Remarks by President Biden at the Ireland Funds 30th National Gala
National Building Museum
7:39 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Hello, hello, hello. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Really. Please. Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you. Please. Thank you very much.
Caitriona, thank you for that introduction. And it’s good to be back at this wonderful event to see so many friends — from members of Congress to leaders of faith, business, philanthropy, and the arts and the sciences.
I’ve — to everyone at the Ireland Funds: Thank you for deepening the ties of the Irish diaspora throughout the world. Your work proves that the Irish are home everywhere — everywhere. And as — Taoiseach and Mrs. Martin I hope feel at home here in America. It’s an honor to welcome you back, Taoiseach. (Applause.) It’s an honor to welcome you back.
In 2009, at the White House Shamrock Ceremony, when you were foreign minister and I was vice president. The following year, my wife Jill and I were honored to host you both at the — at the Naval Observatory at a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast. And I look forward to continuing our friendship and discussing our partnership tomorrow at the White House when we both have come full circle. You’re Taoiseach and I’m President; what the hell are we going to do? (Laughter and applause.) Well, it’s — it’d be pretty personal for me.
It’s been 165 years, like many of you — 165 years since my great-great-grandparents left County Mayo and County Louth aboard coffin ships to cross the Atlantic. Not sure all what — they knew what they were leaving. They weren’t sure what they were going to be seeing.
The Blewitts and the Finnegans eventually settled in Scranton, Pennsylvania. And — and that’s where my parents met and were married. It was where my mother, Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden, was born and later met — married my father, Joseph R. Biden, Sr. He has — he had the saving grace, on his mother’s side, of having a Hanafee from Galway. That’s the only thing that saved him. And you all think I’m kidding. I’m not. (Laughter.)
And it was in Scranton where I was born, and I inherited my mother’s side of the family’s overwhelming pride — overwhelming pride in being Irish — a pride that spoke to both continents’ heart and soul, and drew from the old and the new.
One of my great-great-uncles wrote his “Amerikay” letter back to his loved ones in Ireland, yearning to be home. And he said — he wrote, “If the road was made of furze…” — which is a yellow flower with thorns — he said, “If a road were made of furze from America to Ireland, I’d walk it in my bare feet.”
My great-grandfather, Edward Francis Blewitt, was only the second Catholic in the history of the state of Pennsylvania to be elected to the State Senate at that time in 1906 — at a time when many Catholics weren’t elected to office, especially coming out of the coal mine regions of Scranton.
You know, we had a — he had an engineering degree from Lafayette College and the heart of an Irish poet. In 1919, one of his over 100 poems that he wrote — and thankfully my uncle left them to me — he wrote of “his Ireland.” And the concluding stanza he wrote was:
“From the fairest land, except my own,
‘Neath stars and moon and sun,
a citadel of liberty,
My mother’s land, a rún.”
A lot has happened since his “mother’s land, a rún.” Things are so much better in Ireland today.
Like so many Americans, that pride has been passed down in every generation of our family. And I might add, my family — I don’t know where they’re sitting — my brother Jimmy; his wife, Sara; and my niece, Missy. Where are you guys? They’re here. What table are you at? (Applause.) There you go.
Unfortunately for Jimmy, we’re often mistaken as the same person. (Laughter.) Early on when I was Vice President — true story — there was a threat as I was driving from — from the Vice President’s Residence to the White House, to work. And they suggested that Jimmy ride in the front limousine. (Laughter.) You’re a hell of a brother, Jim. (Laughter.) You’re a hell of a brother.
As a matter of fact, Taoiseach, Micheál — I — when I was Vice President, I hosted one of your predecessors, Enda Kenny, who I got to know in the Naval Observatory. I’d always have a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast. And afterwards, I took him to the Oval Office to meet with Barack, which was the usual deal, which will — and he turned to Barack after — I think it was the fifth year or sixth year in. And he turned to Barack and said, “God, Barack, let the boy come home. Send him home, will you?” (Laughter.) And Barack said, “Get the hell home to Ireland.”
I’d been to Ireland many times but never to make a connection with my heritage and my family. In fact, six years ago, three generations of my family walked along Garden Street in Ballina, in County Mayo, like our ferbea- — our forebears, the Blewitts, did. We visited a church in County Louth, where the Finnegans were baptized, at Cooley Peninsula, down at the tip near Carlingford, where they made their living in both the land and the sea. And we also went to Lily Finnegan’s pub — (laughter) — for spirits and to meet some of my distant relatives.
(Audience member whistles.) (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: You know it.
And I got to speak to the Irish people at Dublin Castle and thought about my Grandpa Finnegan. We also visited Trinity College. And my Grandpa Finnegan was a student of Irish history — a magnificent place — but he always would point out to me Trinity College was built to wipe out Catholicism in the island.
And so, I had the great honor of being — being given an honorary degree — an honorary doctorate degree. And I spoke to the graduating class at a magnificent place, and I must admit I started — I said, “Grandpa Finnegan, forgive me but it’s no longer — no longer a mortal sin. It’s okay.” (Laughter.) And I received the honorary doctorate so I could catch up with my wife, Dr. Jill Biden. (Applause.)
And a great and unexpected honor: I was inducted into the University Philosophic Society, the oldest one in the world. And that night, the Ireland Fund — you guys hosted the dinner for my family in Ireland. And — and I just want to thank you. A hundred thousand welcomes. I never pronounce it correctly, but it’sCéad míle — I got to remember it now —Céad míle fáilte. Is that right?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Céad míle fáilte.
