Sometimes, the old enemy can be a country’s best friend, if inadvertently. Loath though any united Irelander bred in the broth of anglophobia may be to admit this, but them-next-door were only stating the obvious when they highlighted US president Joe Biden’s paddywhackery homecoming to the old sod.
For four days, Ireland wallowed in a love-in with a thoroughly likable man, unconstrained by any acknowledgment that the planet’s most powerful politician had travelled not only 5,500km from Washington DC but about half-a-century back in time too.
It is an uncomfortable truth, indeed, but the Brits were right. Joey’s misty-eyed version of Ireland is anchored in its monocultural Dark Age when all its songs were sad, its wars were merry and Brit-bashing was a favourite fireside sport. As he once said: “Irish-Americans think they’re more Irish than the Irish, and that’s kind of how I was raised.” The Scranton native’s sincerity about his Irishness is undoubted but it perpetuates a mythical Ireland that prevails in the US of God-fearing, drunken, fightin’ inhabitants who, in fact, have long since left that country behind.
On one of the rare occasions when Biden publicly questioned his Irishness, it was on the basis that he is a teetotaller with no relatives in jail. Another time, he announced: “I may be Irish but I’m not stupid.” When English people proclaim, as some have, “Ireland, you’re welcome to him”, it’s a valid view.
Peter Brookes perfectly captured Irish-America’s mythmaking about the Emerald Isle in his London Times caricature of three dancing Bidens dressed as leprechauns swinging pints of stout. Inevitably, that cartoon triggered high dudgeon in Ireland. The truth hurts. It hurts especially when you have convinced yourself that the arrival of your very important guest is tantamount to the second coming of John F Kennedy, which took place when Biden’s Ireland was still the real Ireland.
There is no greater comfort than in the turning of a blind eye. Why spoil a presidential jolly by pointing out that your esteemed visitor has strayed into the wrong country? Being Olympian diplomats, we Irish chose tactful silence. The code was “don’t mention the war”, whether cultural wars or American wars, and just surrender to the heart-warming nostalgia of it all. What a lovely man, went the chorus in a voice quavering with the frightful memory of his Oval Office predecessor. Any country would be proud to claim him as one of their own.
Clearly, the British would like to make him theirs but five-eighths-Irish Joey is not so keen. He has recounted how his mother slept on a hotel floor after being told that the British queen had previously stayed in the same room and how his Aunt Gertie told him: “Your father is not a bad man. He’s just English.” If an Irish politician were to broadcast such fond family anecdotes, Whitehall would summon the Irish Ambassador and the DUP would demand an immediate boycott of Dublin Bay prawns. Before Biden made his foreshortened appearance in Northern Ireland for the Belfast Agreement’s 25th anniversary, the DUP’s former leader, Arlene Foster, who has an indelicate way with words, declared that the US president “hates” the UK.
It was an ill-timed and ugly intervention, but its truth is hard to deny. The president, whose ancestors fled Ireland during Famine times, seldom resists an opportunity to spurn his British DNA. On the US election campaign three years ago, a reporter called out to him: “Mr Biden, a quick word for the BBC?” The candidate responded: “BBC? I’m Irish.” As non-sequiters go, it was a clanger.
After Foster’s accusation, Biden might have been expected to demonstrate some of the dignity he kept espousing during his Irish trip. He might even have taken Oscar Wilde’s advice to “always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much”. Instead, in his Leinster House address, the US president implicitly scolded the British government for not doing enough to help its Irish counterpart maintain peace on this island. The remark was unhelpful.
In an ongoing peace process that has been painstakingly built by participants swallowing their prejudices, one-upmanship is detrimental. While it is true that Brexit and the galumphing premierships of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss wilted Anglo-Irish relations like lettuce in yesterday’s salad, it would have been constructive had Biden acknowledged that the relationship has perked up somewhat since Rishi Sunak unpacked his bags in Number 10. That would have assured London that the powers that be in Dublin were not badmouthing them to the superpower’s president behind their backs.
The orgy of mutual admiration that unfolded as Biden reiterated, in his single transferable speech, the values that he claimed bind him to Ireland was utterly seductive. What a nice fuzzy feeling to watch this kindly grandfather eulogise truth, respect and dignity; to hear the stories of his forebears recounted as parables; to witness the emotion of a man unexpectedly encountering the priest who had anointed his deceased son on the other side of the ocean; to understand that the joy in his face was genuine as he preached goodness outside the cathedral in Ballina. At times, it felt more like a papal visit than a presidential one.
What made it extra special was the likelihood that this was the last hurrah for the greening of the White House. That realisation added greater impetus to the céad míle fáilte. Ireland’s access to the epicentre of global political power is what turns London green with envy, and now more so than ever. Having amputated their own arm of fraternity with their European partners, it must have been galling for many Britons to watch the American president come dance in Ireland. Their reaction did not spring from base jealousy of a neighbour but from the indignation of Brexiteers who had wrongly presumed they would get a quick trade agreement with Uncle Sam, regardless of what their little neighbour thought.
None of this makes them wrong when they question Biden’s brand of Irishness; only hypocritical. While Joey’s big hug in the Emerald Isle infuriated Britannia, the media there turned a blind eye to the queue of its own people who have borrowed from the same heritage to obtain Irish passports in order to hasten their post-Brexit passage through airports in Nice and Alicante.
In the new multicultural, outward-looking, self-confident Ireland, Irishness is whatever you’re having yourself. Sure, isn’t it what we bottle and sell?