DUNDALK, Ireland (AP) — President Joe Biden returned to his ancestral home of Ireland on Wednesday, welcomed back by thousands of cheering people who lined up four and five deep for hours in the cold rain in hopes of getting a glimpse, a photo or even the slightest touch from him.
In the town of Dundalk, County Louth’s most famous descendant declared: “I don’t know why the hell my ancestors left here. It’s beautiful.”
Biden’s mother’s family comes from this part of Ireland, and he appeared overjoyed by the break from Washington’s grind and the dive into his Irish heritage, which he often cites as a driving force in his public and private life. The buoyant president popped into several shops and restaurants on Dundalk’s town square, and stretched over barricades for hand shakes, small talk and pictures.
Children were perched on the shoulders of adults and some people stretched their hands as far as they could, hoping for the slightest bit of contact with Biden. He toured a food hall and later met up with some of his cousins at a pub.
A large “Welcome Joe” sign perched on a rooftop seemed to sum up the town sentiment.
“It feels like home,” Biden said from behind a lectern at Windsor Bar and Restaurant, where he reminisced about the values he said he learned from his parents. His sister Valerie and son Hunter sat in the front row of the small audience.
He acknowledged that his ancestors emigrated to the United States to escape famine, but added, “When you’re here, you wonder why anyone would ever want to leave.”
And he jokingly delivered bad news, saying: “We’ll be back. There’s no way to keep us out.”
A similar scene played out earlier Wednesday a short drive away in Carlingford, a seaside village where the cry of bagpipes welcomed him on a cold, wet and windy afternoon.
Biden gazed out at the water from the stone balcony of Carlingford Castle, which would have been the last Irish landmark that Owen Finnegan, Biden’s maternal great-great-grandfather, saw before sailing for New York in 1849. A wooden sign on the road to the castle welcomed “Cousin Joe.”
“It feels like I’m coming home,” Biden said as he was led on a tour and looked out over Carlingford Lough, a bay that empties into the Irish Sea.
As for the soggy weather, “It’s fine! It’s Ireland!” Biden said.
County Louth is the home of Biden’s mother’s family, the Finnegans. According to a genealogy released by the White House, the president’s great-great-great-grandparents lived in Templetown and were married in 1813.
Their grandson, James Finnegan, born in 1840, emigrated to the United States with his family when he was 9 years old. The Finnegans settled in Seneca County, New York. James married Catherine Roche in 1846; they were Biden’s great-grandparents. Biden’s mother was Catherine Eugenia Finnegan.
In Dundalk, Jerome McAteer, who owns the Food House with his husband Bobby Wain, said Biden bought lemon meringue, chocolate eclairs, bread and butter pudding, pear and almond cake, as well as a mug with an image of a dog on it.
Biden paid with a 50 euro note and gave a 10 euro tip to some of the workers who have special needs, McAteer said, adding that the president talked a lot about his Irish background.
Asked if Biden was how he expected, McAteer said: “He was taller, he was younger looking, he had amazing teeth.”
“The atmosphere is great,” said Sandra Coalme. She was outside with her friend Marguerite Howard, who added that despite the Irish rain, “the sun is shining really in our hearts,” before she joked that “there is no show like a Joe show!”
People cheered as the motorcade snaked its way through narrow streets adorned with U.S. flags.
“He’s one of the Irish, he’s one of us,” said local pharmacist Sheila McQuillan. “It’s lovely to see him again. It’s wonderful, a big turnout considering the weather.”
Biden arrived in the Republic of Ireland after an appearance Wednesday in Northern Ireland. He had planned to visit a cemetery in County Louth, but scrapped that because of bad weather. He spent a total of about three hours in Carlingford and Dundalk, about as much time as it took for round-trip drive from Dublin.
Biden is spending three days in Ireland on his first visit back as president. He planned to meet with Ireland’s leaders, address parliament in Dublin and attend a gala dinner on Thursday, and visit County Mayo, another ancestral area on the west coast, on Friday before returning to Washington.
He had visited in 2016, near the end of his term as U.S. vice president, with a much larger contingent of his family, including all of his grandchildren. This time he was accompanied by just his sister and son. His wife, Jill, remained in Washington.
Ireland’s prime minister greeted Biden on Wednesday after he landed at Dublin’s airport. The president then went to a nearby fire station, where children of U.S. Embassy employees held American and Irish flags and signs that said “welcome home.”
According to the Irish Family History Centre, Biden “is among the most ‘Irish’ of all U.S. Presidents.” Ten of his 16 great-great grandparents were from the Emerald Isle. Biden is particularly fond of quoting Irish poetry, especially Seamus Heaney.
Earlier Wednesday, Biden marked the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. The U.S.-brokered deal brought peace to a member of the United Kingdom where years of sectarian violence known as “the Troubles” left some 3,600 people killed in bombings and other attacks.
But recent political turmoil has left Northern Ireland without a functioning government, rattling the foundations of the Good Friday Agreement. In addition, a top police official was shot and injured in February, an attack that authorities have blamed on Irish Republican Army dissidents opposed to the peace process.
“The enemies of peace will not prevail,” Biden said. “Northern Ireland will not go back, pray God.”
Associated Press writers Chris Megerian in Washington, Jill Lawless in London and David Keyton in Dundalk, Ireland, contributed to this report.