One of the easiest ways for an American president to bask in the warmth of a loving audience is to hop on a plane to Dublin. This is especially true if the commander in chief can claim, in however attenuated a form, some Irish ancestry. In June 1963, John F. Kennedy became the first sitting president to visit Ireland, where ecstatic crowds gathered as he toured Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick, and the Kennedy auld sod in County Wexford. Kennedy called this Hibernian jaunt, which took place just a scant five months before his assassination, “the best four days of my life.” Following in the JFK’s footsteps, other presidents, notably Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Barack Obama in 2011, made Irish excursions that were rich in the rhetoric of homecoming. Reagan visited his ancestral home in Ballyporeen, Obama made a similar filiopietistic pilgrimage to Moneygall.
You don’t have to twist Joe Biden’s arm to get him to talk about his Irish identity; the hard part is getting him to stop. Ten of Biden’s 16 great-grandparents are Irish. They all came to the United States between 1848 and 1855, in the wake of the Great Famine. The epic story of Irish endurance during those years is close to Biden’s heart.
In a St. Patrick’s Day event at the White House in 2021, Biden said, “Everything between Ireland and the United States runs deep. Our joys, our sorrows, our passion, our drive, our unrelenting optimism and hope.” Writing in The Washington Post of Biden’s unabashed and sentimental displays of ethnic identity, Matt Viser noted,
He admits he can have an Irish temper. If he gets heated, he may explain that his Irish is up. When he displays affection, it’s Irish warmth. A wry joke? It’s Irish humor. If he’s feeling down, it’s a “black Irish” mood.
Viser added, “Joe Biden is many things. But there aren’t many things he is more of than Irish.” For Biden, as for other American politicians, Irishness connotes not just a particular family heritage but also, perhaps more importantly, a set of inherited values: grittiness, the common touch, and hardscrabble upward mobility.
Given Biden’s identification with all things Irish, it was inevitable that he’d make an emotional presidential pilgrimage to the land of his forefathers. What could not have been predicted is the response of the press in the United Kingdom, where many Tory pundits had a very visible and hilarious meltdown. The reaction spanned the entire right-of-center media spectrum, from the most lurid of tabloids the most hoity-toity of quality papers.
The Daily Mail compiled a list of “all the times President Joe Biden has shown disdain for his UK heritage.” These included his allegedly snubbing UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, deflecting a question from the BBC with a joke about being Irish, and telling a story about how his mother didn’t want to sleep on a bed where the queen had slept. Biden’s mother also allegedly told him not to bow to the queen. Niles Gardiner, a former aide to Margaret Thatcher, reposted a selfie Gerry Adams, former president of Sinn Féin, took with Biden.
Joe Biden hates Britain. Here is the latest example. https://t.co/suMJ3kVIyw
—Nile Gardiner (@NileGardiner) April 14, 2023
Peter Brooks, cartoonist for the Times, depicted Biden as a prancing leprechaun, river-dancing away with a Guinness in hand.
My cartoon Thursday @TheTimes. Where the emphasis of Blarney Biden’s visit lies. `#JoeBiden #Ireland pic.twitter.com/EP1YFP3w2W
—Peter Brookes (@BrookesTimes) April 13, 2023
Brendan O’Neill, chief political writer for the reactionary contrarian publication Spiked, belied his very Irish name by describing Biden as a “cry-bully.” According to O’Neill, Biden was guilty of
hyping up his status as a descendent of the poor Irish who fled Famine-era Ireland on coffin ships (the ‘cry’ bit) in order that he might add some identitarian weight to his bossing around of Britain and Ireland in the here and now (the ‘bully’ bit). He poses as a victim of imperialism—his ancestors fled the auld country “because of what the Brits had been doing’, he once said—even as he engages in imperialism. Behold the weaponisaton of ‘Oirishness’, the deployment of that self-pitying identity to the cause of fortifying American power in the world.
O’Neill took offense at Biden’s opposition to a “hard Brexit” and his insistence that the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland, requires the European Union to retain ties to Northern Ireland as well as to the Republic of Ireland.
On the face of it, the right-wing British response to Biden’s Irish trip is a baffling and overwrought crack-up. After all, since the Good Friday Agreement, many public figures, including the late queen and her son King Charles, have had photos taken with Gerry Adams. The Good Friday Agreement has the support of mainstream politicians in both major political parties in the United States. Biden’s anti-British jibes might be hokey—but they hardly amount to war crimes. Biden is part English himself, which—given the capacity for irony the English like to brag about—means they ought to count as self-mockery. He often makes jokes, sometimes in dubious taste, about his Irishness, as in his comment from earlier this year that “I may be Irish but I’m not stupid.”
Given how strenuously inoffensive Biden is, why is the Tory press treating him like a frothing bigot who hates all things British?
Brendan O’Neill’s comment about hard Brexit offers one clue. Another revealing statement was the passive-aggressive coping of Camilla Tominey, associate editor of The Daily Telegraph, who wrote, “There is no need to fear Joe Biden hating Britain because nobody really cares about the US presidency any more [sic]. It’s an uncomfortable truth to face but the commander-in-chief has become an international laughing stock, diminishing the status of the White House on the world stage.”
It’s hard not to see an element of projection in these comments. While the United States might be a superpower in decline, it’s not nearly as far into postimperial dilapidation as the United Kingdom.
British reactionaries rallied around Brexit on the fantasy that it would reverse that decline and rejuvenate the UK. Freed from the alleged tyranny of the European Union, Britain would be able to reemerge as a world power, in part by reigniting its bilateral alliance with the United States. The fabled special relationship between the UK and USA—which was always a bit of wish fulfillment by the British—would supposedly return, making Britain great again.
That, at least, was the dream. The reality has been closer to a nightmare. The UK is increasingly isolated. Biden, like most mainstream American politicians, has no interest in the special relationship as imagined by British Tories—certainly not at the expense of ties with the EU or to the detriment of the Good Friday Agreement. This reality—that Brexit delivered no return to former glory—is the true source of British bile.
Irish Joe is an all-too-mainstream American politician. He doesn’t hate the United Kingdom. But he also doesn’t see it as deserving of special treatment compared to other allies. Being governed by reality, Biden has thrown cold water on the delusions of Brexit. Casting him as a mad Irish hater is the only way the Tories can avoid facing the truth.