Just how Irish is Joe Biden’s hometown in Pennsylvania?

America Letter: 12,000 people will take part in Scranton’s St Patrick’s parade this weekend

In his first State of the Union address as president to the Houses of Congress in Washington at the beginning of March, Joe Biden once again referred to leaving his home town of Scranton in Pennsylvania as a young boy when his father moved to Delaware to find work.

He was making the point that when he was growing up, his family was not privileged or wealthy. And if the price of food increased, it was something that was noticed – an important issue aimed at resonating in the United States of today, where inflation is running at close to 8 per cent and a gallon of fuel now costs more than $4 (€3.60).

Biden speaks regularly about both Scranton and his Irish Catholic family background – every couple of hours, one person who knows him joked to The Irish Times.

Scranton is a city in northeast Pennsylvania that was famous for coal which has now largely been exhausted. It is also the place where the first trams successfully and continuously operated by electricity ran in the US.


But how Irish is – or was – Scranton?

Well quite a lot, actually.

A recent visit to the city took us past Fitzpatrick Field at the university, Flynn Street and McCarthy’s florists, for example. Many of the names on the monuments in the city would be familiar in any Irish town.

This weekend the St Patrick’s parade will take place in Scranton. It will feature an estimated 12,000 participants, including multiple bagpipe, high school and string bands. The event is billed by organisers as the second largest St Patrick’s parade in America.

Former long-time Scranton mayor Jimmy Connors – who is 75 and a contemporary of Biden – told The Irish Times on a recent visit that the city was "very Irish".

He estimated that about 75 per cent of people in Scranton and the surrounding areas in northeastern Pennsylvania have Irish roots.

However, the city is also home to many of Italian and Polish heritage, descendants of those who came to work in the mines and in associated iron and other industries that grew up nearby and on the railways.

Connors says the city played a key role in the development of railways across the country, not just because it was a railway hub itself but it also developed a way to manufacture particular types of rails locally which avoided the need for them to be imported.

His grandfather and grandmother came to the Scranton area from Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, where they met and later married. He said that just as in the case of Biden's family in Scranton, when they had settled other relatives would come and join them in their house. That was how the population expanded.

“As you would get a leg up, somebody would get married or somebody would leave. That is what happened. We all pitched in. That is what the Irish did.”

Connors says that initially the main players in running the city were Welsh who had come to the area to manage operations at the anthracite coal mines. He says the Irish eventually began taking over the city by running for political office at some stage in the 1950s. After that it was not uncommon for those of Irish background to be elected as mayor.

Dr Gretchen J Van Dyke of the department of political science at the University of Scranton says the city was traditionally controlled by the Democrats with some exceptions. Connors was originally a Republican but later switched to the Democratic party.

Van Dyke describes the city as being conservative Democrat, steeped in traditional Catholic family values.

This chimes exactly with Biden’s own commentary on the Scranton of his youth in his 2007 autobiography, which focuses on its Catholicism. The memoir, Promises to Keep, speaks of his weekend journeys back from Delaware to Scranton to his mother’s people, the Finnegans.

Biden writes of going to the local shops for sweets on a Saturday with his friends and passing by an insurance agency which had a crucifix in the window. Nobody thought for a second it was out of place in a business, he says, as most of the kids in the neighbourhood were Catholic.

Priests and nuns who they encountered on their travels were always treated with respect, with doors held open and caps tipped.

Probably just like any Irish town at the time, just over 5,000km away.