THE PRESIDENT: Fáilte. Thank you. A hundred thousand welcomes. I have trouble speaking Gaelic and English. (Laughter.)
But it was a trip I’ll always remember. Even made — it even made clear what my mother imbued in her children and her grandchildren: an absolute certitude that we were equal to every person, and every person was equal to us. That was my mom — the Speaker has heard me say this before. My mom would say, “Remember, nobody is better than you. And everyone is your equal.” That everyone deserved to be treated with a word, I think, the Irish use more than any other group of people — treated with “dignity.” Dignity.
My father would no more walk by the Chairman of the Board of the DuPont Company or the shoeshine guy in the DuPont Hotel without saying “hello” to both.
It’s a certitude built on both our nations that we’ve always shared a deep spark. Everything between us runs deep — the literature, the poetry, the sadness, the joy, but, most of all, our resilience. Despite everything, we’ve never stopped being dreamers. And I think we Irish are the only people in the world who actually are nostalgic for the future. (Laughter.)
Think about it. You think I’m kidding. Think about it. (Applause.)
But, of course, that means dealing with the present. At this time, in our time, we’ve seen more change and challenge, I believe, than any time in generations. A once-in-a-century pandemic. An economic unease and anxiety. An existential threat of the climate crisis. And what we see today in Ukraine: an unprovoked war of aggression and just a vicious, vicious, vicious treatment of the Ukrainian people — bombing hospitals and homes and nurseries.
A march of reactionary forces of nationalism, nativism, and isolationism; of autocracies, not just in Europe — we’ve see it around the world; we’ve seen it here in America.
But I also see this: the strength, necessity, and endurance of democracy. That we, the people — we’re the most unique nation in the world because of our backgrounds. We’re the only nation built on the notion of an idea — not ethnicity, not geography, but an idea that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, endowed by their Creator. (Applause.) I really mean it.
We’ve never lived up to it completely, but we have never walked away from it. Wa- — opportunity, the rule of law of equal rights and dignity for everybody.
And while terrible things have happened on both sides of our shores — violence, civil unrest, racial and religious discrimination — we’re nations and a people that are self-reflective and self-corrective. Nations where hope runs deep and optimism reigns. Optimism that’s brave and digs deep.
My mother used to have an expression — for real. She’d say, “Joe, remember: As long as you’re alive, you have an obligation to strive. And you’re not dead until you’ve seen the face of God.” That was her anthem. And I can tell you, every one of my siblings and cousins — it was beat into our heads.
That’s what I see in the Republic of Ireland today — a global force in culture and in the arts; leaders on the world stage; members of the United Nations Security Council; a country with a past that tugs at our hearts and a future that’s going to shape the world.
Eavan Boland, the late Irish poet, who fought — who taught here in America at Stanford University, she wrote of today’s Republic of Ireland. She said:
“Our island that was once
Settled and removed on the edge
Of Europe is now [the] bridge
To the world.”
It has that capacity.
Tonight, let us salute that bridge to the world. A bridge that for generations has gone back and forth between Ireland and the United States, and that grows stronger and more necessary as every year passes. And I mean it. I mean it.
We feel it across America, especially during the week of St. Patrick’s Day in cities and towns big and small.
And the White House tomorrow will be decked in green. And I’ll also be thinking about the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick’s Day event in Scranton and Lackawanna County, which my great grandfather helped found — where it started for my family here in America.
I’ll be thinking about the annual morning mass at St. Patrick’s Church in Wilmington, Delaware, where my son Beau and my son Hunter were members. And we called it St. Patrick’s Day Society that supported the church and community. The society was started in 1990 by a dear friend, late Father Jim Trainor, who gathered a group of friends in a tough neighborhood. It used to be an all Irish neighborhood back at the turn of the 18- — excuse me — in the turn of the 20th century, but it’s now a minority neighborhood; it’s in trouble.
And in his home — he’d invite us — we found a way to ground a day of celebration with a greater sense of purpose. And we built a sense of community to restore hope in those struggling, to thread that common bonds of respect, dignity, and love for — among all people, in every station.
Over the years, our St. Patrick’s Day Society in Wilmington, Delaware, has raised millions of dollars, like you have done — and so much more — for countless people of all backgrounds in the community.
It all started with an idea — with a spark of passion and compassion. And it grew and grew ever since. A proud tradition of my hometown that reflects the souls of two great nations, and providing that when you’re Irish — proving it when you’re Irish, when you’re American: Home is everywhere. What a gift. What a blessing.
Let me close with this: By the time my great-great-grandfather Owen Finnegan, a shoemaker, boarded a coffin ship in 1844, another shoemaker named Joseph Kearny from Moneygo- — excuse me — from Moneygall — ship — on another ship, five weeks before — he was President Obama’s great-great-grandfather. There’s a good chance they knew each other, I’m told when I was in Ireland, because they were both — there were both shoemakers. And they left everything behind for an uncertain future.
But I wonder, in all their dreams, whether they could have ever dreamt that each of their grandsons would one day be President of the United States of America. That’s America. (Applause.) That’s America. Or as my grandfather Ambrose Finnegan would say, “That’s the Irish of it.” (Laughter.)
And now it’s up to all of us to keep the sense of possibility for every person who gives up everything in search of a better life. That’s been our history. It’s our present. And if we’re lucky, it will be our future.
A thousand thanks to all of you. One night in advance: Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
May God bless you all. And may God protect our troops.
Thank you so very much. Thank you. (Applause.)
7:55 P.M. EDT