Joe Biden in Carlingford, Co. Lough, June 25, 2016. Photo: Rollingnews.ie

President-elect Joe Biden’s Irish roots – from fleeing Famine Ireland to winning the White House

President-elect Joe Biden’s rich Irish ancestry helped lead him to the White House.

By Niall O’Dowd, Publisher

As is true in the case of Presidents John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and now Joe Biden, the Irish Famine had the untold impact of creating a US president by sending their forefathers to America.

Biden’s folks, who came to America trailing broken dreams and heartache, likely never dreamed that over a century later, their descendant would be elected President of the United States of America.

All eight of Joe Biden’s great-great-grandparents on his mother Catherine Eugenia ‘Jean’ Finnegan’s side were born in Ireland during the first half of the 19th century, and on his father Joseph R. Biden Sr.’s side, two great-grandparents were also born in Ireland.

On May 31, 1849, Owen Finnegan, Biden’s great-great-grandfather from the remote Cooney Peninsula in Co Louth, arrived in New York aboard the ship Brothers, fleeing the last of the Famine. As was often the custom, he came before the rest of his family. A shoemaker by trade, he procured employment, and a year later, he sent for his family.

His wife Jane (nee Boyle) immigrated with her and Owen’s children (including Biden’s great-grandfather, James) almost a year later on May 15, 1850, on a ship named the Marchioness of Bute, according to genealogist Megan Smolneyak, who has traced the lineage for the Biden family.

Members of the Finnegan family went North to upstate New York picking apples and working with farmers. James Finnegan joined them for a time before heading west, ending up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, home to the Molly Maguires, a “secret society” of Irish immigrant miners who fought for workers’ rights against the mine bosses.

The mine bosses sent in the Pinkerton detective agency to break the union. Pinkerton planted a spy, an Irishman called James McParland, in their midst. His testimony was enough to send twenty of the Mollys to the gallows in one of the largest mass hanging by the US government in its history.

Rumored to be a member of the Molly Maguires was Biden’s great-grandfather Edward Francis Blewitt, a native of Lousiana whose parents Patrick and Catherine (nee Scanlon) Blewitt were from Ballina, Co Mayo.

Blewitt was a major Irish American figure in Scranton. Not only did he win the election to the state senate, but he was also named Chairman of the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in 1897 and was the co-founder of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in Scranton in 1908.

When campaigning alongside Barack Obama in 2008, Biden said at an event for the United Mine Workers in Virginia: “I hope you won’t hold it against me, but I am a hard-coal miner, anthracite coal, Scranton, Pa.

“It’s nice to be back in coal country. … It’s a different accent [in Southwest Virginia] … but it’s the same deal. We were taught that our faith and our family was the only really important thing, and our faith and our family informed everything we did.”

Of his great-grandfather Blewitt’s rumored ties to the Molly Maguires, Biden said:  “He went out of his way to prove that he wasn’t, and we were all praying that he was.”

In 1879, Blewitt married Mary Ellen Stanton, a native of Scranton, and together they had four children, including Geraldine Catherine Blewitt, who went on to marry James Finnegan’s son Ambrose Finnegan.

In 1917, Geraldine and Ambrose gave birth to Catherine ‘Jean’ Eugenia Finnegan, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr’s mother.

Grandpop Ambrose had a huge political influence over young Joey,  the future president of the United States.

After mass on Sundays, the clan would gather and men would breakaway into one room and engage in robust political discussions about the merits of Harry Truman over Adlai Stevenson. There was no talk of Republicans, the class divide was too great. Irish Catholics didn’t dare to think that way.

Grandpop Ambrose gave Joe the benefit of a lifetime of experience dealing with the Democratic Party and instilled in young Joey the virtues of the working man.

No doubt that Ambrose Finnegan would have recognized in Donald Trump the stereotype of the wealthy and uncaring rich businessmen he had excoriated to young Joey.

In fact, he even had a term for how the rich dealt with the lowly Irish in the mines and elsewhere. He called it the “Silk Stocking Screw.” He would have had his Irish antenna distinctly up when listening and seeing Trump in action – action that will come to a decisive end in January when Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th President of the United States of America.

In 2016, Joe Biden told RTE: “My grandfather and grandmother Finnegan, all my mother’s brothers, and my father told us about the courage and commitment it took for our relatives to emigrate from Ireland – in the midst of tragedy to distant shores, where they didn’t know what awaited them. It took great courage.”

That courage, as it turns out, paid off.

Fiery Joe Biden

April, 1987: Senator Joseph Finnegan-Biden, head of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, is one of a handful of people who can realistically aspire to the presidency of the United States.

While he is still regarded as an outsider for the 1988 Democratic nomination, there is unanimous agreement that the withdrawal of New York Governor Mario Cuomo has greatly boosted the chances of the 44-year­ old senator from Delaware.

