Joe Biden and Stephen Colbert Share More than Their Irish Heritage
Genealogy has been an unexpected door-opener for me leading to many “Who the hell let me in here?” moments over the years — not the least of which are the opportunities I’ve had to interact with President Biden. As an Irish American, I rarely miss a chance to delve into the Irish ancestry of those I admire, so I’ve been exploring his roots since 2008 and written about them several times, including “Joey from Scranton” (pages 56–59) when he was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame.
Joe Biden has made numerous trips to Ireland over the years, but this week’s journey will be his first as President, and for both Ireland and Irish Americans, that’s a big deal. As journalist Lynne Kelleher, author of The Green and White House points out, next to John F. Kennedy, he is the most Irish of American presidents.
I’ve shared my discoveries about plenty of others with Irish heritage including Bruce Springsteen, Melissa McCarthy, Jimmy Fallon, Barack Obama, Katy Perry, Rachel Maddow, and Judy Collins, but have long been struck by the parallels between Joe Biden and one other in particular — and that’s Stephen Colbert.
I started climbing Colbert’s family tree back in 2007 and first offered some gleanings in “The Colbert (Genealogical) Report” (pages 38–41 — and yes, it was that long ago). So what do they have in common?
It’s apparent that both are Irish American, but just how Irish? In President Biden’s case, the answer is 5/8ths, while Colbert is an impressive 15/16ths. By now, many know that Biden’s immigrant ancestors hailed from Mayo, Louth, and Galway, while Colbert can claim Limerick, Antrim/Down (Belfast), Laois, Monaghan, Cavan and Offaly — at least. There are likely other counties in the mix, but some of Colbert’s family arrived early enough that it’s lucky if the paper trail says Ireland, much less a town or county. So between them, they undoubtedly have countless unaware cousins scattered around Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Both are devout Catholics. Colbert admits to having wavered in his 20s before recovering his faith, while Biden, who “who carries a rosary in his pocket and attends Mass every Sunday,” has steadfastly held to his Catholicism. Both regard it as an essential part of them, to the point that Colbert, asked how he self-identifies, responds with “Irish Catholic.”
Both were shaped by vibrant, loving mothers who lived to the age of 92. That they meant the world to their sons can be seen in Biden’s tribute to Catherine Eugenia (Finnegan) Biden and Colbert’s to Lorna (Tuft) Colbert. If you come away without dabbing your eyes after watching these videos, I wouldn’t want to know you.
Both had their lives derailed by tragedy in the 1970s. In 1972, Biden, freshly elected as the youngest senator to date, lost his first wife and their daughter, Amy, in a car accident. His sons were also injured, but survived. He pondered stepping aside from the Senate, but with the help of his family (especially his sister, Valerie), found a way to move forward.
Less than two years later, then ten-year-old Stephen lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash. As the youngest of 11 children, Stephen became even closer to his mother as his older siblings had already moved out. In the tribute mentioned above when he speaks of how she managed to “love life without bitterness” and coached her children to show “gratitude for every day we have with each other,” he is speaking at least partly about the strength she demonstrated in weathering this experience.
Both of their mothers also lost beloved brothers in World War II. President Biden’s family had already sacrificed sons to the Civil War and World War I before his uncle, Ambrose Joseph Finnegan, Jr., was killed in Papua New Guinea in 1944. Ambrose was never found, so remains unaccounted for.
Stephen Colbert never knew his uncle, but thanks to the memories of his mother, coupled with the letters her brother had written home, it’s almost as if he did. For a dramatic tale, listen to Colbert tell how his uncle escaped from the Germans after parachuting into France. Sadly, Andrew Edward “Eddie” Tuck, III, died in a jeep accident in Europe in 1945 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery with his parents.
And finally, both are kind. As I said at the outset, I’ve had the chance to meet a number of high profile individuals over the years, but President Biden and Stephen Colbert stand out in their kindness. That may sound like faint praise, but it’s a sterling and fading quality that people of their level of accomplishment have the luxury of tossing aside, and yet, neither has. Their mothers taught them well and their example continues to serve us all.
Enda Cullen says
Fascinating read. I’m totally in awe of the skill and dedication of people who can go so far back and piece together individual’s antecedents