Joe Biden in Ireland
Cynicism. It is often scorned and derided in what is, ironically, an act of cynicism. But cynicism is underrated. It’s an alternative path to simply giving up. A reason to stay engaged. A calice developed to protect against disappointment. But sometimes, something will happen to disappoint the cynic inside. And I’ve forgotten the name of the feeling that comes over me when my cynic is silenced.
Joe Biden is in Ireland. My home town. I’d say home-country, but it’s pretty small. He is here on a four day trip, ostensibly to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, a quietly remarkable piece of paper that has managed to keep extremists from shooting for a quarter of a century. It needs a push to stay alive and that’s one of the reasons that Air Force One touches down on Irish soil in the middle of a rain-sodden April.
The real reason Cousin Joe is here, I’ve decided, is to have a photo op with what seem to be the hundreds of thousands of cousins he’s traced here. Hard working, salt of the earth men and women that are delighted to find that they’re related to this US President and quietly relieved that they’re not related to the other mad fellah. They get their picture taken with him. Their kids, juxtaposed between tooth loss and freckle gain, get their picture taken with him. His dog, the one who bites people, is probably related to our dogs; dogs get their picture taken with him.
Ireland is a photo op. Cousin Joe is touring his way across the country posing in a million photos that we will post on our facebook and instagram accounts. Our American cousins will see the posing. And they might just vote for Cousin Joe in the next election. Cousin Joe is a politician, after all. My inner cynic has spoken.
Ireland has had a long love affair with US presidential visits. Obama came here to discover the missing apostrophe in his surname. Clinton came to play a round of golf and they built an honest-to-God statue of him playing golf. Reagan came and had a pint in Ballyporeen. Later, the entire pub was bought and transported to the Reagan Presidential Library. And then there was Kennedy. He came and we swooned. My father used to tell me that the cathedral in Dublin had two photographs framed on the wall; one of the Pope and one of JFK, two rivals for the title of Catholic-in-Chief.
Cousin Joe is going to Ballina in County Mayo, where his ancestors came from. And he’s going to give a speech in front of St. Murdoch’s Cathedral, no doubt hoping that our American cousins will see him posed with a cathedral and think that he’s a safer vote than whatever heathen he’s up against in the election.
This I can’t miss. He is due to speak at nine. I jump into my car and drive four hours across to Ballina, on the Irish west coast. My cynic wants to be there. Assess the size of the required cynical response in person.
The queue is long. Very long. The first security screening queue I join seems to be about a kilometer long. I join another one, a mere pup of a queue at four hundred meters. The woman in front of me in the queue is talking to a much, much older gentleman about the problems with ‘getting me tubes tied’. The couple behind me are convinced that every bus or fancy car that passes the queue is either the man himself or a ‘decoy’. They are clearly missing the point about Cousin Joe: his greatest political skill has always been to be his own decoy. There is an announcement – no drinks, no food, no vaping. Have your pockets emptied. A man about three people in front of me is holding a full pint of guinness. He seems worried, looks from side to side and, rather than let a good pint do to waste, quaffs it down in three unenjoyable swallows. His partner takes the glass from him and places it by the kerb. “Be sure to check your pockets for shite, now”, she says. “Get all of that shite out of your pockets.” He fumbles some nondescript materials from his pockets onto the road before they reach the head of the line.
Soon it is my turn. I reach the tent where security searches are being conducted. A man, perhaps 25 years old in body but with an age decreed by the US constitution grabs me by the shoulder and leans in to my ear. “Sir – your fly is unzipped.” He did it discreetly. He must be Secret Service.
I make my way to the banks of the River Moy and its low stone walls. Across the river is the Cathedral. The stage is prepped. There are thousands of people filing in. It is only 6pm – another three hours to go to Cousin Joe. In a blatant act of socialism, free American and Irish flags are being handed out. People are elbow wrestling to get a good spot to hear the speech. The air smells faintly of cheap hamburgers with a soupçon of greasy chips smothered in curry sauce; the scentscape of a good Irish day out.
I ramble around the quays. Ballina isn’t a Disney-Ireland town. It is a town that is a survivor. It has a character that tells you it has survived for the last three hundred years because it has chosen to. It has survived wars, famines, recessions and emigrations. But it perseveres. The river Moy tears angrily through the town on its way to the nearby Atlantic Ocean. This is the 300th anniversary of Ballina being incorporated as a town. That sounds old. But it is only 3.75 Biden units.
Music is playing. First The Academic, then the unfortunately-titled but always entertaining Coronas. The Ballina rain pours, the harsh cold wind pings the droplets hard against my skin. But everyone is in a decent mood. They know why they’re here. They know that they’re a giant photo op. But it’s not every day that the Roman Emperor comes through your town. I was in Dublin for the Obama speech back in 2011. It was very memorable, but precisely what we all expected. He talked about his Irish ancestors with a glint in his eye that said he knew it all to be hocum. But he never broke character. He said some words in Irish and we all felt better about ourselves that he had noticed us. I expect the people of Ballina know what’s coming.
The first hint that the evening may be extra-twee comes during the Corona’s last song. As they sing, the rain stops, the clouds break and a double rainbow appears, perfectly framing the set with the cathedral right in the middle. A thousand cameras are foisted upwards to honour the weather gods. “A feckin’ double rainbow,” I hear a woman beside me say to her young son. “The Yanks will lap that up.”
Soon, former Irish President Mary Robinson takes the stage. She is from Ballina. The stage is directly across the river from her childhood bedroom in what is now the Mary Robinson Centre. The crowd is feeling pretty good since the double rainbow appeared. Mary Robinson tells the crowd that she wants to read them a poem – The Emigrant Irish – by Eavan Boland. Ah Jaysus, I think to myself. Don’t read them a poem. They’ll hate it. I know this because of my own failed poetry attempts. It’s hard to win a crowd of thirty over with a poem. But a crowd of thirty-thousand?
“Like oil lamps,” she begins, “we put them out the back/of our houses, of our minds. We had lights better than, newer than and then/a time came, this time and now/we need them.”
A hush fell over the crowd. A genuine hush. There was a complete silence. People were listening to the poem and throwing the sugar at it that it deserved. My inner cynic is rattled at this revelation, that an Irish crowd will still give a steady ear to a careful poem.
It is after eight. There is still no sign of Cousin Joe. The crowd is in good spirits, however, and the burger vans are doing a roaring trade. To keep the audience in a good mood, the surviving members of the Chieftains reunite to do one last set. And they are good. Very good. I hear a group of twenty-somethings standing near me describe each tune as ‘A banger’. They’re not wrong.
The rain falls again, drenching us all for just long enough to make us wet. But the crowd doesn’t care. It has stood here for three hours, drenched, cold, windswept, and beaten into submission. As I stand around looking at thousands of Irish people clapping their hands and stomping their feet to Tuair dom do Lamh, my inner cynic has an epiphany. Leo Varadkar, our Taoiseach (Prime Minister) had promised Cousin Joe that crowds of Irish people would come out to see him. Crowds had, indeed, come. But the hours of brutal weathering had finally cracked open our 21st century carapaces and revealed the clapping, stomping come-all-ye hootenanny Irish beneath. That’s why Cousin Joe is taking so long. The Ballina weather needed a few hours to draw out our inner Paddy. A Varadkarian master plan. Now – finally – after ten – with the sun having set, with the cathedral lit up like a rare Irish summer, with the crowds more Irish than a freckled potato – on he comes – Cousin Joe – to a backdrop of white lasers filling the sky like a 1950s movie about the Resurrection. Saint Patrick may be the Patron Saint of Ireland, but here, revealed in front of us, is Cousin Joe – the Patron Saint of Being Irish. Although my inner cynic knows what’s really going on here, I enjoy the spectacle none the less. A president is a great fairground attraction, after all.
Cousin Joe takes to the podium and starts to speak. He speaks about his Ballina ancestors, the Blewitts. He talks about how they worked in the quarry that delivered the stone to build the cathedral behind him. He talks about Irish history. He talks about JFK. He talks about the role of peace in a modern world. And he reflects on how unlikely it is that he, the descendent of a family from Ballina, would be the inheritor and inhabitor of the greatest office on the planet. Cousin Joe, a local boy done well, returning to his homeland in Ballina to see if people were proud of him.
I wait for the glint. I wait for the knowing wink that says ‘I know that none of this is real and I’m only here for a photo op – but play along with me, because you’ll get a photo op too.”
…but it doesn’t come. I look around. The locals are responding in a way that I hadn’t expected. They aren’t frenzied. They aren’t winking. They are, instead, nodding back to say ‘Well done, Joe. You’ve done us proud.” Suddenly, it dawns in me: I am the only lonely cynic here.
There may be a photo op. There may be political overtones to the visit. But that’s not why Joe Biden has spent four days in Ireland. He is here because he wants to be and because we want him to be. He is is a descendent of immigrants from this place – people that had left over a hundred years ago – but that never forgot where they came from. Cousin Joe is here to tell them that it worked out. You may fall down on your luck. You may come from a place that has wars, famines, poverty. It’s not easy, but you can start again. Sometimes it might even take a few generations to get back on your feet. But don’t give up.
My inner cynic is disappointed. Cousin Joe, it turns out, may be a human behind that political curtain after all. Knowing this makes me feel … I’ve forgotten what it’s called. But it’s not cynicism.
One thought on “A Visit from Cousin Joe”
Lovely article. I think you’re right. We WERE glad he was here and he didn’t disappoint. Come back anytime Joe.
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