25 September 2022
The Old Country
by J.R. Thomas
You can always tell the approach of elections in the United States; not least as many politicians start wrapping themselves in the Irish flag and wearing green socks. There’s votes in those damp bogs; not so many as there were, but in the US cities of the industrialised (or formerly industrialised) north east there’s enough voters with Irish connections for any Democrat candidate to make sure he pays his due observances to the old country, and, preferably, pay detailed and folksy obeisance to some great-grandfather’s poverty lashed voyage from Cork or Derry.
Not just Democrats; America’s greatest recent president, Ronald Reagan, a Republican of course, had properly certified Reagan lines of descent from County Tipperary, and, on the distaff side, various others as well. Richard Nixon’s family came from County Kildare, and the Bushes and the Fords were all able to pinpoint some Irish village from which they had set off, bag over shoulder, and whistling a merry tune, to the land of opportunity. But it is the Democrats who tend to fly the Irish flag most assiduously; though the best known embracers of all things Irish, the Kennedys, who grew their political fortunes in Boston, the most Irish city of all (perhaps more than Dublin even), had the slight embarrassment that the Kennedys themselves were, going a little further back, of Scottish descent. But never mind, they had lots of other Irish blood in the female lines to the extent that they could be justly described as “Irish-American”. And we must not pass on from this without dragging in Barrack Obama. Not O’Bama, as the joke has it, but the President had indeed Irishness coursing through his veins, from a maternal great (x 3) grandfather from Offaly.
Which (you must have been expecting this) brings us to Joe Biden. Mr Biden, who learned much of his political craft from admiring and studying the Kennedys, has always played up his Irish roots to electoral advantage. The president has Irish ancestry from male forebears (not called Biden) who left Ireland in 1840 and 1850, and one of whom settled in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Presumably he liked it, as his family stayed and Joe was born there in 1942, although they moved to the less industrial surroundings of Delaware in 1953.
Some presidents just reference their Irish history as a nice thing to have, but Joe has made rather a thing of it, tacitly and sometimes openly praising the Republican (Irish republican we should clarify) cause, criticising the heavy hand of the British state then and now in Irish affairs, and generally aligning himself with St Patrick and the Irish freedom movement. It has appeared to inform his dealings with the British government since his election in 2020, where he seems not to have had much love for the former Prime Minister, B Johnson, the very emblem of what Irish-American politicians dislike about Brits – or certainly upper-crust Brits from Eton, Oxford and all the rest of that entitled background with their crazy plummy accents and draughty stately homes. (We are being a little sarcastic here, Mr Biden, if you happen to read this, but we get the sensitivities.) Maybe he will take much more warmly to Liz Truss; they have not yet met. He did though apparently get on well with our late monarch and her husband, Joe says, and Mrs Biden has shared one or two vignettes from conversations with them. (Joe, our late and much loved Queen made it her job to get on with everybody, so don’t read too much, or too little, into her friendly approach.)
As a result he has accepted an invitation to Her late Majesty’s funeral, bringing along the First Lady, and also the First Motor Car, aka “The Beast”, the heavily armoured Presidential road equivalent of Air Force One, from which the free world could be run even in the event of nuclear holocaust. The British were not keen on allowing this monster into the UK, probably because of its effect on pot-holed British roads, or maybe the effect its prodigious fuel consumption may have on the UK’s progress towards its Net-Zero targets.
What is not known though, is whether, as is traditional on these great formal occasions, the President wanted to bring with him, sitting with him on Air Force One and maybe even in Road Force One, a former President or two. Indeed, one is especially suited to be there, not because he is in his view still President but because his mother, Mary MacLeod, was a Brit, a Scot, leaving the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides for Glasgow at the age of 17 and arriving as an immigrant in New York City on May 11th 1930. She was a good looking girl and after meeting a property developer called Fred Trump in 1934 she married him in January 1936; her fourth child was called Donald. You know the rest.
So Mr Trump has perhaps a better claim to be at a royal funeral than many senior Americans, him being not only of close British ancestry, but Scottish as well. But Mr Biden was not known to be pressing Mr Trump to join him in this sad but historic journey to London, and Mr Trump has kept strangely quiet on the subject, though he has written a warm and affectionate public tribute to her late Majesty. A diplomatic headache could be seen to be potentially brewing – imagine The Donald not being invited when, say, Mr Obama was – especially if Mr T were to be back in the White House in 2024. But the wise mandarins of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have earned their dollar this week at least. They announced that due to the enormous pressures on space in Westminster Abbey, former heads of state from anywhere, anywhere at all, could, alas, not be accommodated. Sorry. Terribly sorry.
So Donald will have to watch the solemn occasion in Mar A Lago on his presumably massive screen TV. At least he will have the consolation of giggling at how Joe Biden, that semi professional Irishman, will explain to his green supporters what on earth he was doing at the funeral of the symbol of the great historic oppressors.