Joe Biden breaks down during chance meeting

biden - AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
biden - AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
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Joe Biden broke down in tears after a chance meeting with the priest who performed the last rites on his late son Beau.

Mr Biden was at the Knock Shrine in Co Mayo on the final leg of his visit to the Republic on Friday when he made the discovery.

Fr Frank O’Grady, who performed the ceremony for Beau before he died of brain cancer in 2015, is now working at the shrine, where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared in 1879.

Mr Biden later told a rapturous crowd in Ballina that it was "incredible" to meet “out of the blue” the man who gave his son the last rites.

“It was like a sign,” he said.

Mr Biden said a plaque in memory of his son at a hospice among “the home of his ancestors” meant the world to him.

Fr O’Grady told the Irish national broadcaster, RTE: “Death is something that people don’t forget. We talked a little bit about grief. I think he's handling it, okay.

“He said his faith sustained him at that difficult time and still does, He said he has challenges coming up.”

Mr Biden invited Fr O’Grady to the Oval Office after the meeting and gave him a presidential coin.

“He’s a strong man, a strong personality and for a man his age, great energy,” Fr O’Grady added.

biden beau plaque - REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
biden beau plaque - REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The parish priest of Knock, Father Richard Gibbons, told the BBC: “He spoke about his, his family and his connection with his faith, and also about his son Beau who died.

“And it just so happened, and this was kind of spontaneous, that we have, working at the shrine here, the chaplain who gives the last rites of the last anointing to his son in the United States.”

Fr Gibbons added: “Just extraordinary, and I didn't even know that, I didn't know that until the president arrived.

“He laughed, he cried, it just kind of hit the man, you could just see how deeply it all felt and meant to him. It was an extraordinary afternoon. I won’t forget it, I can tell you that it was quite something else.”

During the visit, Fr Gibbons also took Mr Biden to the Apparition chapel in Knock, where the president touched the bricks of the original gable wall of the church.

From Knock, Mr Biden travelled to North Mayo Heritage and Genealogical Centre to learn more about his roots in the county.

Later on Friday, the US president travelled to his ancestral hometown of Ballina, where excitement has been building for weeks.

Mr Biden delivered the final speech of his visit behind a bullet-proof screen outside Saint Muredach’s Cathedral on the east bank of the River Moy in Ballina, which was partly built by an ancestor.

Biden Co Mayo - REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Biden Co Mayo - REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Cathedral records show Edward Blewitt, the US president’s great-great-great grandfather, provided 27,000 bricks for the pillars supporting the nave of the church. He was paid £20.12 for his services in 1828.

Mr Biden’s great-great-grandfather Patrick Blewitt, who was from Ballina, travelled to the US as a 20-year-old cabin boy.

He returned two years later and convinced his father Edward, his mother and seven siblings to leave famine-ravaged Ireland and cross the perilous Atlantic on the SS Excelsior in 1851.

“I doubt he ever imagined his great-great-great grandson would return 200 years later as President of the United States of America,” Mr Biden told the crowd in Ballina.

“This feels like coming home.It really does, Over the years stories of this place has become part of my soul. Part of my family lore,” he said.

Mr Biden was presented with one of the bricks from the fireplace of the Blewitt homestead, which is thought to have been built by Edward and are the same as those used in the cathedral.

He said his parents, “raised me and my siblings with a fierce pride and our Irish ancestry. Pride was spoken over the history that binds us, but more importantly the values, the values that unite us to this day”.

Nobody knew Mr Biden was visiting Ballina until two weeks ago, but the town swung into action to welcome the presidential prodigal son and was festooned in American flags.

Mr Biden ballina - AP Photo/Christophe Ena
Mr Biden ballina - AP Photo/Christophe Ena

Tom Duffy, the co-owner of Jimmy’s, pulled out all the stops to get his drive-through cafe, a converted gas station, open in time.

Mr Duffy, 38, and his brother Eoin opened on Thursday and were doing a roaring trade as crowds gathered for the speech and concert, which convinced the famous Irish band The Chieftains to reunite for a final time.

Situated close to the cathedral, the brothers have named a part of their new business venture Biden Corner, while a large sign declared, “Welcome Home Mr President”.

“The town has never seen anything like it,” said Mr Duffy, who is from Ballina. “It’s a great buzz in a great town.”

Mr Duffy said he hoped the visit would bring a big boost to tourism.

“We believe this is going to put us firmly on the map. There are not many towns in Ireland that can be so clearly linked to a US president.”

As they waited by the river for President Biden to speak, children waving US flags and Irish tricoleres danced to rock music.

Young girl with stars and stripes face paint - Leon Neal/Getty Images
Young girl with stars and stripes face paint - Leon Neal/Getty Images

Others had stars and stripes draped around their necks. The two nations’ colours were draped, alternating, over the bridges that cross the river, where a green stage, next to two huge flags, was set up ready for the president.

After the speech, Mr Biden flies back to Dublin before returning to the United States in the early hours.