Vice President Joe Biden was told to be proud of the work his Mayo ancestors did as part of the famine relief works during the second day of his Irish trip in Ballina, Co. Mayo yesterday.
Traveling to the home of his ancestral family, the Blewitts, in Ballina, Biden and his family met with historian and Great Famine expert, Dr. Ciaran Reilly, a research fellow at NUI Maynooth, who briefed them on the impact of the famine in Mayo and on the Ballina area.
The Vice President was joined by his brother, sister and grandchildren, and he was especially eager for the younger generation of his family to hear their family history and to hear of the horror of the famine, on his six-day trip, which is taking place 63 years to the week after JFK visited Ireland.
“One of his ancestors, Edward Blewitt, he was actually the overseer of the famine relief work in Ballina during the famine so I was just trying to tell them what role he would have played in relieving the local famine during those years,” Dr. Reilly told IrishCentral.
“That was the crucial thing. I told him that they had every reason to be proud of the work that he [Blewitt] did. While lots of people died in Mayo and emigrated in huge numbers—30 percent of the population of the county died or emigrated—thousands more were saved because of relief workers and their ancestor was head of one of the relief works in Ballina.”
The Vice President was said to be “taken aback” that their ancestors had played such a pivotal role in helping to save Irish people from hunger and he was “impressed” to hear of what they had lived through, especially when hearing of the conditions in Ballina at the time.
“The conditions in Ballina the year before they [the Blewitt family] left were pretty horrendous,” Reilly said.
“There were reports of people eating horses and donkeys, skinning them for flesh, for any meat they could get.
“They [Biden family] seem to be quite taken aback that their ancestors had lived through that and had witnessed it and had come out on the other side.”
US Vice President Joe Biden was given a warm welcome in Ballina, Co Mayo – one of his ancestral home placeshttps://t.co/BObLEEHz0F— RTÉ News (@rtenews) June 22, 2016
Joined by the Taoiseach Enda Kenny, whose homeplace is also in Co. Mayo, Biden was given a warm welcome as he traveled through the county with Dr. Reilly, stating that even on the journey into Ballina, the road was lined with groups of people every 100 yards wearing Mayo jerseys and sporting Mayo and US flags, despite the poor weather conditions.
“I couldn't believe it. Somebody asked me before I headed off, 'What was the memory that I would take from the day?' And it was the warmth of the people for Joe Biden,” Reilly said. “They were really welcoming him home as one of their own. They were delighted to see him.”
Those who came out to see the Vice President even spoke of their wish that he himself was running for President in the wake of the furor that surrounded the possible visit of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.
“That was kind of the general tone among the people there,” Reilly said.
Leaving Ballina, the Vice President continued on to the Taoiseach’s home in Castlebar before finishing the night in the company of The Chieftains and many Irish soccer fans in Westport. Tomorrow he will play a round of golf with the Taoiseach before returning to Dublin and later on he will visit his second ancestral home in Co. Louth.
Earlier in the day, Biden had met with Fiona Fitzsimons and Helen Moss of the Irish Family History Center, who were tasked by the US Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin O’Malley, to carry out detailed research on the family’s ancestors.
Biden was presented with this new research, the he had heard of his family’s involvement in the famine relief works.
“We're delighted to meet Vice President Joe Biden, to present newly discovered evidence, and new insights into his family history,” said Fitzsimons.
“We are historical detectives—our research is driven by the evidence. Working with the Biden family, we followed the paper-trail to tell the story of two families: the Blewitts of Ballina, County Mayo, and the Finnegans of Templetown, County Louth.”
On this the 63rd anniversary of President Kennedy’s visit to his ancestral home in Wexford, Biden invoked the words of the former President, who also shares a strong famine-connected family history, while visiting the President of Ireland in his residence in Áras an Uachtaráin yesterday.
Biden held a 30-minute meeting with President Michael D Higgins in which they discussed human rights, Northern Ireland, and the current state of the relationship between Ireland and the United States.
As he signed the visitors book with the JFK quote Biden said, “Our two nations, divided by distance have been united by our people.” He added, “We are united by the hearts and souls of our people.”
Vice President Joe Biden quoted JFK in the Áras an Uachtaráin visitors book: pic.twitter.com/YSjWhMSTEl— President of Ireland (@PresidentIRL) June 22, 2016
Vice President Biden and his family will complete their six-day trip on Sunday after further tours, including the ancient momument at Newgrange and Dublin Castle.
On Friday morning, the Vice President will deliver remarks at Trinity College and follow that with a tour of the Trinity College Library, where the Book of Kells is displayed.
Tomorrow evening Vice President Biden will address the Irish-American experience in a function at Dublin Castle. It is believed he will speak on the shared heritage of the two nations, and the values of tolerance, diversity and inclusiveness. He will then attend the American Ireland Fund 40th Anniversary Gala.