A million people died and a million people emigrated during the Great Famine – so every Irish child learns in their history books at school.
With few exceptions, those who died and those who were forced to emigrate have been forgotten about, unless their descendants happen to become the president of the United States. Joe Biden is the second Irish president to be directly descended from Famine emigrants – the first being John F Kennedy.
The story began in 1848, when Patrick Blewitt, the great-great-grandfather of Biden, crossed the Atlantic as a 20-year-old cabin boy. Two years later, he returned to Ireland and persuaded his father, Edward, his mother and all of his seven siblings to take a perilous sea crossing on board the SS Excelsior in June 1851 to the new world.
Edward Blewitt was not typically Famine Irish. He had a degree in engineering, he was a surveyor, he worked as a general overseer in Ballina workhouse from 1848 to 1850. In 1837 he is listed as living in Garden Street in a stone cottage with a garden while his neighbours lived in hovel. The remains of a bricked-up fireplace has been authenticated as belonging to the Blewitt household. It is now planted with spring flowers and decked with American and Irish flags on both sides.
When Edward Blewitt’s great-great-great-grandson speaks in front of St Muredach’s Cathedral on April 14th, he will do so in front of a building that was partially built by his ancestor. The cathedral’s own register shows Edward Blewitt supplied 27,000 bricks for the pillars which support the nave of the church and was paid £20.12 for his services in 1828.
He was well off by the standards of his peers but was financially ruined by the Famine and despaired of the State of Ireland and of Ballina.
“In some places the graves are so shallow that portions of the coffins are visible above ground,” one visitor noted of the town during the Famine. The population of Co Mayo fell by almost a third in the years between 1841 and 1851, and kept falling until the end of the 20th century.
It took a huge leap of faith to uproot his whole family and everything he knew to take his chances in the US.
Edward Blewitt settled in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which is also Biden’s hometown. On the outskirts of Ballina is a sign that was erected in 1990 to mark the twinning of Ballina and Scranton. The twinning long predates Biden’s rise to prominence as a national politician in the US.
“Eighty per cent of Irish emigrants to Scranton are from Co Mayo and they worked in the coal mines and on the railways,” said the Cathaoirleach of Ballina Municipal District, Cllr Mark Duffy. The town was in its infancy when Edward Blewitt arrived and he helped lay out its streets.
Even now Scranton remains one of the most Irish American cities in the US. A quarter of the population claim Irish ancestry and much of their heritage is rooted in Co Mayo. The father of Land League founder Michael Davitt is buried in Scranton and one of Ballina’s most famous natives, Fr Patrick Peyton (the Rosary Priest), emigrated there in 1929.
Patrick Blewitt’s grandson, also called Edward, went on to work as a city engineer for Scranton. He is Biden’s maternal great-grandfather. He was elected to the Pennsylvania Senate in 1907 and founded the Friendly Sons of St Patrick in Scranton in 1908. His daughter, Catherine Blewitt, was Biden’s grandmother.
The other half of the Biden Irish ancestry comes from Co Louth. In 1909, Catherine Blewitt married Ambrose Finnegan (sometimes spelt Finegan). Ambrose Finnegan was the grandson of Owen Finnegan who left Ireland for America in 1849. A year later his wife Mary and their children, including the couple’s seven-year-old son James, Biden’s great-grandfather, left for America from Co Louth.
We associate Famine emigration with the west of Ireland but no place was left untouched and Louth’s Cooley peninsula and south Down was particularly badly affected.
Owen Finnegan sailed from the port of Newry on May 31st, 1849. The rest of his family left on the day after St Patrick’s Day in 1850 on the Marchioness of Bute and arrived in New York on May 15th of that year.
As luck would have it, a historian, Dr John McCavitt, had researched the names of 5,000 passengers who left the port of Newry during Famine times for North America. He was easily able to find the entries for Owen Finnegan and his family.
From the Flagstaff vantage point outside Newry, you can see where the Finnegan’s took their last journey, taking a ferry across the Narrow Water estuary and most likely a pony and trap to Warrenpoint Port. From there they sailed through the newly built Newry canal into the Irish Sea. As they did they passed the Cooley peninsula, one of the most beautiful vistas in Ireland. The Finnegans found, as did so many Irish families during the Famine, that you cannot eat scenery.
“Many people regard it as one of the most beautiful places in the world,” said Dr McCavitt, speaking in Kilwirra cemetery where Biden’s Irish relatives are buried. It is a stunning place, an old graveyard with a ruined stone church in the centre and with the Cooley mountains in the distance.
“President Biden was here in 2016 [as vice-president] and cottoned on straight away. He called it heaven. I just met a Ukrainian girl there and she said, ‘This is paradise’.”
The engraving on the Finnegan headstone that then vice-president Biden visited in 2016 is barely visible now, but one name stands out – “Catherine Finegan [sic]”.
Catherine Finegan is also the name of Joe Biden’s mother.