Public service may well be in the genes for US vice president Joe Biden, judging by his ancestor’s contribution to Famine relief in Ireland.
Mr Biden was in Co Mayo yesterday to visit his ancestral home town of Ballina where he learned public service was something very much in his blood.
Before arriving into the town, he was greeted by Ciarán Reilly of Maynooth University who informed Barack Obama’s 2008 running mate that his family played a key role in providing relief to people in the town during the Great Famine.
Mr Biden’s great-great-great-grandfather Edward Blewitt and great-great-grandfather Owen Finnegan emigrated during the Famine. Mr Reilly said the US vice president was genuinely pleased to learn of the key role his family played in Ballina at the time.
“Mayo was one of the worst hit counties in terms of the famine,” said Mr Reilly.
“The population declined by 30% and 10% of all evictions took place in Mayo.
“I spoke to him about the key role his ancestor Edward Blewitt played during the famine in Ballina. He was actually in charge of public works in the Ballina area.
“I explained to him just how crucial a job this was at the time in terms of trying to provide employment and relief.
“There would have been thousands of people seeking assistance at that time. He was genuinely very pleased to learn that one of his ancestors had such a key role.”
Mr Reilly said Mr Biden was extremely happy to learn of the role one of his ancestors played in providing assistance during the Famine, and added that Mr Biden’s reputation as an engaging personality was well founded.
“He was hugely affable, very warm and engaging and extremely generous with his time. He listened intently to what I had to say and had plenty questions for me.
“He clearly knew about his Irish ancestry, his mother visited Ballina in the 1970s I believe but he didn’t realise the extent of his family’s connection to the famine.”
Edward Blewitt later emigrated to Scranton in Pennsylvania. The town retains a close connection to Mayo to this day.
“Edward later emigrated to Scranton in Pennsylvania where a lot of Mayo people left for when they emigrated from Ireland.
“It’s unconnected to Edward Blewitt but Scranton is actually twinned with Ballina,” said Mr Reilly.
A massive security operation has been mounted for Mr Biden’s visit involving road closures across many parts of the country he will be passing through.
However, according to Mr Reilly, although tight, security around Mr Biden was understanding of his wish to mingle with the people of Ballina.
“In the morning, it started off tight but once they saw the welcome he received it was quite relaxed. He had time for everyone and there was a great crowd out to meet him.”
“It was a huge moment for me personally. The Famine is my area of expertise.
“I love telling anyone about it but when someone is particularly interested and a vice president of the United States it was huge,” he said.
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