When the Vice President announced he was heading to the Emerald Isle to walk in the footsteps of some of his Irish ancestors, we put a call out for questions relating to his family history, noting he would be responding to several of them during the trip. His answers are noted below in italic.
Joe Biden’s family left during the Great Famine. Does he have any stories about their life during that horrific time in Ireland?
Well, I’ve tracked my family’s genealogy for many years, but on this particular trip, I’ve learned something new. My great-great-great grandfather, Edward Blewitt, who hailed from Garden Street in Ballina, in County Mayo — the county most affected by the Famine — was said to have helped a lot of people during the Famine.
He was trained as a surveyor, and later worked as a supervisor at the Ballina union workhouse to care for victims of the Famine. He gave jobs to hundreds of people, and likely helped save many lives during that devastating moment in Ireland’s history. This is in particular has been something incredible for me to learn even since being here. It’s made me proud, and humbled, to walk the streets my ancestors walked.
Why does Biden have such a strong connection to Scranton, even though he was raised in Delaware?
My roots run deep in Lackawanna County and in Scranton. It’s where my great-great-grandfather Patrick Blewitt ultimately settled from County Mayo in 1851. On the other side of the family, my great-great-grandfather Owen Finnegan immigrated to Seneca County, New York, from Ireland’s County Louth in 1849. But his son, my great-grandfather James, ultimately moved to settle in Scranton.
Scranton is where my grandfather Ambrose Finnegan met and in 1909 married my grandmother Geraldine Blewitt. It’s where my mother, Catherine Eugenia Finnegan, was born, and where she met and in 1941 married my father, Joseph Biden, Sr.
I lived in Scranton until I was in the fourth grade, but for the next 10-12 years, I spent most of my summers and holidays with the Finnegan family back in Scranton. And I keep in contact to this day with friends I made in Scranton, as well as family members still living there.
My mother would go on to live in Delaware more than 50 years, but when you asked Jean Finnegan where she was from, she’d say “Scranton.” That was where the nuns at St. Paul’s taught me to read and write. Taught me the concepts of decency, fair play, and virtue. Scranton also happens to be the sister city to Ballina, in County Mayo.
So I’m a proud Delawarean—and it was my great honor to spend the better part of my adult life representing that state—but I am a son of Scranton.
What were some of the occupations of his ancestors?
As I mentioned earlier, my great-great-great grandfather Edward Blewett was a surveyor and a supervisor at the union workhouse. His son, my great-great grandfather, Patrick Blewitt, was said to be a sailor. And HIS grandson, my great grandfather Edward Blewitt was an engineer with his grandfather’s mind — and a poet’s heart. He wrote some beautiful verses about Lackawanna County and his love for his Irish heritage. Edward Blewitt was also said to have been one of the first Irish-Catholic State Senators from Pennsylvania.
On the other Irish side of the family, my great-great grandfather Owen Finnegan, sailed over on the Brothers in 1844. On the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth, the Finnegans made their living from the land and the sea. And later, in the United States, Owen became a shoemaker. His son, my great-grandfather James Finnegan was referenced as a blind fiddler. And my grandfather Ambrose Finnegan was a graduate of Santa Clara University who worked in the newspaper business.
Incidentally, President Obama’s great-great grandfather, Joseph Kearny, was also a shoemaker. He sailed over from Moneygall abroad the Caroline Reade in May of 1844, arriving in America just five weeks before my great-great grandfather Owen. Now, it’s almost certain they didn’t know one another. But could those two shoemakers from Ireland ever have imagined that, 160 years later, their two great-great-grandsons would be President and Vice President of the United States of America? This is a remarkable nation.
Biden is not an Irish name, where does that name come from?
Biden is an English name. But one of my great-grandmothers on my father’s side was a Hanafee, whose parents emigrated from County Galway—making me 5/8ths Irish in all.
Do you still have close relatives living in Ireland? And have you connected with them?
None of my family lived in Ireland beyond mid to late 1800s—but I do have relatives in Ireland. In fact, the Biden family grew a bit bigger this week. Over the course of these past few days, my children, grandchildren and I have had the incredible opportunity to meet more than a dozen members of the Blewitt family — our distant cousins from Ireland’s County Mayo — for the very first time. They were some of the most genuine, lovely people you could meet. We sat down together for lunch, and it was as if we’d been eating Sunday dinner with one another for the past 25 years.
In County Louth, I had lunch with 25 relatives from the Finnegan side of the family, including descendants of my great-great-great grandmother Kearney. And I capped off the day at Lily Finnegan’s—a pub that was once owned by my relatives and still bears the family name. I also greeted hundreds of people on the streets throughout the county, and although most of them weren’t related to me—it still felt like one big family.
We would like to thank the Vice President for sharing this family history journey with us, and we hope you have enjoyed reading about, and seeing, his experiences in Ireland – the people he met, the sites he visited, the impact it had on him.
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