President Biden’s Irish Roots and Latin America

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Eamonn Thornton at his van

A proud pipe band in a tiny corner of Ireland played a new composition, ‘Ode to Joe’ when Joe Biden won the US election.

His Irish cousins celebrated when he was inaugurated as president and now they hope his schedule, and Covid-19 restrictions, will allow for a visit in the coming months.

Louth, Ireland’s smallest county, the home of his first ancestor to leave for America, has twice welcomed ‘Cousin Joe’ on less high profile visits and is looking forward to having him back on the Emerald Isle before too long.

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The remains of Owen Finnegan’s house in Whitestown, Co. Louth

Ireland’s Prime Minister Micheál Martin has confirmed extending an invitation and said Biden had replied, ‘try and keep me out’.

“I’m super excited,” said Andrea McKevitt, a Louth County Councillor and a fifth cousin to Biden. “We are all ecstatic at thoughts of the US President’s visit.” 

Anne Quinn, the principal of an Irish language primary school, shares a great-great-great-grandparent with Biden and was part of a group of relatives to meet him on his first visit to Ireland in 2016.

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A picture of Eamonn Thornton and Joe Biden on his visit in 2016

Assembled at Fitzpatrick’s restaurant, for lunch with Biden, the group of distant relatives was briefed about the protocol and was told to address him as ‘Mister Vice President’. When the “very relaxed” Biden arrived he “made everybody feel that they were the only person he was talking to,” Quinn said. “He just said, ‘Oh call me Joe’.” 

Biden’s first Irish ancestor to go to America was his great-great-great-grandfather, Owen Finnegan. He left his birthplace of Whitestown in Co. Louth in 1949, likely because of the devastating 1845-52 Great Famine in which a million souls perished. He walked for miles to Newry harbor, now part of Northern Ireland, where he boarded a boat to Southampton, England, and then on to America to start a new life. A year later his wife, Jane arrived with their children.

Finnegan’s ship docked in New York just five weeks after Barack Obama’s Irish ancestor, Joseph Kearney. Remarkably, both men were shoemakers, and descendants of each became US presidents. 

Co. Louth also prides itself on having launched the ‘Irish for Biden Campaign’ in October. Under the slogan, “It’s never too late to Call a Cousin, Phone a Friend or Ring a Relative,” the Irish were asked to press American friends and relatives to do their bit to get Biden into the Oval Office.

American genealogist and author, Megan Smolenyak, who has met Biden “a dozen times”, traced Barack Obama’s Irish roots to Co. Offaly. She said Biden’s other Irish ancestor, Edward Blewitt, left Co. Mayo with his wife and eight children in 1851. 

One of their sons, Patrick, 18, was noted on the ship’s manifest as a ‘sailor’. During her research, she found traces that he, and later his son, had spent time in Latin America.

A couple of newspaper articles Smolenyak unearthed showed that in the 1860s Patrick Blewitt spent “several years” assisting in the construction of “a big railroad system” from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil “to the interior”. It seems that he may have also continued traveling after the family reached America and spent some time in Chile, Smolenyak says.

Some years later, Patrick’s son Edward traveled to Mexico where he supervised the contract for “sewering the city of Guadalajara”.

On 1 June 1909 the two Irish families connected through the marriage of Ambrose Finnegan and Geraldine Blewitt. Their daughter, Jean Finnegan married Joseph Biden and Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was born.

One of Biden’s biggest fans in Ireland is retired potato farmer Eamonn Thornton. He met him on both his visits and has several photographs to prove it, including one inscribed by Biden: “It’s good to be home — Joe Biden, son of Jean Finnegan.”

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Eamonn Thornton at his van

To mark Biden’s 2016 visit Thornton painted his van with slogans in honor of the ‘US vice president’. Next time he is ready to welcome him with a newly decorated van on which he has painted, “President of America Joe Biden, welcome home to Whitestown” and on the back: “from Whitestown to the White House”.