Is Joe Biden really our very own Celtic tiger in the White House?

US politicians love to play up any Irish ancestry they have. The president-elect can do so with far more justification than most

A poster supporting Joe Biden in his ancestral hometown of Ballina, County Mayo, on 8 November 2020.
A poster supporting Joe Biden in his ancestral hometown of Ballina, County Mayo, on 8 November 2020. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

In 1998, while living in Donegal, the journalist Lawrence Donegan met Newt Gingrich. The then speaker of the US House of Representatives had flown to Ireland while considering running for the Republican nomination in the upcoming presidential race (his bid didn’t last very long), on the assumption that his grandmother – a Daugherty from Pennsylvania – might trace her lineage to that part of the world. Dohertys (and their variants) are indeed thick on the ground in Derry and Donegal. Having grown up on the border between the two counties, I tried to count how many I personally know for this piece and gave up around the 20 mark.

Improbably for Gingrich, however, his pilgrimage was to end in disappointment. The chieftain of the Doherty clan welcomed him warmly, posed for photos and then, to a room filled with dignitaries, diarists and Dohertys, announced that he’d checked his 2 million-strong clan record and found Gingrich was not among family that day.

Donegan made no effort to hide his schadenfreude, rejoicing with a New Yorker named Barbara who detested Gingrich as much as he did. “Forty-five million Irish Americans now knew that Newt Gingrich wasn’t one of them,” he wrote. “Barbara and I hugged like two lovers at the end of a long war.”

Twenty-two years – and several long wars – later, few other aspects of American politics seem recognisable, but the quest to declare oneself Irish persists. It’s a matter of rite so ubiquitous that kissing the Blarney Stone may be as fundamental to your chances as kissing babies, daughters or subsequently paid-off porn stars. Irish reactions to these efforts range from disgust – Donald Trump’s grisly Irish-American stooges pausing their attacks on immigrants to celebrate their own immigrant forebears on St Patrick’s Day – to the effusive – naming a motorway service station in Tipperary “Barack Obama plaza” in honour of his ancestors.

For the most part, Irish people are not the intended audience for these overtures, and are more likely to become exercised by films in which Christopher Walken and Emily Blunt perform mangled Irish accents in spudface. When American politicians claim Irishness, we only seem to take a strong view if animated against the individual in question. Bill Clinton, for example, is so universally well-liked by Irish people, the fact that his notional Irish roots were planted in even shallower soil than poor old cousin Newt is rarely mentioned.

Which brings us to Joe Biden, now the world’s most famous Irish American, and thus the president-elect of the United States. Unlike Clinton or Gingrich, Biden’s links to Ireland are well established, but that hasn’t stopped some UK observers finding his embrace of that heritage just as calculating, even threatening.

The roots themselves are undeniably strong, or as US genealogist Megan Smolenyak put it to the BBC in one delightfully contradictory couplet: “He’s about as Irish-American as you can get. He’s about five eighths.” Whatever the exact mathematics, a glut of Biden’s ancestors came from Ireland, on both his mother’s and father’s sides. Theirs is the classic story of mid-19th-century Irish emigres: skilled grafters in laborious professions who transcended the twin challenges of arduous poverty and being named after minor characters from Coen brothers films. Great-grandfathers such as Ambrose Finnegan and Patrick Blewitt, whose sideburns need not be described to be imagined, and whose descendants can still be found – and were indeed filmed, cheering for television broadcasts – in Mayo, Louth and beyond.

Ireland rejoiced in Biden’s win for the same reasons as the rest of the world – one poll found that he would beat Trump in every single constituency of the UK, for example – but it’s likely that his repeated profession of Irish pride gave him a little extra juice in the aul’ sod. He charmed on a trip to Ireland as vice president in 2016: staring lovingly at lakes, smiling at sheepdogs and revealing an improbable familial connection to Irish rugby players Dave and Rob Kearney, the latter congratulated by Biden as his “cousin” when Ireland beat the All Blacks in 2016.

Four years later to the day, Rob returned the favour, and RTE closed its main news broadcast with a heart-swelling montage of the Democrat’s election win, overlaid with his own recitation of Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy. All it took was footage from January of Biden answering a request for comment from the BBC with, “The BBC? I’m Irish”, to raise his Celt status to a further, mythical pitch.

Suddenly, Biden’s Irishness was not merely an affectation of heritage, or a vote-grab on that side of the pond, but a declaration of intent in Brexit’s backyard. Breathless headlines in the rightwing press declared this a hammer blow for Brexit, while Irish viewers delighted at his insolence, and British remainers declared it a supreme moment of shade, aimed squarely at the heart of Boris Johnson’s government. Political prognosticator Nigel Farage – who just last week bet £10,000 and a good deal of transatlantic air miles on a Trump win – declared it proof that “Biden hates the UK” and predicted a decent trade deal now stood “no chance”.

It seemed little space was left for those of us who took his comments to be an off-the-cuff – and broadly nonsensical – dad joke, delivered in a moment of jocular ebullience to a friendly reporter. No, Biden’s Irishness had become a Rorschach test for a bewildering plurality of polities, all of whom wished to project a hard line on to a man for whom compromise, even outright pliability, appears de rigueur. In truth, Biden is not so much a hard man as a hard man to pin down. He’s a canny operator who nevertheless trades on the homespun, rambling charm of a rakish, kindly sitcom grampa.

It’s hard to know how much of his “aw, shucks” patter is confected or genuine but, whatever the case, these traits don’t so much complement his policy commitments as supplant them entirely. In the occasionally bruising battle for the nomination against Bernie Sanders – a man who is roughly 98% policy – it was often difficult to discern what Biden was actually campaigning for, rather than against. When he sealed the nomination and Trump became his opposite, this sense of his malleability became all the more pronounced and he promptly peeled off swathes of the very Sanders messaging he had just decried, so as to wield it on his new enemy.

Few in the US would call him an ideological hardliner. Indeed, to Democrats on the left, his lack of commitment to principles is a major stumbling block – particularly the fear that his administration will abandon the loftier, leftier ideals of the diverse voters who took him over the line, in favour of some stilted, fatal attempt at normalcy. Unfortunately for Brexiters, this pragmatic caution risks interrupting the four-year streak of unchecked norm-destroying they’ve enjoyed under Trump’s tenure. They wanted, in fact were counting on, friends of the west who were every bit as reckless, dissembling and fundamentally uninterested in the common good as they are.

Amid all the pints and poetry, it is perhaps telling that the most consistently cited proof of Biden’s fighting Irish spirit is that members of his party showed displeasure with Johnson’s internal market bill, on the fairly reasonable grounds that it breaks international law and places at risk the Good Friday agreement. It should be remembered that the latter is not disputed territory on a war-torn map, but an article of British law to which Biden seems more committed than the nation who authored it, for whom it has facilitated two decades of fragile but existent peace.

The reaction to Biden’s imminent presidency, and the tricolour-waving that’s come with it, suggests Brexiters believe the worst thing you can say about Britain is that she should abide by the laws she agrees to or, at the very least, those she passes herself. In any sane world, Biden’s appreciation for his Irish history, exaggerated or not, should pose no threat to British people. The British government’s lack of appreciation for its own history very well might.

Séamas O’Reilly is a writer from Derry