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Biden s ancestral Irish hometown prepares for president s visit

April 10, 2023 10:50 AM


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The picturesque town of Ballina on the banks of the River Moy in northwest Ireland hums with activity ahead of a visit by its celebrated descendant Joe Biden this week.

The US president is due to arrive in the north County Mayo town Friday to address thousands in the place from which his family hailed before emigrating to Pennsylvania in the 19th century.

It will be one of the last stops on a tour of Ireland and Northern Ireland taking in Belfast, Dublin and other locations from the proudly Irish-American president's family history.

Biden's relatives still remain in the area and Joe Blewitt, the president's third cousin, has been juggling requests from the international press while doing his job as a plumber.

"It's emotional, it's a very proud day for our family and for Ireland," Blewitt, 43, told AFP of the upcoming trip. "Ballina's very special to him."

Biden invited the Blewitt family to his inauguration, which they were unable to make because of the Covid pandemic. But they were in attendance last month at St Patrick's Day celebrations at the White House.

"It's very special, of course, and very hard to describe it, to know the president of the United States," Blewitt added.

"He's just like ourselves. He has a sense of power off him but he's just an ordinary fella."

- 'Buzzing' -

Outside Harrison's bar in the centre of Ballina, proprietor Derek Leonard hangs red, white and blue bunting atop a ladder and drapes his pub's windows with the US stars and stripes in anticipation of the presidential visit.

"People are buzzing and they're washing and they're painting... it's great to see it," the landlord told AFP.

Inside the bar, a picture of Leonard with Biden when he visited as vice president in 2016 hangs in pride of place. The US leader had vowed to return to Ballina when he became president.

Leonard, who said with authority that his ancestors would have rubbed shoulders with Biden's in the town, commissioned a five-metre-high (16-foot-high) mural of the president when he won the 2020 presidential election.

The bar owner said it would be a "great honour" to meet Biden again as president if he visits the mural.

The street in the centre of town where Biden's great-great-great-grandfather Edward Blewitt lived and where the mural stands is festooned with US flags, posters and banners.

Inside the Ballina Costume Company, Jane Crean dutifully sews American flags for Biden's arrival.

She explained she had taken the announcement of the trip in stride because with a French festival planned over the summer, she already had some red, white and blue bunting prepared.

-'Full circle'-

"Everybody's in party mode," the costume shop owner explained.

"This will put Ballina on the map...  it'll showcase Ballina, which is fantastic and it will bring visitors to it."

In one sports shop window selling Gaelic football shirts, the mannequins have been dressed in American football jerseys. One placard tells Biden: "The kettle is on Joe, come on home".

Ernie Caffrey, a former Irish senator and owner of a gallery and gift shop, believes his premises stands on the site of Biden's ancestral home.

The 86-year-old said two local historians have proved that an old brick wall behind his shop, showing the clear outline of a fireplace, formed part of Edward Blewitt's cottage.

"We're standing beside what remains of the original Blewitt's cottage," he added.

"It's kind of a miracle that it's still here because the whole town has changed in 200 years -- every square inch was built on except this one."

Speaking near St Muredach's Cathedral, where Biden will make an address Friday, Mark Duffy, the leader of Ballina's municipal council, said the president's story resonated with people in Ireland and Irish-Americans.

"Irish people left here during famine and during oppression," he said.

"That has come full circle now with a son of Ballina, an ancestor of Ballina, becoming US president and sitting in the Oval Office. So it's a beautiful story."

 



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