Like many refugees throughout history who have made the unenviable decision to flee catastrophe in their homeland, the one million Irish men, women and children who fled the devastation wrought by the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840s could not have known what their future held. The flight from Ireland persisted for decades with many setting their sights on the flourishing cities of the United States. It is testament to the courage and determination of those emigres that over one hundred and seventy years later one of their descendants should return to their native land as President of the United States of America. President Joe Biden arrives in Ireland next week with planned visits to various birthplaces of his ancestors. Ten of his sixteen great great grandparents were born in Ireland with the strong Irish lineage found predominately on his mother’s side. Catherine Eugenia ‘Jean’ Finnegan, Joe Biden’s mother, married Joseph Robinette Biden Sr. in Lackawanna, Pennsylvania in 1941.
Jean Finnegan’s paternal great grandfather, Owen Finnegan was a shoemaker from a small townland on the Cooley peninsula in County Louth who left Ireland’s ravaged shores in 1849. His wife Jane (nee Boyle) joined him the following year with her three young sons; an unimaginable journey no mother should have to endure on her own. She too was leaving her Boyle family in County Louth with the sure knowledge that she would never see them again. One of those sons travelling with Jane was Jean’s grandfather James. On arrival the family settled in Ovid, Seneca County, New York. There the family thrived and James, despite being visually impaired, became a hotel manager and latterly worked as a musician. In the late 1860s James married Catherine Roche. Catherine Roche’s parents, Thomas and Bridget, were also born in Ireland, although due to a paucity of records an exact location of their county of birth could not be traced. Thomas Roche was documented as a stonemason who following his family’s migration from Ireland settled in Lodi, Seneca County, New York. His daughter Catherine and James Finnegan had at least five children, one of whom was a son Ambrose, father to Jean and Joe Biden’s grandfather. Ambrose Finnegan married Jean’s mother Geraldine Blewitt around 1909 in Pennsylvania.
The Blewitt family, Jean Finnegan’s mother’s ancestral line, are also of Irish origin. Edward Blewitt and his wife Mary Mulderrig, Jean’s great great grandparents, made the same arduous journey in 1851 to that taken by the Finnegan and the Roche families. They left their townland of Rappa (Rappacastle) near Ballina, County Mayo with their eight children and eventually set up home in Scranton Pennsylvania. Edward Blewitt had been a civil engineer in Ireland who purportedly worked with the Ordnance survey of Mayo in the 1830s and before that as a brickmaker. It has also been suggested that it was in this role that he supplied the bricks for the construction of Killala Cathedral in 1827. This aptitude for engineering was witnessed through succeeding generations in Pennsylvania as his son Patrick Blewitt and his grandson Edward (Jean’s grandfather) both followed him in his chosen profession. Edward Blewitt Jnr had an illustrious career in mining and engineering and ultimately served as a state senator for the 22nd district of Pennsylvania from 1907-10. Patrick Blewitt above, married Catherine ‘Kate’ Scanlon in the 1850s, she was variously noted on U.S. census returns as born in Ireland and it is believed that her family also originated in County Mayo although specific details could not be determined. In the following generation, Edward Blewitt Jnr’s marriage to Mary Ellen Stanton in 1879 also reveals further Irish lineage. Mary Ellen’s parents, James Stanton and Mary (nee Arthurs) reveal on the 1880 US federal census their land of birth as Ireland. The Stanton family left Ireland and settled in Scranton Pennsylvania where James toiled as a labourer. It was this same census that revealed Joe Biden’s three times great grandmother, Bridget Arthurs. However, as is the challenge with many seeking to pinpoint a precise townland or county of birth for Irish ancestors the exact origin in Ireland of the Arthurs and Stanton families was never noted on US immigration documentation and therefore remains elusive. Finally, Joe Biden’s father, Joseph Robinette Biden Snr also has Irish ancestors within his mother’s lineage. His maternal grandmother was Mary Ann Hanafee who married George H Robinette in the 1880s. Mary Ann Hanafee’s parents, John and Mary (nee Ward) were documented as both born in Ireland, most likely from County Galway, who emigrated sometime before 1857 and settled in Doddridge County, West Virginia. John humbly described himself as a ‘common labourer’ in the US census of 1870.
Click This Link for Expanded view of the Ancestry of President Joe Biden Chart
Joe Biden’s family history reveals a common story of Irish migrants in the mid nineteenth century who chose to leave poverty and abject hunger behind and courageously sought out better lives for their children and future descendants in the United States. It details entire families uprooting from counties Mayo, Louth and Galway and enduring the notorious sea journey across the Atlantic. These families settled in New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia and contributed in many guises to their communities in intervening generations. Those brave families: the Finnegan’s, the Roche’s, the Blewitts, the Stanton’s, the Scanlon’s, the Arthur’s, the Mulderrig’s, the Hanafee’s and the Ward’s would no doubt be amazed at what their combined endeavours have ultimately led to.
This blog post was written by Hilary O’Connor
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