With all respect to the man he served for eight years as vice president, there’s no-one as Irish as Joe Biden. The Covid-19 pandemic has halted Micheál Martin’s gallop to Washington, but with goodwill and a bit of imagination, surely we could bring Joe the bowl of shamrock later in the year.
In the wake of November’s US election, a January 2020 clip went viral all over again. At a campaign event, Nick Bryant, the BBC’s New York correspondent, had shouted: “Mr Biden! A quick word for the BBC!” Biden, who traces his roots to Ballina in Co Mayo, and the Cooley peninsula in Co Louth, replied with a look of feigned confusion, asking “The BBC?” before breaking into a broad grin and adding: “I’m Irish.”
Two weeks after the election, as Biden left the Queen Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware, RTÉ’s Brian O’Donovan called out to the president-elect and caught his attention. “Can I ask you a question about Ireland?” O’Donovan repeated, as Biden walked toward him.
“You can ask about Ireland anytime you want,” Biden smiled. Asked about Brexit negotiations, Biden replied: “We do not want a guarded border. We’ve worked too long to get Ireland worked out…”
Biden had previously stated, during the campaign, that the Good Friday Agreement must not become a casualty of Brexit. “Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing a hard border.”
Biden’s support for Ireland, and for the Good Friday Agreement, sent a signal which was heard clearly in Boris Johnson’s Downing Street (although given the EU’s subsequent brief and lunatic triggering of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, maybe not clearly enough in Ursula von der Leyen’s office).
Joe Biden is only the latest of at least 23 Irish-American US presidents, most of them hailing from Ulster Protestant stock. A list of those presidents includes Andrew Jackson, James Polk, James Buchanan (perhaps the first gay US president), Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S Grant (the first US president to visit Ireland, albeit in retirement), Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland (the only US president, so far, to achieve two non-consecutive terms), Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Harry S Truman, John F Kennedy (the first Catholic US president), Lyndon B Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, George W Bush, and Barack Obama.
Sometimes included in that list are William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, and Warren Harding, although there appears to be no credible evidence that they had any Irish blood.
One US president who claims Irish ancestry on his mother’s side is Bill Clinton, and although his links with Co Fermanagh appear to be founded mainly on wishful thinking, few could argue with Clinton’s love of Ireland, or with his commitment to the Peace Process. He once claimed that members of his White House press corps soon came to realise that they had a much better chance of being called on if they shouted “Question about Ireland”. Perhaps this was a lesson not wasted on Brian O’Donovan.
The first US president to have Irish roots was the seventh, Andrew Jackson, who served from 1829 to 1837. Born in 1767 in the Scots-Irish community of the Waxhaws, in the Colonial Carolinas, Jackson’s parents had only two years earlier left the Co Antrim village of Boneybefore.
A slave-owner, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and is rightly remembered as the principal architect of the Trail of Tears, a racist atrocity which saw the forced relocation of some 100,000 Native Americans, with members of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muskogee, and Seminole nations being forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands in the South-Eastern United States and sent on a forced march to lands deemed “Indian territory” west of the Mississippi.
The Choctaws were the first to be removed, 17,000 men, women and children, forced to walk the 500 miles to Oklahoma, through a cholera epidemic and the worst winter on record. As many as 6,000 people died en route.
Sixteen years later, when Ireland was in the grip of An Gorta Mór, when a million of us died and a million more fled to the sea on coffin ships, strangers half a world away – strangers who had nothing themselves – rallied to our aid. In the depths of Black ’47, the worst year of our Great Famine, the Choctaw Nation gathered in Scullyville, Oklahoma, and decided they had to help the starving Irish. They raised the equivalent in today’s money of tens of thousands of dollars. These were people who had endured incredible hardship and who were living in dire poverty themselves, thanks to an Irish-American US president. That’s a debt Irish people should never forget.
Donald Trump used to claim that Jackson was his favourite president, but it’s likely the proudly ignorant spray-tanned self-confessed serial sex offender was only saying that because his one-time chief of staff, white supremacist Steve Bannon, told him about Jackson.
The tradition of presenting the US president with shamrock on St Patrick’s Day dates back to 1952, when Ireland’s ambassador to the US, John Hearne, sent a small box of shamrock to Harry Truman, and it is one which has evolved over the years, with Taoiseach John A Costello in 1956 travelling to Washington to present a bowl of shamrock to Dwight D Eisenhower. The ceremony remained largely ambassadorial until Ronald Reagan took an interest in Irish affairs in the 1980s, inviting Garret Fitzgerald in 1986, and the next year Charles Haughey, to the White House, and it was in the Clinton years, after Albert Reynolds’ 1994 visit, that the event became an annual meeting between the two countries’ leaders.
This year’s visit appears to be off, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, with latest reports suggesting Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Joe Biden will hold a virtual bilateral meeting instead, with a virtual meeting between the Taoiseach and Vice-President Kamala Harris likely too, as well as a virtual meeting between Martin and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi.
The optics of Micheál Martin travelling to the US right now would have been poor, but why not postpone the visit to – say – September? Hopefully we should all have had our vaccines by then, and we could all look forward to a sign of the world returning to normal.
With goodwill and imagination on all sides, there seems no reason we couldn’t at least suggest a change of date. Anyway, with Joe Biden in the White House, there’s an even chance that if the Taoiseach rocked up unannounced at the North-West gate with a bowl of shamrock, the collected works of Seamus Heaney, a bottle of Midleton Rare, and a family pack of Tayto Cheese and Onion, he wouldn’t be turned away.
Actually, why not defer the entire national festival until then? After a year-and-a-half of Covid-19, we could all raise a glass to those we’ve lost, celebrate those who helped us through, and remember who we are.
Wouldn’t a national hooley – R-number permitting, and still masked and socially distanced – be a great way of showing ourselves that we haven’t been beaten by this ordeal?