The journey of Joe Biden’s Irish ancestors – from County Mayo to Scranton
Ernie Caffrey waits for a gift for President Joe Biden when he returns to his ancestral hometown of Ballina, Co. Mayo visits: a brick of the house where the Blewitts lived before they left famine-stricken Ireland for the US.
Caffrey’s art gallery occupies the Garden Street site where Edward Blewitt lived with his wife and eight children – in what is now known as Biden’s childhood home.
What remains is part of a wall and an old hearth in the backyard of the gallery.
“I was up a ladder and down the other side to get these bricks out,” he told DailyMail.com. “It took me hours.”
But it’s a physical connection between a US president and the land of his ancestors, Caffrey said.
Ernie Caffrey wants to gift President Joe Biden with a brick from the wall of his Blewitt ancestral home in Ballina, County Mayo, when the president visits late this week
Biden’s maternal line emigrated from Ireland during the Great Famine. The Blewitts left Co. Mayo and settled in Scranton, PA, while the Finnegans Co. left Louth and came to New York
The story of how Biden and his Irish ancestors got a better life in America is the story of generations of Irish people who left the island during the years of great famine, often sailing from Liverpool to New York.
Two branches of Biden’s mother’s family — the Finnegans of eastern County Louth and the Blewitts of western County Mayo — made a similar journey at the same time.
In all, 10 of his 16 great-great-grandparents were from the Emerald Isle, making him “one of the most Irish” US presidents, according to the Irish Family History Center.
Ballina was one of the places hardest hit by the potato famine that killed a generation of Irish people. An estimated one million people died.
When the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle visited the town in 1849, he wrote that the population had gone ‘to the workhouse, to England, to the grave’.
Edward Blewitt, a prosperous engineer and businessman, threw himself into the US. His son, Patrick, Biden’s great-great-grandfather, first traveled as a 20-year-old cabin boy to explore prospects.
When he returned two years later, they were ready to hit the road in style.
While most families went one at a time, cutting back and saving to pay for the trip, Blewitt was able to afford to take the whole family on the SS Excelsior in 1851, his fortune bolstered by the sale of 27,000 bricks to the local cathedral.
After the crossing, the family first settled in Carbondale, Pennsylvania.
But within a decade they were living in Scranton, where Edward Blewitt helped lay out the streets.
Biden will arrive in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Tuesday evening for a four-day visit. He will spend time in Co. Louth and on Friday he ends his speech with a public speech in Ballina
Caffrey stands by the hearth of the old Blewitt house in Ballina Co. mayo. He decorated it for the occasion with red, white and blue spring flowers and American flags
Ballina is gearing up to welcome President Biden on his four-day trip to Ireland on Friday
Joe Blewitt is a third cousin of Joe Biden and has visited the White House for St. Patrick’s Day. Excitement mounts in Ballina, a town of 10,000 in Co. mayo
It was a well-known destination for people from Mayo at the time. And in 1990, Ballina became twinned with the city, a move that predated the discovery of Biden’s ties.
If the west of Ireland was the hardest hit area of the famine then the Cooley Peninsula was one of the hardest hit parts of the east. It is here that the dilapidated remains of the Finnegan house still stand. The name appears on tombstones in the nearby Kilwirra cemetery.
Biden visited the graveyard on a visit in 2016. It stands close to the shoreline that would have been the Finnegans’ last view of Ireland, as left on the “famine ships,” and at its center is a ruined church where they were once believed to have adored.
Owen Finnegan, Biden’s great-great-grandfather, left Ireland in 1849, sailing with the Brothers from the nearby port of Newry. His occupation was listed as a locksmith, although other records say he was a shoemaker.
The rest of the family, including nine-year-old James — the great-grandfather of the president — followed the Marchioness of Bute a year late.
The grave of Thomas Finnegan, an ancestor of President Joe Biden, can be seen in Kilwirra Cemetery near Whitestown, Co. Louth. Biden’s great-great-grandfather left here in 1849
Biden with restaurant staff outside Fitzpatrick’s Restaurant and Pub after a family lunch, in Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland, during his 2016 visit
They first settled in Ovid, New York. James was visually impaired, according to research by Jean Smolenyak, which meant he avoided Civil War service and instead of becoming a cobbler like his father, took up playing the violin instead.
By the time his youngest son Ambrose was born in 1884, the family was in Olyphant, near Scranton. And that’s where the lines merged, with Ambrose marrying Geraldine Blewitt in 1909.
Their daughter Catherine was Biden’s mother.
Due to the extended families, both Co. Mayo as Co. Louth littered with relatives.
“There are so many Finnegans here it’s unbelievable,” says Donal Marks, 81, a distant cousin.
He described how the Finnegans are nicknamed locally to separate each line. He comes from the ‘Fick’ line (he can’t remember what it was called). There’s the Steves and then the Owens.
The old Finnegan house in Whitestown, Co. Louth. Owen Finnegan left for the US in 1849
Donal Marks, 81, a distant cousin of Biden, still lives in the area and met Biden during his visit to Louth in 2016. “There are so many Finnegans here it’s unbelievable,” he said
“That’s the most important thing,” he said around the kitchen table of the house he had built when he returned from a career in England. That’s the line that lives in the White House.
He and his wife Bernie were among the guests when Biden stopped by the old family bar, Lily Finnegan’s.
“He was very much at home,” Bernie said. “He was really happy to go around and talk to everyone. I have never seen such a relaxed person.
‘His brother was drinking and his daughter was pouring pints. It was as if they had been here forever.’
Biden arrived with a stack of papers and was busy showing everyone how they were related.
“He wrote it all down, the whole tree,” Bernie said, “and he showed it to everyone.”