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Like Wilmington, Biden's Irish ancestral town claims the president-elect as a 'native son'

DelawareOnline.com (Wilmington, DE) logo DelawareOnline.com (Wilmington, DE) 1/15/2021 Meredith Newman, Delaware News Journal
Alyssa Shafer et al. posing for a picture: BALLINA, IRELAND - NOVEMBER 07: Joe Blewitt a cousin of Joe Biden sprays a bottle of champagne along with family members underneath a mural of Presidential candidate Joe Biden as locals celebrate in anticipation of Biden being elected as the next US President on November 7, 2020 in Ballina, Ireland. Joe Biden whose distant relatives hail from the County Mayo town of Ballina has visited the town twice before as the former Vice President. The US election count continues with Biden favoured to win. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images) © Charles McQuillan, Getty Images BALLINA, IRELAND - NOVEMBER 07: Joe Blewitt a cousin of Joe Biden sprays a bottle of champagne along with family members underneath a mural of Presidential candidate Joe Biden as locals celebrate in anticipation of Biden being elected as the next US President on November 7, 2020 in Ballina, Ireland. Joe Biden whose distant relatives hail from the County Mayo town of Ballina has visited the town twice before as the former Vice President. The US election count continues with Biden favoured to win. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Ireland’s trendiest tourist attraction resides in the small, quiet fishing town of Ballina. In recent months, thousands of people have passed through just see to a mural, which some claim is on track to become one of the most popular items in the country. 

And mostly to take photos in front of Joe Biden’s face.

Tween girls have snapped selfies in front of the grinning Irishman. Businesses have hung the politician’s campaign signs as a show of support from across the pond. His third cousins popped bottles of Champagne in front of the mural when hearing the news of his victory in November. 

The mural – which was erected as part of a town revitalization effort during the pandemic – is not far from the homestead where Biden’s great-great-great-grandfather, Edward Blewitt, lived before emigrating to the United States more than 160 years ago. 

Like Wilmington, the town of Ballina views Joe Biden as one of its favorite native sons. 

“He may expect a tornado of Irish cousins to arrive over in the White House as soon as possible,” said third cousin Laurita Blewitt, who lives Ballina. “I’m really looking forward to going, I have to say.”

If Delawareans have played the leading role in shaping Joe Biden’s political identity, then the Irish might be the understudy.

Biden read Irish poems as a boy to vanquish his stutter. His Irish-American upbringing is mentioned in almost every speech. And when introducing Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as a Cabinet nominee, Biden made sure to note the county where Walsh's Irish parents hailed from. 

Biden will become the country's second Irish-Catholic president, the first being John F. Kennedy. When he takes the oath of office on Wednesday, placing his hand on the Biden family Bible, his Irish cousins will be watching. 

“His ancestors that left Ireland were very caring, charitable people and always looked out for their fellow man here in Ireland,” Laurita Blewitt said. 

“I would like to think that we have that trait carried through on the Blewitt connection, but also I can see that it's quite visual on the Biden side.”

Technically, Biden is five-eighths Irish, a vast majority of which stems from his mother Jean Finnegan Biden’s side of the family, according to historians.

In 1851, Edward Blewitt and his family immigrated to America, escaping the potato famine that killed about 1 million Irish people. 

a person standing in front of a store: A man walks past a poster showing support to US president-elect Joe Biden in his ancestral hometown of Ballina in County Mayo in northwest Ireland on Nov. 8, 2020. © PAUL FAITH, AFP via Getty Images A man walks past a poster showing support to US president-elect Joe Biden in his ancestral hometown of Ballina in County Mayo in northwest Ireland on Nov. 8, 2020.

They were a part of the massive wave of Irish immigrants coming to America – and likely faced “No Irish need apply” signs as they looked for work. The family ultimately settled in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

His other Irish family members, the Finnegans, would settle in the Pennsylvania town decades later. In Ireland, the Finnegans still reside in County Louth.

Throughout his boyhood, Jean Finnegan Biden, instilled in her son that nobody was better than he was. And to remember that he was “a Biden,” as if he belonged to some dynasty, he later joked. 

When Biden had the chance to meet dignitaries as a senator and vice president – think Queen Elizabeth or the pope – his mother urged her son to never “kiss the ring.”

In a 2013 speech at an Irish American Hall of Fame induction, Biden connected his mother’s pride to her Irish roots. 

“There’s something about us Irish, about how we view ourselves,” he said at the time. “And how we were viewed by others.” 

