Vice President Joe Biden refused to toast Mexican and American friendship with water, saying he could hear his Irish grandfather shouting ‘Joey, No” he joked.
Biden, who does not drink because he says he has alcoholism in his family, then refused to use a glass to toast the Mexican American friendship at his celebration of Cinco De Mayo, the annual Mexican holiday, which will be on May 5th.
He was hosting Mexican American leaders at his residence at the Naval Observatory to toast the day.
Biden said his Irish family came over in the early 1800s but that there was often exaggeration about them. “In Irish families, there’s occasionally a little embellishment by your relatives,” Biden joked. I was told, “Your great-grandfather was 9-feet, 6 inches tall.”
Biden can trace his roots 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, ”Biden told oursister publication irish America Magazine.
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.”
He joked over breakfast this morning about his Irish heritage, drawing laughter from his guests who were gathered in Washington at the Naval Observatory – which hosts the vice president’s residence and office – to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
In heralding the Mexican-American relationship as “a bond that’s a lot deeper than our long border,” the vice president praised the contribution that other cultures have made to the strength of the United States. He said that the United States is a country of immigrants, and that the constant nurturing of other cultures is our greatest strength as a nation.
“On both sides my family came here in the early 1800s,” Biden said. “I once said that to [Interior Secretary] Ken [Salazar] and he said, ‘Oh Yeah?’” he said to laughter from his guests.
When he decided to run for president in 2008, Biden wanted to look into his heritage. He hired a genealogist, he said, and discovered that his ancestors had come to America in the early 18th century.
Biden then recalled having a phone conversation with Salazar about the discovery that his family had been in the United States for so long. Salazar’s response, Biden said, was “‘Long? My family got to New Mexico 400 years ago.’”
The vice president readied himself to make a toast to his guests in honor of Cinco de Mayo, raising his glass of water from his place at the table. He quickly reminded the crowd that it was bad luck in the Irish tradition to toast with water. He said he could hear his grandfather shouting, “Joey, No.”
“So, I’m not going to do it,” Biden said, placing his water glass back down. The crowd broke into raucous laughter. He proceeded to toast, without a glass, “to friendship, to Mexico and to America, happy Cinco de Mayo.”
Biden has said in the past that he does not drink alcohol because he knows too many people who have struggled with alcoholism.
Saturday will mark the 150th anniversary of Cinco de Mayo, which celebrates Mexico’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla. Biden heralded the significance of the day at today’s breakfast as proof of the spirit that unites the United States and Mexico. ”You should never bet against either one of us,” he said.
Attendees included Salazar, Janet Murguia, the president of the National Council of La Raza, Univision’s Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas, and Arturo Sarukhan, Mexican ambassador to the United States.
Guests were welcomed to the tunes of a Mexican mariachi band, and dined on Spanish omelets and chorizo sausage.