U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama share more than just the task of governing America.
Both Biden and Obama are descended from Irish shoemakers who fled from Ireland to the U.S in the 19th century. Obama's ancestor left in 1850 and Biden's left in 1848.
While Obama traces his roots to Counties Offaly and Tipperary, Biden can trace his to Counties Derry, Mayo and Louth.
In fact, Biden is so well-known for his Irish heritage that his Secret Service codename is "Celtic."
The Vice President is descended from a Famine-era family called the Finnegans who left Co. Mayo during the Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor). His great-grandmother Finnegan used to translate the letters from Ireland as she was the only one in the family who could read or write in Gaelic.
The Biden name appears to have come from a Huguenot family which has been traced to Liverpool in 1668. His father, a car salesman, insisted the name was Irish but Biden was never able to confirm that.
Biden was born in the Irish heartland of Scranton, Pennsylvania, one of the most Irish cities in America.
There were already political genes in his DNA. “Edward F. Blewett my grandmother’s father, was the first Irish Catholic state senator,” Biden says.
“He was also the co-founder of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in Scranton around 1908. There is still a plaque in existence in Scranton showing he was one of the founding members.”
Biden grew up in Scranton in “a predominantly Irish neighborhood and an overwhelmingly Irish parish. The centerpiece of life in Scranton was the church, the nuns, the priest the monsignor,” he says.
“Everybody had a sister who was a nun everybody had a brother a priest. Vocations were a big deal.”
His first Irish memories are of his Aunt Gertie when he went to his grandparents’ house.
“I’d go upstairs and lie on the bed and she’d come and scratch my back and say, ‘Now you remember Joey about the Black and Tans don’t you?’ She had never seen the Black and Tans, she had no notion of them, but she could recite chapter and verse about them.
“Obviously there were immigrants coming in who were able to talk about it and who had relatives back there. She was born in 1887. After she’d finish telling the stories I’d sit there or lie in bed and think at the slightest noise, ‘They’re coming up the stairs.’”
Biden confessed to being uncomfortable with Irish wakes, which were a constant when he was a child. “I hated it, you know, everybody sitting around and drinking and the corpse in the next room."
But, he added, "There is something about the Irish that knows that to live is to be hurt, but we’re still not afraid to live.”
Biden is a voracious reader of Irish history and to this day his hero is Wolfe Tone, leader of the 1798 Rebellion.
“Wolfe Tone is the embodiment of some of the things that I think are the noblest of all. He was a Protestant who formed the United Irishmen. He had nothing to gain on the face of it but he sought to relieve the oppression of the Catholics caused by the penal laws. He gave his life for the principle of civil rights for all people.
“I view him as an honorable figure. He was obviously passionate which I admire. He had the ability to make his own comfort secondary to the greater good.”
Biden says there were profound differences between the Irish in Scranton and the Irish in Delaware.
“That is because they came over differently," he said. "The Dupont Company were sending ships back to Ireland and bringing back workers so the first people who did come did not do so as part of a famine. They were paternalistic, built their church for them. It was a different experience.”
“I see myself as an Irish Catholic. If we have a moral obligation to other parts of the world why don’t we have a moral obligation to Ireland? It’s part of our blood.”
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