DUBLIN — President Joe Biden spoke proudly of his Irish roots during his first day in Ireland – so much so that a gaffe he made at an Irish pub stirred controversy across the sea in Britain.
Biden was paying tribute Wednesday to his cousin, Rob Kearney, a rugby player whose Irish squad defeated the dominant All Blacks team of New Zealand in 2016. But he instead referred to “Black and Tans,” the pejorative name given to British police recruits assigned to fight the Irish Republican Army in the 1920s.
“He was a hell of a rugby player, and he beat the hell out of the Black and Tans,” Biden said near the end of remarks at The Windsor Bar and Restaurant in Dundalk, Ireland.
The mistake spoiled a delicate balance Biden has tried to strike by soaking in his Irish ancestry but staying out of historical political grudges during his four-day swing to the United Kingdom and Ireland.
In a separate mishap during the trip – one not of his own doing – Northern Ireland police lost a document that contained sensitive information related to Biden’s security in Belfast including names of police and their posting assignments.
Biden takes jab at his less-touted English heritage
The White House later corrected the “Black and Tans” error in the official transcript of the president’s remarks.
Yet Biden made also made a clear jab at England.
After Biden touted the values instilled in him by his Irish-American mother, he said the “saving grace” of his father, whose lineage traces to England, was “a quarter of his family was Hanafees from Galway.” He added, “You know, Biden is English. I hate to tell you that. I don’t hate to – I’m joking – but it’s true.”
While 10 of Biden’s great-great grandparents from his mother’s side are Irish, his father, Joseph R. Biden Sr., has English and French ancestry.
The British tabloid The Daily Mail highlighted Biden’s comments, and pointed to past remarks he’s made about the United Kingdom, with the headline: “All the times President Joe Biden has shown disdain for his UK heritage.”
Biden to address Irish parliament
- Biden meets Irish leaders: On Thursday, Biden is set to address Ireland’s parliament, the Houses of Oireachtas, and meet with Irish President Michael Higgins and Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, or prime minister, of Ireland.
- Book signing: At Higgins’ official residence, Biden signed a guest book and gave a nod to his Irish roots. “As the Irish saying goes,” he wrote, “your feet will bring you to where your heart is … and it’s an honor to return and to come home to the home of my ancestors.”
- Peace bell: Biden will also participate in a tree planting ceremony and ringing of a peace bell at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
- Banquet dinner: The president’s evening will conclude with a banquet dinner at Dublin Castle.
- Itinerary shift: Biden spent Wednesday taking part in less formal events including the pub gathering and a tour of 12th century Carlingford Castle. He will be back on the family history tour Friday, when he travels to County Mayo, where Biden’s Blewitt ancestors lived.
How Biden’s Irish roots shape his political identity
Biden has put his Irish-American heritage on full displace since he arrived in Ireland Wednesday afternoon following a brief stop in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He traveled to County Louth, off Ireland’s eastern coast, where the Finnegan ancestors of his late mother lived before moving to the U.S. in the 1850s.
Biden is known for reciting Irish sayings, poems, humor and tales of his ancestors with regularity in an appeal, above all, to the common man.
“I don’t know why they hell my ancestors left here,” Biden said to workers at a local deli in Dundalk, Ireland. “It’s beautiful.”
As he toured Carlingford Castle, he said: “Feels like I’m coming home.”
Biden uses his Irish American identity to champion the hard-working American – the little guy fighting the odds who he believes deserves a chance even if lacking financial resources.
“Everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity,” Biden said during remarks at The Windsor Bar in Dunbalk, later adding that “hope is what beats in the hearts of all people, particularly the Irish.”
“I’ve often said the Irish are the only people in the world, in my view, who actually are nostalgic about the future.”
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @Joeygarrison.