U.S President Joe Biden’s four-day trip to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was an elegy or wake for sentimental Irish American views of Ireland, at least according to preliminary opinion coverage. This view was especially noticeable in The Irish Times, the once conservative but now liberal national daily.
“The 46th president is almost certainly the last great avatar of a specifically Irish-American culture that is now in terminal decline,” wrote columnist Hugh Linehan. The Irish aren’t nostalgic, he insisted, but Irish Americans are. Linehan continued:
From the mid-19th century onward, waves of migration to the big cities of the US northeast created a market for drama, stories and songs lamenting the misery of Irish exile and usually declaring a fervent desire to ‘be back in [insert evocative name of townland here]’. There was also a lot of talk about mothers. As the 19th century became the 20th, these melodramas, comedies and songs migrated from the stage to the screen and the radio Irish-Americanness became a clearly defined strand of US – and therefore global – pop culture. Along the way, it was beamed back to the mother country where it was received with a mixture of bemusement, amusement and a keen awareness that there might be a few bob to be made from it. The naïve returning Yank remains a recurring trope to this day.
Not to be outdone, Fintan O’Toole suggested, “Biden’s sense of Irishness is very real and profoundly felt. But it is rooted in soil that is now increasingly thin on the ground in Ireland itself: a complete fusion of Irish and Catholic identities. … In Irish-America, this parochial Catholic world can be recalled with a simple, uncomplicated fondness that is almost impossible now in Ireland itself. … Biden is here because he identifies passionately with a religious idea of Irishness that has lost much of its grip on the homeland.”
Comparing the June 1963 visit of President John F. Kennedy to Biden’s trip 60 years later, O’Toole continued, “This is a case of history repeating itself, the first time as a dream of the Irish future, the second as echo of an Irish past. JFK embodied, in all his impossible glamour, an idea of what Ireland then aspired to be: modern, sophisticated, confident. Biden now embodies an idea of what Ireland used to be — a place in which ‘Irish’ and ‘Catholic’ was a match made in heaven (and from which there could be no divorce).”
Finally, the Times‘ Gerard Howlin wrote, “Ireland today bears little relationship to the one imagined by Irish America. … There is something of the end of an era about the Biden visit. He is the last of the generation of Irish-American politicians who can remember the springtime Kennedy spoke of and who subsequently gave generously of their friendship.
and echoed this view in the American press: “The Ireland Biden visited is a distant cry from the place his ancestors left so long ago. It doesn’t even look much like the country John F. Kennedy – the last Irish Catholic president – toured in 1963.”
These suggestions that Irish Americans cling to outdated and overly romanticized views of Ireland is greatly exaggerated and has become a cliché. More than 900 American companies do business in Ireland, and 700 Irish firms have operations in the United States. Combined, they employ several hundred thousand Irish and American citizens in both countries. These people–and their families and friends–understand modern Ireland, as do most tourists.
Biden correctly noted that Kennedy’s trip “captur(ed) the imaginations of Irish and Irish American families alike.” But, he added, “For too long Ireland has been talked about in the past tense. … Today, Ireland’s story is no one’s to tell but its own.” He emphasized the contemporary partnership between the two nations.
At the National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote that Biden seemed “not to know or care that, in Ireland, a public official admitting to some pride in Irish-Catholic identity would be an incident more infamous and unwelcome than a Loyalist bombing of a day-care center,” a grossly irresponsible statement from the conservative writer. Fox News and some Republican lawmakers jumped on Biden’s remark about “not going home” to the U.S., but “staying here” in Ireland. If only he would keep his word, they chortled, predictably.
Biden began the trip with a quick stop in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Some British press opinion pages and a few hardline Brexiteers and unionists criticized the president in much the same way as their right-wing brethren in America. In the most notorious example, former Northern Ireland Assembly First Minister Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party vomited that Biden “hates the U.K.,” in part because of his announced decision not to attend the coronation of King Charles III. Oh my!
Current DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson was more moderate in his comments. He welcomed Biden’s offer to support investment in Northern Ireland, without interfering in local political matters. Donaldson and the DUP have refused to participate in the power-sharing Assembly for a year due to objections to the way Brexit treats the province.
“In the estimation of British officials, Biden’s brief visit (to the North) accomplished what they had hoped, a quiet message with carefully chosen words that did not aggravate the dynamic and might eventually help lead to another restoration of government,” wrote Washington Post chief political correspondent Dan Balz. “Biden could point but not forcefully persuade. As always in Northern Ireland, it remains in the hands of the leaders and the people there to make the way forward.”
I’m interested to see how Biden’s Ireland trip is viewed in the coming weeks and months; how it used in his anticipated re-election campaign; and whether he returns to the island during a potential second term or post-presidency. It will be just as interesting to see how, or whether, his visit is leveraged by Irish tourism and other commercial interests.