Saving the best until last, Ballina came alive in a way never seen before on Friday night to give US president Joe Biden both the biggest homecoming and the biggest send-off of his four-day visit to the island of Ireland.
The atmosphere was truly electrifying in the build-up to Mr Biden’s appearance after short speeches from Cathaoirleach of Ballina Municipal District Mark Duffy and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
Mr Biden was left in no doubt as to the adoration when his chinook helicopter hovered low over the town late last night to the delight of thousands of onlookers. They cheered a thunderous roar for the long-lost son of Ballina.
White House sources estimated that 27,000 people lined the streets tonight to witness history.
The atmosphere was truly electrifying in the build-up to Mr Biden’s appearance. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire“Go on Joe,” roared a man from the crowd just seconds before Mr Biden appeared on stage just before 10pm.
Mr Biden gave the most personal and heartfelt speech of his visit to the people of Ballina, touching on his ancestors’ emigrant journey, his son Beau’s premature death and his genuine hope for the future.
He thanked the thousands in the crowd for their “incredible generosity” for opening up their homes to Ukrainian refugees “fleeing Russia’s brutal violence”.
Once again speaking of his Irish ancestry, Mr Biden said millions of Americans claim to have Irish heritage – adding: “More would if they could.”
Opening his speech, Mr Biden said: “It feels like coming home.”
White House sources estimated that 27,000 people lined the streets tonight to witness history. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA WireHe shared the most emotional moment of his trip with the crowd, describing for his audience the moment he met Fr Frank O’Grady in the apparition chapel in Knock Shrine.
“We didn’t know there was a former military chaplain, Fr O’Grady who gave my son the last rites in Walter Reed Medical Hospital Washington. It was incredible to see him. It seems like a sign” he said, raising his arms to the heavens.
The president also referenced a visit he made earlier in the day to the Mayo Roscommon Hospice, where there is a plaque in memory of his son Beau.
He said: “I can tell you how special it is that a piece of his legacy lives here among his ancestors.
President Joe Biden stands with his son Hunter Biden and sister Valerie Biden Owens, second from right, as he looks at a plaque dedicated to his late son Beau Biden while visiting Mayo Roscommon Hospice. Picture: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky“Thinking about it I could hear my dad’s voice again. He’d always say ‘Joe remember family is the beginning, the middle and the end’.
“The beginning, middle and end, that’s the Irish of it.”
Mr Biden said the Irish were ”the only people nostalgic about the future, “no matter what, we always carry hope in our hearts”.
He added: “Everything between Ireland and America runs deep; our history, our heritage, our sorrows, our future, our friendship. But more than anything, hope is what beats in the hearts of all our people.
“For centuries during times of darkness and despair, hope has kept us marching forward toward a better future, one of greater liberty, greater dignity and greater possibilities.”
The president’s son Hunter Biden and sister Valerie Biden Owens sat in the front row of the VIP section to the side of the stage for the speech.
People watch as Joe Biden delivers his speech at St Muredach’s Cathedral. Picture: Liam McBurney/PA WireDuring his 20-minute speech, Mr Biden spoke of his ancestor Edward Blewitt, whom he said worked in the old Ballina brickyard.
The president said during one of his engagements in Co Mayo, he saw a record from 1828 that said Mr Blewitt was paid 21 pounds and 12 shillings to help supply 27,000 bricks for St Muredach’s Cathedral, which was nearby as he addressed the crowd.
“As he laboured, I’m sure he would imagine that one day his family would worship here, that his children would be baptised here like his son Patrick was, and that future generations of his family would mark the milestones of their lives here in the sturdy walls,” he said.
“But I doubt he ever imagined his great-great-great grandson would return 200 years later as president of the United States of America.”
He also thanked Ballina for celebrating his election as president in 2020.
“You decked out the town I’m told in red, white and blue with cars and crowds gathered in the market square singing the green and the red of Mayo,” he said.
It means the world to me, it meant the world to me and my entire family to be embraced as Mayo Joe, son of Ballina.
“My mother, my grandmother – whose maiden name was Blewitt – would be smiling down on me right now.”
The president also spoke of the Good Friday Agreement, calling it “25 years of peace and progress”.
“It is a reminder the importance of peace and what you can accomplish when we work together in common cause,” Mr Biden said.
Telling the crowd visiting Ballina felt like going home, he continued: “Over the years, stories of this place have become part of my soul, part of my family lore.”
He also thanked Ballina for celebrating his election as president in 2020.Mr Biden said he and his siblings were raised with “a fierce pride in our Irish ancestry”.
“A pride that spoke to both the history that binds us but more importantly the values that unite us,” he said.
“To this day I can still remember hearing my dad say at the dinner table, ‘Joey, everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect’, I can still hear my mom tell me, ‘Joey, nobody is better than you but everybody is your equal’.”
Mr Biden closed his speech as he began, with the bricks of St Muredach’s and his own story which was a testament to “our shared past.”
He urged us to build a new future of hope, “brick by brick”.
Telling the crowd visiting Ballina felt like going home, he continued: “Over the years, stories of this place have become part of my soul, part of my family lore.” Picture: Liam McBurney/PA WireHe left the people of Ballina with a familiar chant: “Mayo for Sam!”
The comments at the end of his speech were met with raucous applause by the long-suffering fans of the Mayo team.
The locals had queued ten deep down the streets since lunchtime for a chance to see the most powerful man in America speak in front of St Muredach’s Cathedral on the banks of the river Moy at twilight.
All day long a festival atmosphere pervaded the streets, with buskers and candy floss vans entertaining and feeding families looking to be a part of history.
The thousands of flag-wavers were almost matched by as many Gardaí who were bused in from all over the country for the day.
US President Joe Biden at St Muredach’s Cathedral in Ballina, There were hundreds of Secret Service agents, snipers hidden among the rooftops and airport-style security screening for public and media alike forming a ring of steel around the centre of Ballina.
Ahead of Mr Biden’s hotly anticipated speech, the crowds were entertained by rock groups The Academic and The Coronas, the men and women’s Mayo GAA teams and The Chieftains.
Former President Mary Robinson appeared on stage at 8.30pm to read ‘The Emigrant Irish’ poem by Eavan Boland.
“The world is looking at Ballina… I’m so pleased that President Biden has the same love for Ballina as I do. You have two presidents who love Ballina, what else can you ask for?” she said under a shower of rain.