President Biden in Ballina: ‘It has lifted the town. It does the heart good’

‘It will anchor Ballina in the minds of Ireland and the States forever more’: Mayo turns out to embrace its most famous of sons

* I have been in Ballina so many times over the past 40 years. I have many friends there and it is where I met many people, important people such as the Nobel Laureate John Hume. We gathered for the Humbert International Summer School, named after the French general who led his troops ashore at Kilcummin to take on the English when they invaded Ireland in 1798, The Year of the French. John Hume , pictured right, was a great peacemaker, a wonderful man whose influence brought about the peace-making Anglo-Irish Agreement. I could not let The Democrat pass into the annals of history without recording this visit to Ballina by US President Joe Biden. Editor

Oh, the green and red and blue states of Mayo. The Atlantic ocean has never seemed so small in this part of the world. As the clock on St Muredach’s cathedral showed 9.40pm and the music of The Chieftains drifted across the River Moy and the crowds swayed, a helicopter swept down river and the homecoming that had been 170 years in the making was finally happening.

“I can see the light, Mary,” Joe Biden called from the podium, as a candle shone in the childhood window of the former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson. Thus he opened a smart twenty minute address which somehow caught the strangeness and warmth of this day in the West, which will always hang slightly out of time.

“I’ve often said that we Irish are the only people who are actually nostalgic about the future,” he told the gathering.

“We always believe in a better tomorrow because no matter what we always carry hope in our hearts.”

After referencing the emigration journey of his ancestors, the Blewitts, to Scranton in 1850, he gave the crowd lining the bridges and low walls of the Moy a brief sketch of his worldview as he prepares to run for a second term in the White House.

“Ladies and gentlemen, our world today stands at an inflection point. Where the decisions we make today are going to affect our futures for decades to come. And it is in these moments we need hope and courage more than ever. We are facing enormous challenges around the world, too great for any one country to solve alone. Together we can take on these challenges of disease and food insecurity which continue to devastate communities around the world, just as they did in Ireland generations ago. And I am proud to say that Ireland has not forgotten.”

The twangy Pennsylvanian accent bounced around the riverside buildings and the crowd cheered. The night was already passing into local history and made for a striking image: the smiling, silver-haired 80-year-old president against the austere handsome cathedral. All day the town had been building towards this hour.

“It is just historic,” said Siobhan Leonard as she strolled down Pearse Street in the mid-afternoon sunshine with her friend Caroline Kennedy.

“What it means for Ballina, I don’t think we could nearly put into words. Time will tell. We were just saying earlier that we can tell our relatives and children about this day in 20 years, 30 years’ time – well, I won’t be alive then.

“It is about history. It is about legacy. And as a Ballina person, I am thrilled and honoured that this occasion is happening in the town. The president of the United States, the most important political man in the world, whether you agree with his politics or not, is coming to our town. It has lifted the town. It does the heart good. It does the psyche good.”

And certainly, the cathedral town was looking handsome as the presidential party took a whistle stop tour of Mayo. Towny towns like Ballina run on weekly rhythms that are established over centuries. It takes something exceptional to jolt the arteries out of their Friday afternoon mood.

Waiting for Joe Biden was just that jolt. Shortly after three o’clock, there was a unique atmosphere on Pearse Street. Because the traffic had been banished, the streets were oddly silent. Many of the shops stayed closed. But the pubs were definitely open, and the patrons giddy. You could watch, on television, the fascinating images of Air Force One touching down on the lonesome strip of tar that Monsignor James Horan dreamed up four decades ago, and wait for ‘the Prez’ to come to dear old Ballina. Rare days!

“Are you headin’ down?” a young man outside Hogan’s asked, clapping his hands. “To see the big man himself.” It seemed like everyone would be.

So, Stars and Stripes fell from every second window and all the shop windows carried images of President Biden. There was a festival atmosphere. It was as if someone had taken Independence Day, St Patrick’s Day, and Good Friday of old, jumbled together and flung the cocktail across downtown Ballina.

Every second streetlamp carried cardboard posters advertising the fact that President Biden would be appearing outside St Muredach’s Cathedral on Friday (for one night only!) as if people might not have noticed. It was one of those typical pole-posters, as though the president was a popular country star destined to sell out at the Traveller’s Friend or an up-and-coming political buccaneer promising to give Michael Ring a run for his money next time out.

The crowds began to arrive in earnest after four and within an hour, long queues had formed. They kept up with the president’s progress on social media and the televisions. “Who’s he talking to now?” one woman asked as she passed an image of Joe chatting affably, without a hurry in the world.

“They say it’s raining in Knock anyhow,” a man shouted into the phone. The weather was a common theme of concern. It was bananas. The sky was bruised and low. Then it cleared. Chilly April gusts zipped through the alleys. Then, full-on blue skies and sunshine. And that was just between three o’clock and quarter past. But that was to be expected. Like all Mayo men, Joe Biden is a bloody-minded optimist. But he’s an optimist who brings his Aviators and his raincoat.

Nobody knew when he’d appear, but this is the county for apparitions. They knew they’d see what they were gathering for they were confident of an unforgettable night, of words that would light up the sky.

“We are hoping that will be the case,” said Siobhan Leonard.

“And that it will anchor Ballina in the minds of Ireland and the States forever more, Amen. We will. Absolutely! We are very proud!”

The crowds thickened and listened to the live music and chatted about where Joe might be now and enjoyed the fact that this was a once in a lifetime moment.

“Somebody said to me it is like being on holidays,” said Caroline Kennedy.  “It is just… real time suspended.”

Pictures taken over the years at Humbert International Summer School in Ballina, Co Mayo.

  • Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times

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