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How Joe Biden Became Irish

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While it is cliche for political figures to portray themselves as being “as American as apple pie,” President Joe Biden has long advertised another selling point: He’s also as Irish as a pint of Guinness (despite being, like his predecessor, a teetotaler).

More so than any president since John F. Kennedy — the only other Catholic to hold the office — Biden’s Irish heritage is central to his public persona. He is so strongly identified with it that Sarah Palin, famously, could not get his name right. During prep sessions for their 2008 vice presidential debate, she kept referring to him as Senator O’Biden, according to an account given by a campaign aide. His Secret Service codename, meanwhile, is Celtic.

Biden comes by his Irish Catholic identity honestly. He spent his earliest years surrounded by his mother’s Irish American family, the Finnegans, in the Irish American stronghold of Scranton, Pennsylvania. After moving to Delaware during elementary school, he was schooled by nuns at Parochial schools.

He also makes sure to emphasize it. Like many Irish-American politicians, he is a regular at St. Patrick’s Day feasts and makes frequent allusions to his Irish Catholic upbringing in public remarks. Biden, though, has gone further than most. He commissioned a genealogy of his Irish ancestors, rolling it out for public consumption at the tail end of his vice presidency, when he and his family toured the Emerald Isle to great fanfare, visiting ancestral sites.

“His background led to this,” said Timothy Meagher, a professor emeritus at Catholic University and scholar of Irish American history. At the same time, “He plays on it, some of it consciously.”

Biden has had plenty of reasons to lean into his Irish heritage over the years. In a different era, it helped him channel a Kennedy mystique, when, as a young senator in the years after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, he was seen as an heir to Camelot. Later, it helped Biden serve as a bridge to Irish Americans and other white Catholics, who have drifted from the Democratic Party in recent decades. Throughout, it has helped him bolster a personal brand built on Average Joe relatability.

“He kind of embodies the American common man,” Meagher said. “And Irish Americans have been an important manifestation of that image from the beginning of the republic.”

But that’s only half the story of Biden’s heritage — or, more precisely, five-eighths of it. While Biden embraces his Irish roots, the rest of his family tree rarely comes up. And that side of the family has a more complicated legacy.

Biden’s Irish Catholicism was integral to his political brand from the start. Press accounts of his family-run 1972 Senate campaign seized on it to highlight the similarities to John Kennedy’s own family-filled Senate bid 20 years earlier.

For the press, the deaths of Biden’s first wife, Neilia, and infant daughter, Naomi, in a car crash just a month after his upset ’72 win, only made the comparison to the tragedy-scarred Kennedy clan all the more irresistible.

“The Washington press corps ushered me to town as a kind of poor Kennedy cousin: I was Irish, Catholic, young, toothsome,” he recalls of his early Senate days in his 2007 memoir. “The reporters were sure I was a liberal.”

While Biden suggests the press misread his ideological bent, he never shied away from the Irish Catholic part.

Throughout the Troubles, Biden voiced support for the Irish cause and sometimes took action in the Senate. In 1985, he opposed an extradition treaty with Britain that would have affected members of the Irish Republican Army who had fled to the United States. Taking issue with the British administration of justice in Northern Ireland, he helped force the GOP to water down the agreement.

Asked about his heroes, Biden would usually name Wolfe Tone, an eighteenth-century Protestant Irishman sentenced to death for his role leading a revolt against British rule. “He had nothing to gain on the face of it,” Biden told Irish America magazine in 1987, “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.” Later, he began citing the Irishman Seamus Heaney as his favorite poet.

Biden’s background has also offered him a source of theatrical icebreakers. When he hosted British Prime........

© Politico

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