, Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015, had retired to Knock.

A surprised Mr. Biden asked to meet with the friar, Frank O’Grady, who was given last-minute security approval to see the president. A White House official described the tearful meeting as “spontaneous” and unplanned by administration officials. Later, Mr. Biden visited a hospice center in Knock, where a plaque hangs in memory of his son.

“It was incredible to see him,” Mr. Biden said in Ballina. “It seemed like a sign.”

At other points on his trip, Mr. Biden assumed the role of statesman, even though his advisers had made it clear that the tour would be primarily about Mr. Biden exploring his roots. He began his journey on Wednesday in Belfast, where he pushed Protestants and Catholics to resolve their differences and embrace the possibility of economic prosperity in a territory that had been “made whole by peace” since the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to decades of sectarian violence a quarter-century ago.

“Your history is our history, but more important, your future is America’s future,” Mr. Biden said during brief remarks at Ulster University. In Belfast, there were signs that not everyone was interested in seeing the American president, including a man who waved a flag supporting former President Donald J. Trump, whose recent legal troubles have taken center stage in the news media. Another woman held a sign that said “FAKE CATHOLIC PRESIDENT,” a likely reference to Mr. Biden’s support for abortion rights, though Ireland recently liberalized its once-rigid laws against abortion.

After traveling to the Republic of Ireland, Mr. Biden again blended the personal and political with remarks to the Irish Parliament on Thursday, where he was greeted like an old friend. During his speech, he made an unusually candid reference to his age, taking a moment to celebrate it as an asset rather than a weakness.

“I’m at the end of my career, not the beginning,” the 80-year-old Mr. Biden said, adding that, with his age, came “a little bit of wisdom. I come to the job with more experience than any president in American history. It doesn’t make me better or worse, but it gives me few excuses.”

For a politician who has avoided the subject of his age lest it serve as fodder for critics — he would be 86 at the end of a second term, should he win — Mr. Biden this week has tried to make the argument that his experience could steer a country challenged by its political divisions.

Mr. Biden’s initial case to voters in 2020 centered on winning what he called the battle for the “soul” of America, a country that was suffering from a pandemic and, after Mr. Biden won the election, left reeling by the violent Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol.

Throughout his trip, Mr. Biden used Ireland — with its shared democratic ideals, diverse and complicated political and sectarian history and its past as a nation whose people had searched for a better life abroad — to reiterate exactly what he sees at the core of both countries: “Freedom. Equality. Dignity. Family. Courage,” Mr. Biden said during remarks to Parliament.

Christopher J. Dodd, the former Connecticut senator and fellow Irish Catholic who accompanied the president for much of his visit, said that Mr. Biden had spent much of his time in Ireland relishing the kind of lively, in-person political gatherings he enjoys best.

Mr. Dodd equated the Ireland trip to Mr. Biden’s state of the union speech in March, when he was visibly comfortable sparring with Republicans and, afterward, spent extra time in the chamber catching up with lawmakers.

“This is an easy place to be, because there are so many shared values,” Mr. Dodd said. “It’s not just a personal familiarity, but a political familiarity.”

People who have known Mr. Biden for decades say his Irish heritage — and in particular his Irish Catholic upbringing in Scranton, Pa. — has been central to shaping his worldview, particularly about economics. The Irish Catholic church of Mr. Biden’s generation tended to be more focused on social justice for the poor, immigrants and the hungry; the early precursor to Mr. Biden’s oft-repeated pledge to build America’s economy “from the bottom up and the middle out.”

Kathleen Sebelius, who served as the secretary of health and human services under former President Barack Obama, said the influences are a mix of Mr. Biden’s Catholic faith and his Irish heritage.

“It’s hard to draw a line about where feeling Irish and feeling Catholic divide, because they’re so intertwined,” Ms. Sebelius, who is also Irish and Catholic, said. “I think that’s also part of his cultural heritage, so we have had many conversations about that.”

Mark Shriver, a nephew of John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, who also accompanied Mr. Biden on his trip, said that much of what Mr. Biden has said throughout his career — and what he emphasized in Ireland — reflects Catholic teachings.

“He talked about human decency, he talked about respect,” Mr. Shriver said. “It’s part of who he is. It’s part of his id. It’s part of growing up in a big Irish family who takes their faith seriously.”

Mr. Shriver, like many of Mr. Biden’s allies and advisers on this trip, emphasized that the president was energetically traveling and delivering speeches.

“He’s got a lot of energy, and it fires him up,” Mr. Shriver said. “I think he’ll be even better on this campaign than he was on the last one. He’s going to be able to interact with people. That’s going to get him more fired up than sitting on a Zoom call.”

Mr. Shriver said he didn’t know if the president would ultimately run, but hopes he will.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *