What’s an Irish Catholic President Anyway?

by Casey Donahue| November 2020

Ballina, Co Mayo, Ireland, celebrates Joe Biden’s victory 7 November 2020 — Joe Blewitt (left), a cousin of Joe Biden, with (from left) his wife Deirdre, daughter Lauren (7), Emer Bourke, his aunt Breege Bourke and his father Brendan Blewitt. (Flicker; Diego Sideburns)

The President-Elect’s secret service codename is “Celtic.” In his election victory speech, he quoted from the Catholic hymn “On Eagle’s Wings,” perking the ears of CCD and parochial school graduates across the country. By the time he made that speech, the Blewitts — his third cousins in Ireland — had already toasted his victory beneath a pop-art mural of the American president-to-be in Ballina, County Mayo. And earlier that day, BBC resurfaced a clip of the former vice president cheekily rebuffing a scrum reporter (“BBC? I’m Irish!”). The interaction spawned a torrent of outrageous content on the social media subgenres known as Irish Twitter and IRA TikTok. For all the uncertainties that await us in 2021, we can be certain of this: Joe Biden is set to be our second Irish Catholic president and he doesn’t mind you knowing.

So what exactly does that mean? For something that’s only happened twice in our history, the election of a man like Biden feels unremarkable. Gone are the days when John F. Kennedy had to prove his loyalty to Washington, not Rome. The hate-speech of America’s early nativists still exists in form, but has shifted from “anti-popery” to the abuse of new targets, like Muslim and Hispanic immigrants, socialists, and BLM protestors. The non-newsworthiness of an Irish Catholic president also reflects this generation’s style of racial self-reflection — one in which White Americans are encouraged to grapple more with the broad sweeping privileges of their race than with the past or perceived struggles of their ethnic hyphens.

And yet the archetype of the Irish Catholic Democratic politician — from Tammany to Tip O’Neill to Martin O’Malley — remains a peculiarly enduring one. As a candidate, Biden wielded this identity in subtle but deliberate ways, often in juxtaposition to the nationalist bravado of Donald Trump. As president, Biden will be the most powerful member of one of the largest and most heritage-conscious groups in the United States. He can use that soft power to rejuvenate diplomatic partnerships with Ireland, publicly link his faith to anti-poverty and asylum initiatives, and recalibrate the way that Irish Americans understand their ancestry in a time of racial reckoning.

I: The Irish Catholic Candidate

Candidate Biden’s background was mostly a human-interest side story. And rightly so. The Irish American — especially the White Irish American man — is among the most represented ethnic experiences in popular culture. Most depictions fall into a handful of nostalgic clichés, peddled by commercialized pubs, period pieces, slightly simian mascots, or the Boston cinematic canon. All tropes considered though, few other groups enjoy the depth of appreciation that American society shows for the Catholic Irishman’s role in the national story.

On the campaign trail, Biden’s heritage was ever-present but never main stage. This was an appropriate (and likely calculated) move. After all, there is no cohesive Irish Catholic vote. Irish America’s relationship with the Democratic Party is historic and intimate; but it is primarily a relic of the mid-19th century, when local party machines served (or pretended to serve) as bulwarks against nativism and advancement avenues for a White subset precariously positioned in an industrial Anglo-American society. By the end of World War I, that relationship had frayed considerably. Irish America had achieved such socioeconomic diversity that the only political issues that could unite it were vague and sentimental iterations of Irish nationalism.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports over 32 million self-identifying Irish Americans. That number does not specify the extent to which ancestry influences those citizens’ lifestyles, outlooks, or leanings. In such a polarizing presidential election, it would be a stretch to assume that many people voted for the “greener” candidate.

Biden’s heritage, however, was not useless. It didn’t define his political persona, but it did provide texture. He pitched himself to voters as the “scrappy kid from Scranton,” the spiritual healer, the family man, the chatterbox, the old-timer who rides in a bus with the word Malarkey on it. To some, this was dog whistle Irishness. Biden built his brand on a foundation of unshakeable faith, working-to-middle class sensibilities, and Catholic communalism — traits that are tattooed on the American memory of post-Famine Irish immigrants, many of whom arrived as imperfectly Anglicized English speakers, non-Protestant Christians, and homesick skeptics of American capitalism’s excesses.

All that ethnic subtext bubbled into text during a series of virtual campaign rallies organized by a group called Irish Americans for Biden. At a lighthearted event in August, Irish-stock celebrities and politicians waxed hopeful about how Biden’s ancestry endowed him with traits that Donald Trump lacked or rejected. Biden’s Irishness gave him “an immigrant heart” and a touch of blue-collar earthiness. It gave him soul. The event was a deliberate effort by Biden campaigners to leverage his Irishness as a foil to Donald Trump’s ultra-White nativist shtick.

One of the most bizarre aspects of this election was that it allowed an old White man to posture himself as the ethnic underdog — and by extension, a representative of America’s marginalized millions. In the first presidential debate, Biden accused proverbial Trumpers of “looking down their nose on…Irish Catholics like me who grew up in Scranton.” The passing comment, like so many of Biden’s autobiographical details, felt out of place in the modern era. But it was also an inarguably genuine appeal for humanity toward those who differ from us. Trump’s brash xenophobia, his ultra-capitalist ethos, his winking acceptance of anti-Semitic conspiracies, and his coziness with White nationalists set the clock back on America’s racial dialogue. The bar of political empathy was so low that being the great-grandson of an Irishman was enough firsthand experience for Biden to clear it.

Biden was wise not to make that same remark during the Democratic primaries. It would have been tone deaf at best. In a diverse field of candidates — several of whom battled racism, misogyny, or homophobia their whole lives — an invocation of past Irish hardships would have been a cheap attempt to appropriate a marginalized voice. In the end, it was Biden’s future running mate who most effectively recounted her experience with bigotry, and she did so while haranguing Biden for his erstwhile opposition to school desegregation via busing. Senator Harris’s “That Little Girl Was Me” speech went viral because it highlighted the dangers of trusting a man who repeatedly claimed to look out for “the little guy,” but realized far too late in life how many Americans of color fell outside his gaze.

With the election said and done, Harris’s takedown of Biden serves as a reminder that Irish America is a product and offshoot of American Whiteness. Biden’s ancestors were perfectly susceptible to the systematic racial bribery that elevated Irish Catholics into an expanded White ascendancy. In fact, 19th century Democrats — the leaders who fostered the Irish politician archetype — were instrumental in defending Irish immigrant interests at the expense of freed Black Americans. Biden’s shaky criminal justice record — which he has regretted — is no more surprising because he identifies with a once-marginalized group.

What is remarkable is that in 2020 — a year marked by reckonings on race, not intra-White ethnicities — Irishness came off the bench to combat bigotry. Trump’s virulent rhetoric gave Biden an unexpected opening to channel visions of inclusivity through his ancestors, wisdom through the nuns who schooled him, and hope through the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. American storytellers love an underdog. An Irish Catholic is always the hero when pitted against a privileged-class Know Nothing. And like both of 2020’s septuagenarian presidential candidates, that matchup smacks of what was once considered a bygone time.

II: The Irish Catholic President

Joe Biden campaigned in Irish poetry, but he will govern in American prose. As he steers the nation into a post-Trump era, his identity will not overtly influence his policy. It will, however, give him soft power that could affect change in the fields of diplomacy and domestic racial reconciliation.

Biden and Dublin

The incoming administration bodes well for US-Ireland relations. It will have a vested interest in protecting the institutions of cross-border cooperation between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. With the Brexit transition period set to end in December, Biden has prioritized the protection of the US-brokered Good Friday Agreement, which largely ended The Troubles in Northern Ireland and established a soft border between the Republic and the six northern counties in 1998. As president-elect, Biden voiced immediate opposition to English Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s legislative attempt to rewrite the terms of Brexit and establish a physical customs border in Ireland. “Any trade deal between the US and UK,” warned Biden on Twitter, “must be contingent upon respect for the [Good Friday] Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.” By promising a rocky start to a four-year relationship, Biden crucially contributed to the international pressure that forced Johnson to walk back his hardline threat on December 8th.

It is important to note that other leading Democrats warned England against violating international law and creating a hard Irish border. Democrats as a whole are more interested than Trump in EU partnerships. For that matter, virtually all Democrats support the creation of citizenship pathways for undocumented immigrants — including some 15–20,000 undocumented Irish.

