Beyond the blarney, what does Biden’s Irish American identity actually mean?

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. You are eligible for Social Security if you really do remember where you were when you heard the news, but the image of JFK remains powerful for Americans across the political spectrum. Today, it’s easy to grasp only parts of the 35th president’s significance, and we can overlook how seismic it was then that an Irish American was voted into the White House.

Many Democrats feared nominating Kennedy. They remembered the overwhelming defeat Al Smith had suffered in the 1928 presidential election, and the role anti-Catholic prejudice had played in that campaign. Although Kennedy won a narrow victory over his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, his religion, inextricably bound to his ethnic Boston-Irish roots, undoubtedly proved a factor in the campaign. He had to shake off accusations that he would be cipher of the pope, telling a Houston audience “I do not speak for my Church on public matters — and the Church does not speak for me.”

Nevertheless, when it was announced that Kennedy had won, it seemed the crowning achievement for Irish Americans. They had been growing in political power for more than 50 years, producing powerful bosses like James Curley, the four-time mayor of Boston; New York’s “muscle of the New Deal,” James Farley; and the incorrigible Richard Daley, mayor of Chicago. But JFK seemed to shatter forever the stained-glass ceiling, and, with the civil rights movement in full swing, attention shifted to discrimination against other groups.

Then along came Joe Biden.

There may be remote tribes in the Amazon who are unaware that President Biden has Irish roots, but for the rest of the world it is hammered home seemingly every week. 10 of his 16 great-great-grandparents were from Ireland, and it thoroughly infuses everything he does. He tackled his childhood stammer by reciting the poetry of W.B. Yeats; he has quoted his grandfather as telling him, “Joey, if you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough”; and last year, in a St. Patrick’s Day address, he quipped, “I may be Irish, but I’m not stupid.”

The president’s twinkling blarney is not just small talk. Over his long political career, it has given him a reflexive stance on Northern Ireland: he opposed the extradition of Irish Republican terrorists to the U.K. as a senator in the 1980s; he rejected the very notion of a fair justice system in Northern Ireland; and in 1994 he was one of the most prominent legislators pushing President Bill Clinton to grant a visa to Gerry Adams, the head of the I.R.A.’s political wing, Sinn Féin, against the request of the British government.

It has been argued endlessly in the U.K. how strong an influence his anti-British sentiment really is versus how much is just a chuckling, shamrock-garlanded persona. What is undoubtedly true is that since becoming president he has brought fellow members of the Irish-American community to some senior positions, revivifying and sharpening that identity after years of benign neglect.

Biden’s first secretary of labor was the two-time mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, a first-generation Irish American whose parents arrived in the U.S. in the 1950s. As national security adviser, he tapped the intellectual and persuasive D.C. insider Jake Sullivan, described by a colleague as having “a bit of an Irish poet in him.” To administer the U.S. Agency for International Development, the president nominated Dublin-raised Samantha Power.

At the end of 2022, with the post of Special Envoy for Northern Ireland having stood vacant for nearly two years, Biden turned to a grandson of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, former Rep. Joe Kennedy III, a restless but likable princeling driven as much by the inevitability of his name as any other motivation. And a powerful figure in the background, until January Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, is another Massachusetts congressman, Richard Neal. Neal has been chair of the Congressional Friends of Ireland since 2007, and in 2009 hosted Gerry Adams at the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Does any of this matter? Perhaps not to the president’s domestic audience. Some have been nostalgic if bemused to see Irish Americanism suddenly marked out again, like a fashion from decades ago. Certainly the WASP ascendancy is dead when six or seven Supreme Court justices are Catholic (Justice Gorsuch is elusive). But the occupant of the White House creates a culture, and the culture of the Irish American in politics is more than just a bear-hug and a self-indulgent tear when “Danny Boy” is played.

Irishness has given Joe Biden a ready-to-wear political identity. It allows him to be an underdog despite having risen to the most powerful office in the world, and places him in a narrative of warm-hearted, hardscrabble community. Not for him the snobbery of the East Coast establishment, nor the chilliness of the Protestant work ethic.

None of this sits easily with America’s global reputation. Yemeni civilians who see their families killed by drone strikes will find it hard to recognize Biden’s Irish identification with the powerless and oppressed. Catholics and evangelical Christians in Uganda will struggle to see much accepting liberalism in America’s threats to cancel aid and investment after the passage of anti-homosexuality laws that enjoyed healthy parliamentary majorities. And Vladimir Putin’s skewed worldview would offer a bleak smile at the idea of America as a force of anti-imperialism.

President Biden must be aware of how he appears to the world as well as how he sees himself, and his advisers have to be able to handle the disparities which will inevitably arise.

Eliot Wilson is a freelance writer on politics and international affairs. He was senior official in the UK House of Commons from 2005 to 2016, including serving as a clerk of the Defence Committee and secretary of the UK delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

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