US president turned his farewell speech outside St Muredach’s cathedral in Ballina into a celebration of Irish and American values
Joe Biden has concluded his visit to Ireland with a passionate riverside address to tens of thousands of people at his ancestral town in County Mayo.
The US president turned his farewell speech outside St Muredach’s cathedral in Ballina on Friday night into a celebration of Irish and American values that appeared partly aimed at US voters.
“My friends, people of Mayo, this is a moment to recommit our hearts, our minds and souls to the march of progress. To lay the foundations brick by brick for a better future for our kids and grandkids,” Biden said.
He bounded on to the stage by the banks of the river Moy in a display of energy and stamina after a hectic four-day visit that tacitly rebuked doubts that, at the age of 80, he is too old to run for another term in the White House.
He cast the story of his ancestors leaving famine-stricken Ireland for liberty and opportunity in the US as a parable of the American dream. “I’ve never been more optimistic – and I’ve been doing this a long time – about what we can achieve if we stick together and stick to our values. This is a time of enormous possibilities,” he said.
Calling himself “Mayo Joe, son of Ballina”, the prospective Democratic candidate for 2024 invoked traditional values. “Our strength is something that overcomes everyday hardships, and above all our courage allows us to march forward in faith. Family is the beginning, middle and the end – that’s the Irish of it.”
The 27,000-strong crowd, which had queued for hours and passed though airport-style security, gave the president a rapturous reception, concluding a whirlwind week that stamped his Irish identity on his presidency, evoking comparisons to a 1963 visit by John Kennedy. Ballina is the birthplace of Biden’s great-great-great-grandfather Edward Blewitt.
Earlier on Friday, Biden prayed at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Knock, a Catholic shrine, during a highly personal pilgrimage through County Mayo.
By chance, an ex-US army chaplain who works at the shrine, Fr Frank O’Grady, had tended to Biden’s son Beau, who died of cancer in a US military hospital in 2015. The two men spoke, and Biden wept. He also visited a hospice in the Mayo town of Castlebar that has a plaque dedicated to Beau Biden.
US flags and Biden posters festooned Ballina, which resembled a US town on the Fourth of July. Families queued to take selfies in front of a mural of Biden. “The kettle is on Joe, come on home,” said a poster.
Harry McCafferty, a shoe repairer, said Biden had charmed the nation. “He’s so friendly, he has a great way with him. And it’s great for Ballina. People who have never heard of Ballina will know of it after today.”
The rapture bookended a homecoming for a man who, the Irish Times said, “just loves being Irish”. It was Biden’s third time in Ireland since 2016, but his first as president.
The address outside the cathedral followed three days during which the president caught the public imagination – and made some gaffes – during visits to Dublin and the Cooley peninsula in County Louth, where another branch of his family lives.
The relatively freewheeling tour of the Irish republic, where Biden visited a pub and deli and did walkabouts, contrasted with a brief, politically delicate visit to Northern Ireland earlier in the week when he marked the Good Friday agreement’s 25th anniversary amid tension over the Democratic Unionist party’s boycott of power sharing.
The former DUP leader Arlene Foster said Biden “hates” the UK, a claim repeated by some British commentators. US and Irish officials rejected the assertion.
Another protest came from five leftwing members of Ireland’s legislature, who boycotted his address to the Dáil on Thursday, saying US support for Israel and Saudi Arabia was hurting Palestinians and Yemenis.
Biden’s speech to the legislature won standing ovations and followed in the footsteps of his predecessors Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. “I’m at home,” he declared. “I just wish I could stay longer.”
His official Twitter account said the trip had embodied the Irish phrase céad míle fáilte – a hundred thousand welcomes. “Like my grandfather used to say: ‘If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough,’” the tweet added.
The president visited a heritage and genealogy centre in Crossmolina to learn more about his ancestor Edward Blewitt, a civil engineer, and his wife, Mary Mulderg, who emigrated to the US in 1851 and helped to plan and build Scranton in Pennsylvania, which is now twinned with Ballina.
Alan Dillon, a local politician who played Gaelic football for Mayo, asked the president to “say a little prayer” to break a purported curse that has prevented the county from winning the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, also known as the Sam Maguire cup, since 1951.
Biden concluded his speech in Ballina with a rallying cry. “Mayo for Sam!” The crowd roared. He was to return to the US on Saturday.