After spending most of a day on a whirlwind countryside tour of his ancestry, President Joe Biden is turning back to diplomacy on Thursday, with an address to the Irish parliament and meetings with the country’s leaders, and Ukraine is high on the agenda.
In his first stop of the day, Biden met with President Michael D. Higgins at the president’s grand Dublin residence. The two octogenarian leaders clasped hands and laughed together as they walked the red carpet inside, where Biden signed the guest book with a writerly missive for Ireland’s poet-president: “As the Irish saying goes, your feet will bring you where your heart is. It’s an honor to return.”
Biden shoveled in dirt for a freshly-planted Irish oak, not far from the one planted by then-President Barack Obama. He also rang the Peace Bell, unveiled in 2008 to mark the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland. He clanged the bell four times, including one “for all my Irish ancestors, and a fourth one for peace.”
Then he thanked Higgins, who turns 82 next week. Biden is 80.
“I’m feeling great, and I’m learning a lot,” he said Thursday. “I know it sounds silly, but there’s many Irish-Americans, like my relatives, who’ve never come back here.”
Biden will also meet with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s prime minister, before a speech to parliament in which “he’ll be reflecting on the long, close and shared history between the United States and Ireland,” said Amanda Sloat, the National Security Council’s senior Europe director. In the meetings with leaders, Ireland’s continued support of the U.S.-led effort to help Ukraine in the war against Russia will be a focal point, particularly on humanitarian and security assistance.
Biden arrived in the Republic of Ireland after an appearance Wednesday in Northern Ireland. Crowds lined five-deep and waited for eight hours to catch a glimpse of Biden in the towns of Carlingford and Dundalk, where the Democratic president toured a castle, gazing out over the sea where his ancestors sailed, and gave an address in a local pub. Along the streets of Dundalk, photos of the president and huge welcome signs were plastered along shop fronts. Children hung out of windows to wave at the president and display the U.S. flag.
From inside a packed old pub with a sticky wooden floor, Biden acknowledged that his ancestors emigrated to the United States to escape famine, but he added, “When you’re here, you wonder why anyone would ever want to leave.”
And he jokingly delivered bad news, saying: “We’ll be back. There’s no way to keep us out.”
Biden’s mother’s family comes from County Louth, and the president was elated by the dive into his Irish heritage, which he often cites as a driving force in his public and private life.
According to the Irish Family History Centre, Biden “is among the most ‘Irish’ of all U.S. Presidents.” Ten of his 16 great-great-grandparents were from the Emerald Isle. Biden is particularly fond of quoting Irish poets, especially Seamus Heaney. Heaney’s widow was expected to attend the address at parliament Thursday.
Biden is spending three days in Ireland on his first visit back as president. He’ll also attend a gala dinner on Thursday and visit County Mayo, another ancestral area on the west coast, on Friday before returning to Washington.
Biden visited in 2016, near the end of his second term as Obama’s vice president, with a much larger contingent of his family, including all of his grandchildren. This time he was accompanied by just his sister and son. His wife, Jill, remained in Washington.
On Wednesday in Belfast, Biden marked the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The U.S.-brokered deal brought peace to a region of the United Kingdom where years of sectarian violence known as “the Troubles” left some 3,600 people dead in bombings and other attacks.
Even as the peace anniversary is being marked, political turmoil has left Northern Ireland without a functioning government, rattling the foundations of the Good Friday Agreement. In addition, a top police official was shot and injured in February, an attack that authorities have blamed on Irish Republican Army dissidents opposed to the peace process.
“The enemies of peace will not prevail,” Biden said in Belfast. “Northern Ireland will not go back, pray God.”