“I think we’re at once dreamers yet realists. We have a combination of spirituality yet we’re doubters. We’re compassionate, yes, but we’re really demanding.”

When Kennedy was elected the United States' first Irish Catholic president, it changed how many people in Ireland viewed themselves, said Sean Reidy, former CEO of the JFK Trust, an Irish organization that preserves the legacy of the American president. 

In 1963, Kennedy made the trip to his ancestral home of New Ross, which is where Reidy now lives. The president said in his speech that “it took 115 years to make this trip, and 6,000 miles, and three generations.”

Beryl McCrainey Slevin, from California, who voted using a mail-in ballot, stands in front of a mural of Joe Biden on Nov. 7, 2020 as locals in Ballina, Ireland celebrate in anticipation of Biden being elected as the next U.S. President. © Charles McQuillan, Getty Images Beryl McCrainey Slevin, from California, who voted using a mail-in ballot, stands in front of a mural of Joe Biden on Nov. 7, 2020 as locals in Ballina, Ireland celebrate in anticipation of Biden being elected as the next U.S. President.

Nearly everyone in Ireland has relatives in America, Reidy said, and has been told the stories of how earlier generations left their native country for a better life. When JFK returned to Ireland as U.S. president, it represented the ultimate achievement for the Irish people – and of the American dream, he said. 

“(The Irish) lacked self-confidence as a people and as a nation, in my opinion,” Reidy said. “And suddenly here was this good looking, powerful man coming back and saying ‘I'm one of you; you have achieved so much.’

“And I think he definitely changed our sense of who we are,” Reidy said. “I think it was that important.”

Two decades after Kennedy’s assassination, the people of New Ross – a town of just 8,000 people – decided to create an organization to honor JFK’s legacy and reinvigorate the local economy, as local factories had closed. 

Replay Video

In 2020, more than 100,000 people came to the town to see the Kennedy family’s homestead as well as a re-created Dunbrody Famine Ship, which had taken Irish immigrants to America amid the potato famine. 

Reidy, who has met Biden, believes the president-elect’s ancestral home of Ballina will follow similar steps. It will likely begin with Biden visiting the town during his presidency. 

“To call this man president is something very special,” he said. 

Ballina (pronounced BA-li-NAH) is on the opposite side of the country from New Ross. It’s a town of less than 11,000 people, based in County Mayo. Before Biden, the biggest tourist attraction was the River Moy, which is known for its salmon fishing. 

Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first female president, also hails from Ballina. 

“Everyone knows each other,” Laurita Blewitt said of the town, “and everyone has just been so excited by the whole connection with President-elect Biden.”

When the election was finally called for Biden, Ballina residents celebrated in the town square, according to media reports. A speaker played the president-elect’s campaign song: Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own." A poster described the town as the newest U.S. state. 

a person standing in front of a store: Posters in the window of a shop show support to U.S. president-elect Joe Biden in his ancestral hometown of Ballina in County Mayo in northwest Ireland in November. © PAUL FAITH, AFP via Getty Images Posters in the window of a shop show support to U.S. president-elect Joe Biden in his ancestral hometown of Ballina in County Mayo in northwest Ireland in November.

For years, the Blewitt family in Ballina had been aware that they had a U.S. senator in the family tree. But Laurita Blewitt and her siblings didn’t meet their cousin until 2016, when he visited as vice president.

It seemed like every resident of Ballina and County Mayo came to town to see the vice president in person that day.

The family had lunch with Biden, which helped form a close relationship that still exists today, she said. The cousins traveled to the White House in 2017 to see Biden receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor. 

The cousins reunited months later when Biden traveled again to Ballina to turn sod (or break ground) on a hospice building, which would later honor his deceased son, Beau Biden, with a memorial plaque. 

“I don’t know why my family left here in the first place – especially now,” Biden said at the time of the ceremony. “But that’s another story.”

Blewitt, who intensely follows American politics, joined Biden on the campaign trail during the Nevada caucus. The families continue to keep in touch, she said, and the Blewitts had hoped to attend the inauguration in Washington. 

But the pandemic changed those plans, which has been a “hard pill to swallow," Blewitt admitted. Instead, the cousins will wait for the president to return "home."

“We’re competing with you now,” Blewitt said, laughing. 

Contact Meredith Newman at (302) 324-2386 or at mnewman@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MereNewman.

This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Like Wilmington, Biden's Irish ancestral town claims the president-elect as a 'native son'

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