Ireland, however, is a unique diplomatic case. It is a nation of under 5 million people that enjoys exclusive annual access to the US president’s ear during the White House St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast. Cultural affinity is the backdrop of this relationship. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveny has already started the friendly messaging. Coveny described Biden’s election as a “momentous” event for the “Irish-American community” and eagerly awaits the first presidential visit. In Brexit’s aftermath, Ireland is the only EU nation with a UK border. This reality, combined with its longstanding cultural ties to the United States, could make Dublin a crucial liaison in future US-UK-EU negotiations. As Dublin seeks to raise its profile in European politics, it stands to gain from a president who once wrote that Ireland would be “written on his soul” when he died.

Biden and Rome

Biden’s Catholic identity will pay slightly murkier dividends. The White House will enjoy smoother relations with the Vatican; Biden was on the phone with Pope Francis a mere five days after his victory. Then again, it’s hard to imagine a Democrat who would not fare better than Trump with a pontiff whose key issues are migrant care and climate change.

At home, Biden’s devout faith does not guarantee more support from the American Catholic Church. It was a telling sign of the times that during Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment process, Biden’s party was the one facing Republican accusations of anti-Catholic prejudice. US clerics are divided on whether Biden’s liberalism makes him a good Catholic or — as Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence oddly suggested — a Catholic at all. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the country’s preeminent cleric, praised Trump’s leadership and sensitivity to the “feelings of the religious community” in the lead-up to the election. Dolan’s reservations about Trump’s “anti-immigrant rhetoric” did not stop him from giving the opening prayer at the Republican National Convention in August.

America’s 51 million laypeople are divided down party lines. Republicans make up 46% of registered Catholic voters; Democrats comprise 47%. Trump and Biden appear to have split the Catholic vote down the middle. While a slight majority of American Catholics believe that abortion should be legal, that number decreases to a third when we factor out those who attend mass less than weekly. The pro-choice Biden will receive adulation from Catholics who favor his stances on humanitarian and environmental issues, and heat from those who prioritize pro-life and “traditional family” values. True to America’s entrenched divisions, a Catholic in the Oval Office might make certain voices louder but it won’t change many hearts or minds.

Biden at Home

On a signal level, Joe Biden has a chance to encourage an enormous section of White Americans to scrutinize their heritage and link it to modern causes. Most Irish Americans acknowledge the hardships of their ancestors. Concepts of colonization, exile, and refugee flight are central to a collective (and often commercialized) memory. The question is what to do with that past tense sense of oppression. Does ethnic consciousness yield compassion for those suffering similar horrors in the present? Or does it justify callousness — the type that blames others for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, or downplays modern injustices with alt-right memes about Irish slavery?

Biden is sure to reference his Irish Catholic roots when making sense of his immigration reforms. JFK’s iconic book, A Nation of Immigrants, is a ready-made template for linking Irish ancestry to immigrant struggles. Biden himself will have no problem linking Catholic religiosity to mercy and refuge. He is also interested in anti-poverty initiatives and employed explicit Christian metaphors in a September meeting with the Poor People’s Campaign.

We don’t know how Biden will preside over the national dialogue on anti-Black racism. As during the primaries, he should refrain from bringing up Irish roots, unless he feels like tiptoeing through a historical minefield of Irish-on-Black racial atrocities. The brazen White supremacy of the Unite The Right Rally in 2017 gave Biden’s candidacy a raison d’être; the Biden-Harris racial equity platform is extensive. Even so, the administration is on track to disappoint progressives by pursuing ineffectual law enforcement reforms and over-prioritizing reengagement with prodigal Republicans.

In a general sense, however, Biden will link his faith and ethnicity to causes of inclusivity and compassion. He will embolden the kind of social justice Catholicism prominent on Jesuit campuses and he is seriously interested in the better angels of Irish Americanism. Biden will be a White president and an Irish Catholic one. Like so many of us, he has multiple distinct but non-exclusive ways of understanding his role in the world. Irish Americans do not need to agree with all his actions to be inspired by his efforts to derive moral clarity from his family’s heritage.

These may seem like abstract musings or over-analyses of political window-dressing during an otherwise high-stakes presidential transition. But questions over Catholic Irish America’s past, future, and meaning still puzzle academics and writers. They inspire charitable NGOs, and they haunt dinner tables across the nation. If the past four years have taught us anything, it is that culture, identity, and signals can change souls and drive action.

Casey Donahue is a dual degree Masters candidate in History and Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He was a Fulbright Teaching Fellow in Turkey and has worked as a classroom educator, elementary school tutor, and political risk analyst. Casey specializes in ethnopolitical movements in Irish America and the Greater Middle East. He speaks Arabic and Turkish.

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