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Biden in Ireland: Ancestry and Empathy

As the president marks the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, we can glimpse the Irish origins of his famed compassion.
April 13, 2023
Biden in Ireland: Ancestry and Empathy
President Joe Biden arrives on Air Force One at Dublin Airport on April 12, 2023, during his trip to Ireland. (Photo by Damien Storan / PA Images / Getty Images)

Joe Biden, our second Irish-American Catholic president, is in Ireland this week to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, a peace deal representing American diplomacy at its best. It eased the violence of the Troubles, the decades-spanning unrest between Northern Irish Protestant loyalists and independence-seeking Catholic Irish republicans. Thousands of people lost their lives to bombings and shootings during the Troubles, some were kidnapped and never found, and particularly violent areas became known as “murder miles.” Lasting peace following the agreement is still a work in progress, but the goal—getting rid of the dark cloud hanging over Irish children’s collective future—is within reach.

Rain and mist have covered the presidential entourage during Biden’s visit so far. The president has brushed it off: “It’s fine. It’s Ireland,” he said. But given the fraught underlying political realities and the history of violence, it is fitting that sunlight has been scarce during the visit. A Washington Post reporter described the mood at one event as being one “of both melancholy and celebration.”

Biden has misstepped a few times—at one point he questioned how his ancestors could have left such a beautiful country, a lovely sentiment but one that leaves out the terrible motivation of the famines—but the country has welcomed him warmly nonetheless. It’s not just that he makes much of his Irish heritage, although that has surely endeared him to many Irish people. It’s also that he’s sensitive to the meaning of their suffering.

Over the last decade, many political observers have expressed admiration for Biden’s ability to express empathy, an ability most associated with the great personal tragedies visited upon him. Unsympathetic observers sometimes try to reduce it to the habituated skill of an old politician who knows the importance of shaking hands, smiling, and expressing condolences at the right time.

Yes, all these things are in play in his personal story. But there is a little more going on with Biden, and I want to suggest it has something to do with his Irish background.

The Irish have long had a distinct way of dealing with death through their funerals. These events bring death and life together in the context of community, and they put a central importance on helping others to carry life’s inescapable burdens. While traditional Irish funereal practice has declined significantly over time, Biden is old enough to remember something of it, even though most Irish Americans either forgot or never experienced it in the first place.

The secret knowledge conveyed through the rituals of Irish funerals, especially for those brought up experiencing them, is that grief is better handled with each other. Meeting up with friends and family when someone dies—even in ways that might strike outsiders as strange or macabre, as I’ll discuss below—is the best way to face the reality of death. These are also deeply felt practices, appreciated by both the givers and the receivers of the visits, humor, and empathy at the end of a loved one’s life.

Like Biden, I hail from a family with Irish roots, and I am acquainted with the long history of how the Irish Catholics deal with death. Some of that history is unavoidably political, as is anything Irish—for example, wakes were often occasions for meeting up to discuss strategies for overthrowing occupiers—but in the main, funerals have historically been moments for Irish communities to gather and decide the way forward in their common life.

As I mentioned, the specifics can be off-putting to outsiders. For instance, it was once customary for men to stay with the corpse at night to prevent the devil from stealing its soul. Old women from the neighborhood would often wail by the casket. (They were called “keeners.”) But a spirit of mundanity has generally prevailed. Irish mourners spend a great deal of time sitting around, drinking tea, eating sandwiches and cakes, and chatting. The scene would hardly feel particularly Irish at all, if not for the snacking and chitchat taking place in the same room where the body was laid out.

Death and life together: Like so many parts of Irish culture, the occasion of our inevitable death and the question of how to handle it are as social as they are spiritual. The two qualities are naturally intertwined in Irish history and culture.

Kevin Toolis, a Scottish journalist and filmmaker whose parents came from Achill Island off the west coast of Ireland, is the author of My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love, and Die (2018). In it, he argues for the centrality of the Irish wake to Irish history, and in one moving passage, describes how the recovery of such a practice might shape our outlook on life. “To be truly human is to bear the burden of our own mortality,” Toolis writes,

and to strive, in grace, to help others carry theirs; sometimes lightly and sometimes courageously. In communally accepting death into our lives we will all relearn the first and oldest lessons of humankind. How to be brave in irreversible sorrow. How to reach out and share this mortal life with the dying, the dead, and the bereaved. How to go on living no matter how great the rupture or unexpected the loss of those loved.

“How to face your own death,” Toolis continues. And, most bracingly of all: “How to teach your children to face their deaths.”

Can you imagine that? I have a feeling Biden can.

When Biden’s forebears came to America and settled in Scranton, Pennsylvania 150 years ago, they brought with them traditions from the home country, including funeral practices. Some of the old immigrant neighborhoods of the Northeast and Midwest retain vestiges of their original character—for example, by still having plenty of churches, funeral homes and bars. And if you grew up in those neighborhoods in the century following your immigrant family’s arrival, you probably realized very early that those three spaces were intrinsically related.

My grandmother, Marie Coletta Frain, came from Ireland to Cleveland, Ohio in 1900, by herself at age 10. I remember learning from her about the traditional wakes, which up to the 1960s were important Irish neighborhood affairs. They typically lasted two or three days in a family home, and church leaders, political officials, and business owners would all present themselves at one point or another. Standing in line for a half-hour to offer condolences to the widow was an important investment of time for anyone with any kind of standing in the neighborhood.

