On his final departure from Shannon Airport 50 years ago this summer after his historic visit to Ireland, Jean Kennedy Smith’s brother John F. Kennedy spoke movingly of the old Irish exile poem and of looking forward to seeing “Old Shannon’s Face again.”
"Thus returns from travels long,
Years of exile, years of pain,
To see old Shannon’s face again,
O’er the waters dancing."
Alas, he would never see old Shannon’s face again, nor did his great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy, who sailed on board a Famine ship from Wexford in 1849 for the New World, to never come back home.
Around our top table here are men and women descended from that great Famine exodus, a desperate time when whispering hope was all the emigrants who packed the ships had.
Don Keough is here. His great grandfather Michael Keough, a solitary young lad of 18, bid farewell on the same docks in Wexford as Patrick Kennedy did, a place where our Irish America Hall of Fame now resides.
Then there’s Vice President Joe Biden, our honoree and perhaps the most remarkable story of all, descended on one side of his family from a blind musician, James Finnegan from County Louth, who left Ireland from the port of Newry and landed in the new world on May 15th 1850.
All three emigrants faced a savage sea, and an uncertain future, with nothing left to go back to. What they endured we will never know.
What must it have been like to arrive in America, like James Finnegan, blind with no way of knowing how your life would turn out? How strange must this new world with its loud sounds and fever pitch have been to the young emigrant from the quiet backwater near the Cooley mountains.
Would he have ever dared to dream that his great grandson would someday become one of the most powerful men on earth despite his family's utterly unpromising beginnings?
What the Finnegans, Kennedys and Keoughs achieved was incredible -- no less than helping to shape a great country.
Their great grandchildren became President of Coca-Cola, as Don Keough did. Jean Kennedy Smith became the U.S. ambassador to Ireland -- and you might have heard of Jack and Bobby and Teddy and Eunice and all the others.
And Joe Biden became the current vice president of the United States, an up from the bootstraps politician who has never lost the common touch or the affection of his people who continuously elected him.
But perhaps what would inspire their ancestors as much as their descendants’ success is that the ties to Ireland that stretch back over 160 years have never weakened and continue as strong today.
In my first interview with him back in 1985, Joe Biden fondly remembered Ambrose Finnegan, his grandfather, son of the blind musician James. Ambrose, who lost his mother at age 2 and father at age 10, somehow found the time and love to instill in his grandson a great passion for his Irish heritage and faith, and an innate decency and permanent concern and regard for those less well off.
The reason for all that Celtic heart, I surmise, is that young Joe Biden heard the old stories from the old country, absorbed those mystic chords of memory that Lincoln described in his first Inauguration and Ronald Reagan referred to in his address to the Irish parliament in 1984.
In my interview with him in 1987 -- the first interview with a politician we ever did with Irish America magazine – then Senator Biden said his fondest Irish memories were of his Aunt Gertie when he went to his grandparents’ house.
As he recalled: “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.’”
Well they never came for you Mr. Vice President, but your Irish roots and heritage nurtured by the Finnegans, Blewetts from Mayo and many other relatives besides are coming back for you today.
They've been silent a long enough time, but there's a hooley tonight with the news that young Joey has joined the Irish America Hall of Fame.
What a week for young Joey, the Finnegans and Blewetts are saying, meeting the new Pope Francis on Tuesday and the Irish America Hall of Fame on Thursday. Did you ever hear the likes!
And they also say he might well be seeing old Shannon's face again soon enough this year too. Now that's a cause for celebration.
Mr. Vice President, we congratulate you sincerely and humbly and thank you for your presence here.
Please know now that in Ireland there will be a little part of the land right beside the Famine shore at the Hall of Fame that will be forever Biden and Finnegan and Blewett.
So on the long winter nights when they say the ghost ships return across the salted sea and the ship’s bells chime in the Irish air, those who left can come and see at the Hall of Fame for themselves how well young Joey of the Finnegan clan did in America, along with Jean Kennedy and Don Keough’s people. Extraordinary people all.
We are so pleased, Mr. Vice President, to formally inaugurate you into our Hall of Fame.
Here's Joe Biden's full acceptance speech: