BALLINA, Ireland (AP) — Quoting Irish poetry and soaking up the cheers of thousands, President Joe Biden on Friday pronounced Ireland not just part of his family history but part of his soul as he wrapped up a trip that gave him the kind of adoration that eludes him back in the U.S.
Roughly 27,000 people gathered at the foot of St. Muredach’s Cathedral, constructed in part with bricks made by Biden’s great-great-great grandfather. Biden drew a crowd that was more than double the size of the town’s population — some drove from hours away and waited nearly all day in the rain and cold for a chance to see him, calling out for “the Joe show” to begin.
“Over the years, stories of this place have become part of my soul,” Biden told the massive crowd, associating himself with those in the audience by speaking of “we Irish” and talking of a “part of my family lore.”
It’s no wonder he said repeatedly during his trip that he didn’t want to leave.
Back home, Biden’s approval rating is near the lowest point of his presidency. And even some fellow Democrats have suggested he shouldn’t run for reelection. On trips within the U.S. to discuss his economic and social policies, Biden often gets a smattering of admirers waving as he drives by, and friendly crowds do applaud his speeches. But the reception doesn’t compare with the welcome he got here in the old sod.
Here, he was greeted by fans at every turn. The streets of Ballina teemed with people holding Irish and U.S. flags, lining up for blocks and blocks along the narrow streets. While Biden toured a Catholic shrine earlier in the day and was briefed on his ancestors at a heritage center, musicians and dancers entertained the massive crowd for hours. A cheer burst from the crowd as his helicopter arrived overhead.
“Being here does feel, it feels like coming home,” Biden said. “It really does.”
Even though Biden hasn’t officially launched his 2024 presidential run, his speech on Friday evening had the feel of a campaign rally. Dozens of people stood behind him on risers with flags, spotlights swept across the night sky and huge video screens beamed his image over a river where throngs were watching. U2’s “Beautiful Day” played as the president ended his 20-minute speech.
“This is just a fantastic occasion for us all, for an American president to be here in Ballina,” said Howard Tracy, 52, who waited with his 13-year-old son Adam nearly all day.
It’s a dynamic that most of Biden’s predecessors also have experienced: The world abroad tends to love American presidents. Back home, not always. Not so much.
U.S. presidents’ overseas trips often offer a backdrop and substance that are difficult to replicate on home turf. Biden’s Ireland trip was heady with nostalgia, fellowship, religion and poetry — the grand sweeping hills and cozy towns fitting just such a mood.
Biden referenced many a poet on his trip, but one in particular was particularly meaningful to him on Friday — that of his great grandfather Edward Francis Blewitt, who grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, after the Blewitts arrived in the U.S.
“From the fairest land, except my own,” Biden read. “Neath sun, star, and moon, the citadel of liberty, my mother’s land, aroon.”
Ballina resident Orla Heffernan, who couldn’t get into Biden’s speech site but watched on a video screen from an overflow area on the street, exclaimed of president’s visit, “Absolutely unreal. So proud to be from Ballina. So proud of Joe Biden, so proud of the Blewitts.”
Earlier in his four-day trip, Biden met in Northern Ireland with leaders marking the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday agreement that ended sectarian violence. In Ireland, he addressed the Irish parliament, watched Gaelic sports with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, and saw the widow of his favorite poet, Seamus Heaney. He also coincidentally met the priest who gave last rites to his late son, Beau. And he was loaded down with gifts, including a signed poetry book and a brick from his ancestral home.
“He can feel the love in a way that’s hard to do at home,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said. “There’s something about an American president being in your country that makes a nation’s press and public go gaga.”
“With the exception of the pope, the American president is usually the most coveted global figure,” Brinkley said.
Indeed, during Biden’s visit to Warsaw, Poland, in February, thousands of people gathered at the foot of the Royal Castle to hear the president deliver a speech on the eve of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
With the castle lit in the colors of the Ukrainian flag behind him, Biden declared to a rapt audience, “Democracies of the world will stand guard over freedom today, tomorrow and forever.” As he exited the stage, he paused one more time to take in the scene, and a man in the audience bellowed out: “You’re our hero!”
When Biden spoke to the Canadian parliament in March, the chamber broke into applause 34 times. In a country in which English and French are spoken, Biden produced a thunderous round of clapping by simply opening his speech with “Bonjour, Canada.”
Even in Ireland, though, the acclaim was not universal. The small left-wing party People Before Profit said it would boycott Biden’s speech to parliament because of opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.
People Before Profit lawmaker Paul Murphy said the president’s trip was being “treated as a visit by an interesting Irish-American celebrity, as opposed to a visit of the most powerful person in the world who needs to be asked hard questions about the kinds of policies that he is pursuing.”
Biden is far from the only U.S. president to find appreciation abroad that seems more elusive at home.
Bill Clinton found refuge overseas from the investigations pressing in on him at home. In his last year in office, George W. Bush was about as well liked at home as Richard Nixon right before he resigned in scandal, according to the Pew Research Center, but he remained popular in Africa, where he boosted foreign aid and battled the AIDS epidemic.
The Irish response to Biden, though, was overwhelmingly positive for “Cousin Joe,” as many have called him. On his first day, he toured County Louth, pausing at Carlingford Castle, which could well have been the last Irish landmark that Owen Finnegan, his maternal great-great-grandfather, saw before sailing for New York in 1849. As the U.S. president gazed at the sea, thousands cheered to him from the streets below, mixing with the sound of bagpipes that wafted from the green hills.
“I don’t know why the hell my ancestors left here,” Biden said. “It’s beautiful.”
Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani, Chris Megerian, Josh Boak and Zeke Miller in Washington, and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.