SENATOR Joe Biden gave his most extensive review of his roots and his Irish heritage to Irish America magazine, our sister publication, in 1985. What follows is extracts from that interview which I conducted.
Biden hails from a Famine era family, the Finnegans, who fled Co. Mayo to avoid the Great Hunger. His great grandmother Finnegan was the only one who could read Gaelic, and she used to read letters in Gaelic for those who could not read the letters from home and she’s write back in Gaelic for them.
The Biden name appears to have come from a Huguenot family which has been traced to Liverpool in 1668. His father, a car salesman, insisted the name was Irish but Biden was never able to confirm that.
Biden was born in the Irish heartland of Scranton, Pennsylvania, one of the most Irish cities in America. There were already political genes in his DNA.
“Edward F. Blewett my grandmother’s father, was the first Irish Catholic state senator,” Biden recalled. “He was also the co-founder of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in Scranton around 1908. There is still a plaque in existence in Scranton showing he was one of the founding members.”
Biden stated that he grew up in Scranton in “a predominantly Irish neighborhood and an overwhelmingly Irish parish. The centerpiece of life in Scranton was the church, the nuns, the priest the monsignor,” he recalled.
“Everybody had a sister who was a nun everybody had a brother a priest. Vocations were a big deal.”
His first Irish memories are of his Aunt Gertie when he went to his grandparents’ house.
“I’d go upstairs and lie on the bed and she’d come and scratch my back and say, ‘Now you remember Joey about the Black and Tans don’t you?’ She had never seen the Black and Tans, she had no notion of them, but she could recite chapter and verse about them.
“Obviously there were immigrants coming in who were able to talk about it and who had relatives back there, She was born in 1887. After she’d finish telling the stories I’d sit there or lie in bed and think at the slightest noise, ‘They’re coming up the stairs.’”
Biden confessed to hating Irish wakes, which were a constant when he was a child.
“I hated it, you know, everybody sitting around and drinking and the corpse in the next room ... there is something about the Irish that knows that to live is to be hurt, but we’re still not afraid to live.”
Biden has read Irish history extensively, and to this day his hero is Wolfe Tone leader of the 1798 Rebellion.
“Wolfe Tone is the embodiment of some of the things that I think are the noblest of all. He was a Protestant who formed the United Irishmen. He had nothing to gain on the face of it but he sought to relieve the oppression of the Catholics caused by the penal laws. He gave his life for the principle of civil rights for all people.
“I view him as an honorable figure. He was obviously passionate which I admire. He had the ability to make his own comfort secondary to the greater good.”
Biden found that when he moved to Delaware that the experience of the Irish there was very different to what he left behind in Scranton.
“That is because they came over differently. The Dupont Company were sending ships back to Ireland and bringing back workers so the first people who did come did not do so as part of a famine. They were paternalistic, built their church for them. It was a different experience,” Biden said.
The new Democratic vice presidential nominee stated, “I see myself as an Irish Catholic. If we have a moral obligation to other parts of the world why don’t we have a moral obligation to Ireland? It’s part of our blood.”