Lauren and Emily Blewitt may have been in preschool at the time, but they were old enough to know that then-Vice President Joe Biden had committed a serious breach of mealtime etiquette. “He was just eating our chips!” Lauren, 10, says – a mixture of delight and outrage crossing her face.
Emily, 12, remembers Biden’s laser focus. “When the fancy meals came out, he just wanted the chips [French fries] and chicken nuggets,” she says.
That visit happened seven years ago, when Biden arrived in their small town of Ballina, County Mayo in Ireland. The Blewitt children are still wide-eyed as they recall lunch with Biden, their grandfather’s third cousin – and they are “excited” for his return visit this week.
This will be a more high-profile trip than the last one, when Biden sported a “USA” baseball cap, talking to children and surprising the locals.
Today, residents’ WhatsApp groups are buzzing with reported sightings of Secret Service agents, while the local council is “mending the manhole covers” and the community is “pulling out all the stops,” the girls’ father, plumber Joe Blewitt, 43, says.
The family speak to CNN in front of a large mural of Biden’s face that overlooks the market square in central Ballina. Painted during his 2020 campaign for the White House, it illustrates how this town of about 10,000 near Ireland’s wild western coast celebrates America’s commander in chief as a native son.
Biden’s great-great-great-grandfather, Edward Blewitt, was among the millions of people who left Ireland in the 19th century after the Irish potato famine, sailing to the US and settling in the President’s birthplace of Scranton in northeast Pennsylvania.
The family’s Irish identity has held strong for more than 100 years, as the Blewitts who remain in Ballina testify, and Biden is no exception.
Over coffee, Joe Blewitt’s sister, podcaster and fundraiser Laurita, tells CNN: “His family are steeped in Irish traditions. He talks about it all the time.” Laurita has just returned from a St. Patrick’s Day event Biden hosted at the White House. “He tells great stories of basically growing up in an Irish household, even though obviously they are very much American.”
Kennedy’s visit started love affair
Andrew Jackson, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama are just some of the US presidents to trace their roots back to early Irish immigrants to America.
But Biden – a descendent both of the Blewitts in Ballina and the Finnegans of County Louth on Ireland’s east coast – has been touted as the most “Irish” of Americans to sit in the Oval Office since John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy, the great-grandson of barrel-maker Patrick Kennedy, from New Ross, County Wexford, started Ireland’s love affair with Irish-heritage American presidents when he visited in 1963 in what he described as “the best four days of my life.”
Mark Minihan, who was a 16-year-old student in New Ross at the time, told CNN, “He was the first president to kind of declare his Irishness. All his eight great-grandparents were Irish. He had really nailed the Irish thing to the mast, and he was coming to New Ross… [it was] unheard of really.”
The people of New Ross eagerly anticipated Kennedy’s visit, which was preceded by a rush to buy TV sets, “because it was going to be put on television,” Willie Keilthy recalls. Residents were soon in thrall to the town’s newly discovered native son.