Why do American presidents play up their Irishness? Apextalk

President Joe Biden’s paternal surname was brought to the United States in the early 19th century by one William Biden, a stonemason who emigrated to Maryland from the village of Westbourne, in southern England. As far as anyone knows, Mr Biden has yet to visit. But this week he made his third pilgrimage in seven years to Ireland, the homeland of his maternal ancestors: the Blewitts of Mayo, and the Finnegans from Louth. He made the first of these visits, in 2016, as vice-president; the second a year later as a private citizen; and the latest, triumphantly, as president. He has been showered with shamrock wherever he goes.

For a small, militarily neutral country, Ireland punches well above its weight when it comes to coveted visits by serving American presidents. Eight have gone since John F. Kennedy became the first to do so in 1963. One hundred per cent Irish by blood, and the first Roman Catholic to occupy the Oval Office, Kennedy inspired an almost religious devotion during his visit. For decades afterwards many Irish homes displayed his photograph alongside that of the Pope. In 1970 Richard Nixon, his reputation battered at home by the Vietnam War, came looking for similar adoration, only to have eggs thrown at him by peace protesters. His visit otherwise made little impression. Perhaps, as the descendant of Irish Quakers, he did not strike enough of a chord in a country where Irishness and Catholicism were at that time still seen by many as deeply entwined.

Ronald Reagan, who appeared to show little interest in his Irish surname before he became president, became born-again Irish after he was warmly received in 1984. Bill Clinton came to Ireland three times, although mainly on business, riding shotgun on what became the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Even America’s first black president, Barack Obama, made a pilgrimage in 2011 to Moneygall in County Offaly, the birthplace of his great-great-great grandfather, Falmouth Kearney, who moved to America in 1850 at the end of the Great Famine. “I’ve come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way,” Mr Obama joked.

What is it about Ireland that makes so many presidents go all green and giddy? Electoral considerations have been a factor: in the 2021 American Community Survey, an annual poll administered by the Census Bureau, more than 30m Americans, or 9% of the population, claimed to have Irish ancestry. Yet as a voting group their allegiances have changed over the decades. Long before he went to Wexford, Kennedy was guaranteed what was then the staunchly Democratic vote of Irish-American Catholics. Later Reagan, though a practising Protestant, was luring voters with roots in Catholic European countries—Ireland, Poland, Italy and more—to the Republican party, where their support now largely resides.

Dublin’s wily diplomats have played a part in reeling in successive American presidents, helpfully unearthing contenders’ Irish roots long before election day, says Lynne Kelleher, the author of a recent book on Ireland and the White House. The then Irish ambassador to Washington, Sean Donlon, presented Reagan with his genealogy when he was still a candidate; he was rewarded when, as president, Reagan encouraged his British counterpart and ally, Margaret Thatcher, to work more closely with Dublin on Northern Ireland, then racked by the Troubles. This compromise eventually led to the Good Friday peace deal, for whose 25th anniversary this week both Mr Biden and Mr Clinton are travelling to Ireland.

One president who appears less keen to play up his links to Ireland is Donald Trump. His mother, born in the Outer Hebrides, was a native speaker of Scottish Gaelic, a language closely related to Irish and the country’s official language (though few Irish now speak it at home). But when Mr Trump visited the country in 2019 he spent most of his time at his golf resort in Clare. No Irish ancestry has been found for him—or, perhaps, none eagerly sought. Although the list of Donald Trump’s allies and beneficiaries is crammed with Barretts, Conways, Kellys, Kavanaughs and more, Ireland’s politics look increasingly at odds with his own. The country has grown much more socially progressive in recent years, legalising abortion and gay marriage.

Unlike some others, Mr Biden is sincere in his love of the old country and his Irish identity, says Liam Kennedy, who researches Irish-US relations for the Clinton Institute at University College Dublin. “We have to be careful of shamrockery, or what Biden himself calls malarkey, but I think he’s the genuine article.”

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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