He can certainly now claim the title of best orator of any of the 1988 candidates of either party. Those who have witnessed his impassioned addresses, either in the senate or on the stump can vouch for their fiery quality. Just last month he was in spectacular form at the AFL/CIO convention in Florida, winning a standing ovation from the delegates and an admission by the New York Times that he stole the show from the other presidential hopefuls present. Read more.

Irish America Hall of Fame Profile

Vice President Joe Biden in his West Wing Office at the White House, Jan. 10, 2013. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Vice President Joe Biden is suddenly the most popular politician in Washington. On the fiscal cliff he galloped to the rescue and cut the deal with Senator Mitch McConnell, and now on gun control he is defying the conventional wisdom again and getting real traction behind his recommendations. He has met with the NRA, Walmart, and every major gun constituency, forcing a dialogue where none existed before and making clear that action will be taken to prevent another Sandy Hook.

Biden’s strong record in his more than 40 years in government – he was first elected to the Senate in 1972, just shy of 30 years old  — has earned him respect from both sides of the political spectrum. As Maureen Dowd, writing in the New York Times stated, “In a time when American politics is so polarized Biden has managed the extraordinary trick of being able to appear reasonable to both sides. [He] can spread everything out on the table and negotiate his way through all of his former colleagues’ shortcomings, weaknesses, fears and frailties.” Read more.

Irish America Hall of Fame Induction

On Thursday, March 21 Irish America was honored to induct the 2013 class of honorees into the Irish America Hall of Fame. Vice President Joe Biden, art collector and benefactor Brian Burns, businessman and philanthropist Bob Devlin, hotelier and humanitarian John Fitzpatrick and immigration reformer and former congressman Bruce Morrison were recognized and gave speeches at the 2013 awards luncheon in the Grand Salon of the J.W. Marriott Essex House in New York City.

After the 300 guest – including New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and her sister Peggy, Consul General Noel Kilkenny and Hanora O’Dea Kilkenny, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers, authors Edna O’Brien and Colum McCann and actress Fionnula Flanagan – filled the grand salon, the honorees were led in by a bagpiper to the tune of Danny Boy. Read more.

Medal of Freedom

Vice President Joe Biden was surprised with a tribute of the highest honor when awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by his president and close friend Barack Obama on Thursday. Obama presented the medal – the highest form of civilian honor existing in the United States – “with distinction,” an additional level of esteem, for the first time in his presidency, and called Biden “a lion of American history” and “the best vice president America has ever had.”

Biden revealed that he had “no inkling” he would receive the medal and be moved to tears as the president praised his achievements throughout the last eight years, including his championing of the Violence Against Women Act and the initiation of the “It’s On Us” campaign to end sexual violence on college campuses. Read more.

Biden’s Irish Roots

How can you not love a name like Finnegan Biden? I find it charming when family names are given fresh life in ensuing generations, and that’s exactly what happened in the lineage bracketing Vice President Joe Biden. His beloved mother Jean’s full name was Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden.  Subtract “Catherine Eugenia” and you have the name of one of his granddaughters – Finnegan Biden. Whether she knows it or not, there’s a lot of history tucked into her first name.

My guess is that she’s heard some of it from her grandfather, who likes to tell tales about his own grandfather Ambrose Finnegan, but she probably doesn’t know everything I’m about to share. As a professional genealogist, I’m something of a retro-journalist who delves into people’s family histories and given my own Irish roots, I have a soft spot for anyone who shares that heritage – from Barack Obama to Barry Manilow. So I suppose it was inevitable that Vice President Biden would take a turn under my past-seeking microscope. Before probing more deeply, let’s step back and take a look at the big picture – well, the Irish part of that picture. Read more.

Biden Visits Ireland

Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Ireland in June for a six-day trip through counties Dublin, Meath, Louth, and Mayo. Arriving with his brother, sister, daughter and five grandchildren, Biden was formally welcomed by Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the Government Buildings in Dublin.

Though Biden had visited Ireland privately in the past, Kenny told RTÉ News, this was his first trip as vice president. Biden had originally promised to make the trip with his son Beau, who died of brain cancer last year at the age of 46. In a keynote address at Dublin Castle, Biden said that despite Beau’s absence, “we decided we would bring the whole family.” Read more.

Biden Attends Hospice Groundbreaking

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited County Mayo in September to preside over the official sod-turning ceremony of a new €10 million 14-bed Mayo/Roscommon Hospice unit in Knockaphunta, Castlebar, where one of his Irish cousins, Laura Blewitt, is employed. Biden first pledged to support the project when he met his cousin in Washington, D.C. in January, and made good on his word by overseeing the beginning of the unit’s construction. It is Mayo’s first hospice care facility.

“He said he would like to help raise funds for Mayo/Roscommon Hospice,” Blewitt told Mayo News, after attending a surprise ceremony in Washington D.C. when Biden was given the Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, by President Obama. Read more.