Joseph R. Biden frequently references his Irish roots. Now, as the 46th President of the United States, he inherits an historic transnational relationship with Ireland that is far more than mere sentiment.
Nearly a century ago, in October 1924, Ireland opened diplomatic relations with the United States of America when Timothy Smiddy presented his credentials to President Calvin Coolidge. He was the Minister Plenipotentiary for what was then called the Irish Free State and what we know today as the Republic of Ireland. There had been American consular officials in Ireland since the end of the eighteenth century, but true bilateral relations were not possible until the southern part of Ireland achieved independence from the United Kingdom, supported by her “exiled children in America,” in December 1921.
Ireland is a great case study for transnational relationships and the role of diasporas in building them. The history of this small western European island has long intersected with that of colonial America and then the United States. Diplomacy, economics, education, nationalism, tourism, culture, philanthropy, and the circulatory movement of capital have been major points of contact between the two countries. But immigration has provided the longest and strongest link, as we are now reminded by Joseph R. Biden, who has deep paternal and maternal roots in Co. Mayo and Co. Louth. Both sides of his family left Ireland during the Great Irish Famine (1845-1851), a heritage he shares with millions of Americans.
Biden is the sixth president of the United States with a great-grandparent from Ireland, joining Ulysses S. Grant, John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. If genealogical proximity to Ireland was the sole litmus test, these men are actually less Irish than Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, and Chester Arthur, who were the sons of one or more Irish immigrants. All, however, came from different social, political, and religious backgrounds in Ireland and in America. Therefore, how salient is being “Irish” for an occupant of the Oval Office?
Although Barack Obama’s Irish roots are even more distant than Biden’s, today his connections to Co. Offaly are proudly displayed in a museum and motorway rest stop in Moneygall, the birthplace of his great-great-great-grandfather. The Ronald Reagan Pub from Ballyporeen, Co. Tipperary is now in the Reagan Library in California to mark his 1984 visit. “King Timahoe,” a White House dog, was an Irish setter named for the Milhous ancestral village in Co. Kildare where Nixon spoke in 1970. There is a mural of Biden in Ballina, where his paternal great-great grandfather was born. Despite such sentimentality, business savvy, or what you will, there is also a serious dimension to American-Irish relations.
For Ireland, a president of the United States with a documented ancestral link underscores the longevity of the island’s transatlantic ties as well as the importance of its political independence. President Kennedy visited Ireland in June 1963 for a multi-day stop on his return journey from Berlin where he gave his now famous Cold War speech. In Dublin, Kennedy legitimized the revolutionary origins of the Irish state when he laid a wreath at Arbour Hill, the resting place of the men executed in 1916 for daring to challenge British colonial authority. He then spoke to the Irish legislature (both Houses of the Oireachtas), the first foreign leader to do so.
On that occasion, Kennedy laid out his vision for Ireland’s place in the world: “Ireland has excellent relations with both the old and the new, the confidence of both sides, and an opportunity to act where the actions of greater powers might be looked upon with suspicion. The central issue of freedom however is between those who believe in self-determination, and those in the East who would impose upon others the harsh and repressive communist system.” This was affirmation for Ireland, a United Nations member only since 1955, as well as absolution for having drawn Anglo-American ire by remaining neutral during World War II.
Kennedy’s assassination just five months later was a gut punch. As the journalist Pete Hamill recalled in 1999, men and women, both Protestant and Catholic, in Belfast—even though Northern Ireland significantly was not part of the 1963 visit—wept on “a scale of grief I’d never seen before or since in any place on earth.” Why this should have been so has been interpreted in a number of ways: JFK represented generations of immigrants who were never able to return home; he was the embodiment of the American dream, attaining the White House only four generations out of Famine Ireland, and he was the first Irish Catholic to break the ultimate political glass ceiling in the United States.
Joe Biden inherits the same mantel. Therefore, he is likely to follow some traditions. He will accept a bowl of shamrocks from Ireland’s Taoiseach on St. Patrick’s Day, in a ceremony that dates back to the 1950s. Few heads of government have such a standing invitation in Washington, DC, nor do they have, since initiated under the Reagan administration, an annual lunch on Capitol Hill every March 17th where green ties mask American partisan divisions for a single day.
In the era of Brexit, Northern Ireland is also likely to be a foreign affairs concern for the Biden administration just as it has been since Bill Clinton appointed the first US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland in 1995. Senator George Mitchell played a critical role in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a significant step forward in a peace process to address more than thirty years of sectarian tensions there. While the Ambassador to Ireland and the Special Envoy to Northern Ireland positions went unfilled for twenty-nine months and more than three years respectively under Donald Trump, both will be a higher priority for Biden since Brexit is scheduled to take place twenty days before his inauguration as the 46th President of the United States.
While an entire generation has now grown up in peace in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom’s decision to withdraw from the European Union jeopardizes the region once again. Ireland is a member of the European Union; Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, is not. They share a land border once heavily patrolled by British troops, now virtually invisible except on a map because of a specific Northern Ireland protocol in the 1998 Agreement. In September 2020 Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, declared, “If the U.K. violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress.” Biden’s diplomatic selections for Dublin, Belfast, and London need to be highly skilled professionals who can navigate these delicate North Atlantic relationships towards resolution.
Ireland very much sees its future prosperity tied to nurturing Irish values and culture with new generations of Americans, and to having a voice on the global stage. In 2021, Ireland will sit with the United States for the fourth time on the United Nations Security Council, during the centennial year of Irish independence. Article 2 of Ireland’s constitution declares that “the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.” Thirty-two million Americans claimed Irish ancestry in 2018, the vast majority of whom are “late generation ethnics.” This means Irish America is far from homogeneous and must be thought about in innovative ways. Ireland now has a global strategy planned for 2020–2025 to deepen its ties abroad as well as to reach out to those Americans just discovering connections to Ireland through DNA testing and genealogical sleuthing, including people of mixed ethnic and racial ancestry.
In some respects, Joe Biden’s genealogy, his fondness for quoting Irish poetry, and his presidency are sweetly serendipitous. But American presidents come and go. The transnational relationship between Ireland and the United States has been more enduring, and only promises to continue to be so.
Ethnonationalism is a strong force in Korean society, and the South Korean state has pursued an active diasporic engagement policy based on this principle. Nevertheless, co-ethnic return migrants from less-developed…