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‘Biden ate our chips’: Ireland prepares for a presidential homecoming

<i>Jo Shelley/CNN</i><br/>
Jo Shelley/CNN

By Jo Shelley and Donie O’Sullivan, CNN

Lauren and Emily Blewitt may have been in preschool at the time, but they were old enough to know that then-Vice President Joe Biden had committed a serious breach of mealtime etiquette. “He was just eating our chips!” Lauren, 10, says — a mixture of delight and outrage crossing her face.

Emily, 12, remembers Biden’s laser focus. “When the fancy meals came out, he just wanted the chips [French fries] and chicken nuggets,” she says.

That visit happened seven years ago, when Biden arrived in their small town of Ballina, County Mayo in Ireland. The Blewitt children are still wide-eyed as they recall lunch with Biden, their grandfather’s third cousin — and they are “excited” for his return visit this week.

This will be a more high-profile trip than the last one, when Biden sported a “USA” baseball cap, talking to children and surprising the locals.

Today, residents’ WhatsApp groups are buzzing with reported sightings of Secret Service agents, while the local council is “mending the manhole covers” and the community is “pulling out all the stops,” the girls’ father, plumber Joe Blewitt, 43, says.

The family speak to CNN in front of a large mural of Biden’s face that overlooks the market square in central Ballina. Painted during his 2020 campaign for the White House, it illustrates how this town of about 10,000 near Ireland’s wild western coast celebrates America’s commander in chief as a native son.

Biden’s great-great-great-grandfather, Edward Blewitt, was among the millions of people who left Ireland in the 19th century after the Irish potato famine, sailing to the US and settling in the President’s birthplace of Scranton in northeast Pennsylvania.

The family’s Irish identity has held strong for more than 100 years, as the Blewitts who remain in Ballina testify, and Biden is no exception.

Over coffee, Joe Blewitt’s sister, podcaster and fundraiser Laurita, tells CNN: “His family are steeped in Irish traditions. He talks about it all the time.” Laurita has just returned from a St. Patrick’s Day event Biden hosted at the White House. “He tells great stories of basically growing up in an Irish household, even though obviously they are very much American.”

Kennedy’s visit started love affair

Andrew Jackson, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama are just some of the US presidents to trace their roots back to early Irish immigrants to America.

But Biden — a descendent both of the Blewitts in Ballina and the Finnegans of County Louth on Ireland’s east coast — has been touted as the most “Irish” of Americans to sit in the Oval Office since John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy, the great-grandson of barrel-maker Patrick Kennedy, from New Ross, County Wexford, started Ireland’s love affair with Irish-heritage American presidents when he visited in 1963 in what he described as “the best four days of my life.”

Mark Minihan, who was a 16-year-old student in New Ross at the time, told CNN, “He was the first president to kind of declare his Irishness. All his eight great-grandparents were Irish. He had really nailed the Irish thing to the mast, and he was coming to New Ross… [it was] unheard of really.”

The people of New Ross eagerly anticipated Kennedy’s visit, which was preceded by a rush to buy TV sets, “because it was going to be put on television,” Willie Keilthy recalls. Residents were soon in thrall to the town’s newly discovered native son.

Keilthy was one of hundreds of children who laid out on the grass to spell out the Irish word for “welcome” as the helicopter of America’s 35th president landed. “I was 10 at the time… We hadn’t even been to the airport! A helicopter was completely novel,” he remembers.

Minihan, then 16, noted Kennedy’s sparkling smile and perfectly cut suit. The President was “so well dressed compared to all of our crowd,” he says. “We were very staid fellas with hats and everything, and he was… A film star wouldn’t even describe it. When he spoke, he had the whole place in his hand, in 10, 20 seconds.”

TV footage of Kennedy’s speech on the bank of the River Barrow — where CNN met with Minihan and Keilthy — notes the “thousands cheer[ing] with the enthusiasm that only Irishmen can muster for one of their own.”

“It was a source of pride for the country to have the President associate himself with Ireland,” Minihan says. “And obviously for New Ross, it was exceptional. I suppose the town took on a whole new life.”

The transformative effect of Kennedy’s visit was nowhere more evident than at the farmhouse from which his great-grandfather had left for Boston more than a century earlier.

The president’s cousin, Mary Ryan, got her first, unwanted taste of fame when she hosted a tea party for him in the courtyard. And after he left, the farm saw an influx of tourists.

“She’d go out to milk the cows in the morning, but she’d have a crowd follow her, so then she’d go back into the kitchen,” her grandson Patrick Grennan says. “They were climbing in, over gates, to see the place.”

In an attempt to manage the crowds, Ryan opened a small room of the old dwelling to visitors but, said Grennan, “big holes started appearing in the walls. People were looking for souvenirs.”

Obama gas station now TikTok sensation

Grennan now runs the farm and has opened a visitor’s center next to the family home; visitors to New Ross can also stop at a replica ship of the Dunbrody, which carried thousands of Irish emigrants to North America in the 1840s.

But the most popular tribute to an American President may now lie on the road between Dublin and Limerick.

A shrine to Obama sits just outside his ancestral home of Moneygall, on the side of Ireland’s M7 motorway. Statues of America’s 44th President and his First Lady grin and wave at passing drivers, hoping to entice them to stop at the gas station that bears his name.

The delight of visiting Americans is such that the Barack Obama Plaza has gone viral on TikTok; tourists film themselves posing with cardboard cut-outs of the Obamas, buying souvenir coins with his face on and stopping by a visitor center that runs video of his visit.

“Obviously the cardboard cut-outs that we have here are phenomenally popular,” says Operations Manager Henry Healy. He’s a distant relative of Obama, and proud of it. Talking to CNN during an interview in the station’s open plan cafeteria, Healy smiles as he remembers meeting Obama in front of the world’s media in Moneygall when he visited in 2011. “It was like watching a cartoon character step out of a TV screen,” he says.

Obama’s great-great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side, a shoemaker named Falmouth Kearney, left Moneygall in the 1850s, making Healy an eighth cousin. Obama nicknamed him “Henry the Eighth.”

Obama was moved when he saw something of his ancestors’ humble beginnings, Healy says. “When we entered his ancestral home with him, the president choked up a little and pounded his foot on the timber floor. He said, ‘My grandfather’s grandfather left from here.’ You could hear the emotion in his voice. There were no TV cameras there.”

‘Always the big dream’

Biden’s feelings for the homeland of his great-great-great grandparents have been on more open display. “It must have been like an American wake to leave everything behind,” he said in a speech in Dublin in 2016. “To board a ship to go to a country that you didn’t know much about… It took an enormous amount of courage, and it must have been incredibly sad.”

As many as 4.5 million Irish arrived in America between 1820 and 1930 and the immigration didn’t stop after the two World Wars.

Asked if they’d like to visit “Mr. President” in America someday, Lauren and Emily are adamant: “Yes.”

“America is always the big dream, you know?” their aunt says. “It’s so exciting as an Irish person — America, the glitz and glam. It’s the movies! There is that kind of romantic notion in Ireland of America. So many Irish people went there and made a good life.”

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - Europe/Mideast/Africa

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