Biden wraps up emotional Irish tour with campaign-style rally By Reuters
© Reuters. U.S. President Joe Biden speaks as he attends a dinner at Dublin Castle, in Dublin, Ireland, April 13, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
By Graham Fahy and Steve Holland
BALLINA, Ireland (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden gave a rousing campaign-style speech to an exuberant crowd in his ancestral home town in the west of Ireland on Friday to wrap up a nostalgic three-day state visit ahead of what is expected to be a gruelling 2024 re-election bid.
Biden appeared in front of thousands of flag-waving well-wishers to a rousing Celtic punk anthem in an event that brought the kind of energy the Democratic president will hope to recreate in domestic rallies.
“The truth of it is, being here does feel… like coming home. It really does. Over the years stories of this place have become part of my soul,” Biden told the crowd in front of a cathedral that his great-great-great-grandfather helped build.
“This is a time of enormous possibility. And united by history, heritage and hope – and maybe most of all courage – nothing is beyond our reach,” he said.
The tour of Ireland, the longest ever by a sitting U.S. president, allowed Biden to indulge in days of light-hearted banter and endless photo ops.
But the visit also featured some meandering speeches and the occasional gaffe as observers at home watched for signs of how well the 80-year-old, who acknowledged on Thursday that he was at the end of his career, may perform on the campaign trail.
In Ballina, decked out with U.S. flags, bunting and cardboard cutouts of the president peering out of windows, Biden appeared to step up his game.
“Nobody works the room like Joe Biden. It doesn’t matter what age he is, he’s the man of the moment,” said John O’Dowd, owner of O’Dowds American Bar.
Ballina was the home town of Biden’s great-great-great-grandfather Edward Blewitt, who emigrated to the United States with his wife and their eight children in 1851.
The address was held in front of St Muredach’s Cathedral, whose construction Blewitt was involved with in the 1820s. Blewitt assisted decades later in the planning of the city of Scranton, Biden’s Pennsylvania hometown that is twinned with Ballina.
In a carefully stage-managed event, Biden flew past the cathedral and over the crowd in his helicopter.
Biden finished his speech with the county’s bittersweet sporting slogan, calling for the Gaelic football team to win the national championship for the first time since 1951: “Mayo for Sam!”
Earlier on Friday Biden, who is Roman Catholic, broke down in tears behind closed doors during a chance meeting at a nearby shrine with the priest who performed the last rites on his son Beau.
While visiting Knock, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in 1879, Biden discovered that ex-U.S. Army chaplain Father Frank O’Grady had moved to the town from Washington. The two met for 10 minutes and said a decade of the rosary.
“He laughed, he cried and it just kind of hit the man. You could just see how deeply it all felt and meant to him. It was an extraordinary afternoon,” Father Richard Gibbons, who had been giving Biden the tour when they met O’Grady, told the BBC.
Biden, recounting the meeting in his speech, said: “It was incredible to see him. It seemed like a sign.”
Biden started his Irish trip on Wednesday in Belfast by urging political leaders there to restore their power-sharing government. On Thursday, he became the fourth U.S. president to address the Irish parliament and attended a state banquet at Dublin Castle.
Everywhere he has gone, Biden has spoken of his love for Ireland and sense of Irishness, regaling audiences with stories his grandparents and parents told him.
There has also been the odd misstep.
Biden mixed up New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team with the Black and Tans, an early 1900s British military unit reviled in Ireland, while making a televised address to relatives in a County Louth pub. The White House later corrected the error.
Day-to-day politics in Ireland have taken a back seat, with every step of the trip covered live on television in a country where U.S. multinationals including Google (NASDAQ:), Pfizer (NYSE:) and Apple (NASDAQ:) are among the largest employers.
In Ballina, it was tourism dollars that local business leaders had their eyes on.
“This is massive for the town,” said pub owner Michael Carr, 52, who compared the impact on future tourism to that of actor John Wayne’s visit to the fellow County Mayo town of Cong in 1951 to shoot “The Quiet Man.”
“This is going to last for 40 years.”