Thousands took to the streets of U.S. President Joe Biden’s ancestral home town in the west of Ireland on Friday for a farewell rally to end a nostalgic three-day state visit ahead of what is expected to be a grueling 2024 re-election bid.
The speech and concert in front of a cathedral that Biden’s great-great-great-grandfather helped build is likely to provide a jubilant end to a tour that allowed the president to indulge in days of light-hearted banter and endless photo-opps.
But the visit also featured some meandering speeches and the occasional gaffe as observers at home watched for signs of how well the 80-year-old, who acknowledged on Thursday that he was at the end of his career, may perform on the campaign trail.
In Ballina, decorated with U.S. flags, bunting and cardboard cutouts of the president peering out of windows, nobody had a bad word to say.
“Nobody works the room like Joe Biden. It doesn’t matter what age he is, he’s the man of the moment.” said John O’Dowd, owner of O’Dowds American Bar in Ballina ahead of the rally.
Irish Deputy Prime Minister Micheál Martin, who spent Wednesday afternoon with Biden greeting crowds, said the president remained a “natural politician.”
“There’s no waning of the appetite,” he told RTE radio.
Ballina was the home town of Biden’s great-great-great-grandfather Edward Blewitt, who emigrated to the United States with his wife and their eight children in 1851.
The president was to address a crowd in front of St Muredach’s Cathedral, whose construction Blewitt was involved with in the 1820s. Blewitt assisted decades later in the planning of the city of Scranton, Biden’s hometown that is twinned with Ballina.
“It is a homecoming for him,” said Joe Blewitt, a distant cousin of Biden’s. “He’s so proud of his roots.”
As the crowds began to gather, Biden broke down in tears behind closed doors during a chance meeting at a nearby shrine with the priest who performed the last rites on his son Beau.
While visiting Knock, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in 1879, Biden discovered that ex-U.S. Army chaplain Father Frank O’Grady had moved to the town from Washington. The two met for 10 minutes and said a decade of the rosary.
“He laughed, he cried and it just kind of hit the man. You could just see how deeply it all felt and meant to him. It was an extraordinary afternoon,” Father Richard Gibbons, who had been giving Biden the tour when they met O’Grady, told the BBC.
Biden started his trip on Wednesday in Belfast by urging political leaders there to restore their power-sharing government. On Thursday, he became the fourth U.S. president to address the Irish parliament and attended a state banquet at Dublin Castle.
Everywhere he has gone, Biden has spoken of his love for Ireland and sense of Irishness, regaling audiences with stories his grandparents and parents told him in between the odd misstep.
Biden mixed up New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team with the Black and Tans, an early 1900s British military unit reviled in Ireland, while making a televised address to relatives in a County Louth pub.
The White House later corrected the error.
Day-to-day politics in Ireland have taken a back seat with every step of the trip covered live on television, on furiously updated news website blogs and mobile phone push notifications which pinged as the president arrived at a new location.
There has been little in the way of policy discussion, just a short meeting with Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.
But for Ireland the longest ever visit by a U.S. leader further cements close economic ties. U.S. multinationals including Google, Pfizer and Apple are among Ireland’s largest employers.
In Ballina, it was tourism dollars that local business leaders had their eyes on.
“This is massive for the town,” said pub owner Michael Carr, 52, who compared the impact on future tourism to that of actor John Wayne’s visit to the fellow County Mayo town of Cong in 1951 to shoot The Quiet Man.
“This is going to last for 40 years.”