Biden and his family would have undergone similar communal experiences of loss in their Green Ridge Irish enclave neighborhood in central Scranton during his childhood. And even though his family moved to Delaware in the early 1950s when he was 10, they returned to Scranton frequently, spending weekends, holidays, and summers at the home of his maternal grandparents. It was at his grandfather’s kitchen table, Biden wrote in his 2007 memoir Promises to Keep, that the future president learned politics among the vociferous Irish Catholic Democrats of the Finnegan clan.

My grandmother passed long ago, and the culture she remembered has changed. Irish Americans no longer spend hours chatting and supping by open caskets at traditional wakes. This could be taken as a synecdoche for larger shifts: Religious participation is down, social media use is up, and cremation is gaining in popularity over cemetery burial. Death has never been pleasant to contemplate, but our culture increasingly expresses not just fear of it, but total avoidance—even de facto denial of its reality. That’s a tendency an Irish wake is, in part, meant to cure.

In Ireland, they still do the traditional wake in the home, but only ever in rural parts of the country. Virtually no wakes in the home are given in urban areas. Toolis has called the old funeral styles “implicit therapeutic rituals,” which makes me wonder why, in a therapeutic age, they aren’t more popular. Toolis himself wonders why people don’t face death as much or as directly as they once did. “People say to me, ‘Why do the Irish still do it?’” Toolis said in a recent New York Times interview. “But the real mystery is why everyone else stopped doing it.”

I can hear the voice of the critic in my ear again: Biden is just some talkative blowhard, it says, and: A bunch of Irish Americans hanging around some corpse in an old lady’s parlor fifty years ago has nothing to do with how he acts. Then, too, loss accumulates as we age, and the president has passed the eight-decade mark; there’s nothing unique about empathy, or talk of empathy, coming from an 80-year-old guy.

But I have to demur. For us Irish Catholics from the old diaspora haunts of the Midwest and Northeast—places like Scranton and Cleveland and all those other dying towns—the sound of Biden’s voice at certain times evokes the voice of some old guy, barely remembered from childhood, telling the daughter of a deceased friend how great a man he was and how things will get better for her. And if you stick with the memory, feel it out a bit, you might turn to observe the deceased friend a few feet away.

That’s where my mind went when the president said this at a press conference last November:

What we can do to deal with that empathy is make sure there’s help available, make sure there’s people who are there to help—whether they are a psychologist or whether they’re medical doctors or whether they’re social workers—to be there to help, to help just hold a hand. . . . The empathy is not just talking about it, it’s communicating to people you genuinely understand. And I hope a lot of people don’t understand, because they—I don’t want people having to know the pain.

How this works in today’s politics is obvious. For all his faults, Biden is a guy who sounds like he is comfortable with the sort of empathy he describes here. His likely opponent in the 2024 presidential race, former President Donald Trump, is not. There are lots of ways to explain why this might be. I wish only to suggest that one of them is that Biden frequently experienced the emotional rigors of the Irish wake and Irish funerals growing up, and Trump did not. Is it a full explanation? Obviously not. But could it help crystallize those stray feelings of melancholy, and those unbidden recollections, that my very niche demographic experiences when the president speaks on the subjects of loss and fellow-feeling, offering us a more complete picture of his whole deal?

Biden’s ability to express such empathetic emotions “was exactly what this country needed after four years of Donald Trump, who was an embodiment of lack of empathy, lack of compassion, lack of relatability,” pollster Christine Matthews said in an interview. “Coming out of a pandemic where so many people are hurting and we need empathy and compassion.” Call it a belated gift of the Irish to our adoptive home.

A friend recently shared with me a story about Biden in the early 2000s. I think it captures the part of the president’s personality I have been trying to describe.

My friend’s story begins with the death of an old woman from Wilmington. She was Jewish and had lived in a high-rise apartment building.

When someone in the Jewish faith dies, the community observes seven days of mourning, called a shiva. A group of ten Jewish adults together—a minyan—meets to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, which usually happens in the deceased person’s home, just like an Irish wake.

In this case, though, the deceased, whose name was Mrs. Greenhouse, lived in a very small rent-controlled senior housing space; they couldn’t fit the ten mourners in her apartment. So, my friend, Rabbi Michael Beals, then new to the area, decided to move the ritual to the communal laundry room in the basement of the high-rise.

Guess who appeared, unaccompanied and without drawing attention to himself, in the back of the laundry room during prayers for Mrs. Greenhouse? Joe Biden, then a roughly 60-year-old United States senator.

Rabbi Beals continues the story:

At the close of the kaddish, I walked over to him and asked the same question that must have been on everyone else’s mind: “Senator Biden—what are you doing here?”

And he said to me: “Listen, back in 1972, when I first ran for Senate, Mrs. Greenhouse gave $18 to my first campaign. Because that’s what she could afford. And every six years, when I’d run for reelection, she’d give another $18. She did it her whole life. I’m here to show my respect and gratitude.”

There were no news outlets at our service that day—no Jewish reporters or important dignitaries. Just a few elderly mourners in a basement laundry room.

Joe Biden didn’t come to that service for political gain. He came to that service because he has character. He came to that service because he’s a mensch.

There’s something strong and reliable in the character of a mensch—something firmer than empathy by itself, even though empathy is essential to it. This quality, too, is connected to Biden’s heritage—the sense of life that has been tempered through exposure to the reality of death.

The best Irish verse and prose has this sense. Poems by William Butler Yeats and novels by James Joyce and inspirational songs by U2 bespeak the importance of both living and dying.

But Biden’s great literary love is Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who died in 2013. The president often quotes from Heaney’s “The Cure at Troy,” and no doubt the text would be aptly intoned at an Irish wake, or recited into a mic at a political rally.

Consider, finally, the following stanza from “The Cure at Troy”—one more belated gift of the Irish, but to the world.

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

Daniel McGraw

Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1.