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Poetry-loving Biden heads to Ireland, home of the 'best poets in the world'

President Biden is pictured in the Oval Office on St. Patrick's Day. Biden, who is Irish Catholic, is traveling to Ireland on Tuesday.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden is pictured in the Oval Office on St. Patrick's Day. Biden, who is Irish Catholic, is traveling to Ireland on Tuesday.

President Biden wears his Irish Catholic heritage on his sleeve — a fact that will be on full display during his visit to Ireland this coming week. The trip marks the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement that ended violence in Northern Ireland. But it is also a personal visit. Biden plans to see two counties where he has family roots.

So while Biden is expected to talk diplomacy and economics, there's a very good chance he also cites the great Irish poets William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney along the way. After all, Biden quotes Irish poets so often, he has a joke about it.

"They always used to kid me because I am always quoting Irish poets on the floor of the Senate," Biden said at a White House event in honor of the singer Elton John. "They think I did it because I'm Irish. That's not the reason. I do it because they're the best poets in the world."

Biden tells this joke a lot, usually right before quoting some more Irish poetry.

Dan Cluchey, who was a senior presidential speechwriter in the early part of the Biden administration, said sometimes Biden would ask his speechwriters to include a stanza from Heaney or Yeats. Other times the writers would just proactively do it, knowing the president would want it. And sometimes if there wasn't any Irish poetry written into the speech, Biden would just toss some in from memory on the fly.

"I wouldn't say that he exclusively quotes Irish poets," Cluchey said. "But I think you're probably looking at a ratio of at least a 90/10 scenario."

A deep connection to W.B. Yeats

Biden frequently returns to a line from "Easter, 1916" by Yeats.

"All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born," the poem goes. It is about a failed uprising in Ireland's fight for independence from Great Britain, but Biden has applied it to an America divided, a changing world, the aftermath of wildfires in California and to mark the Jewish High Holy Days. And yes, it appeared in many Senate floor speeches.

But that is far from the only Yeats line that Biden has at the tip of his tongue.

"Think where man's glory most begins and ends and say, my glory was I had such friends," Biden recited at a White House event honoring the Irish rock band U2.

Biden added that those are "words that echo from an island close to my heart as a descendent of County Mayo and County Louth." Biden's ancestors left Ireland during the famine to come to the U.S. on what were known as coffin ships, because so many people died on the journey.

Yeats won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923 for giving "expression to the spirit of a whole nation." For Biden, the compulsion to quote his words runs deep. During a CNN town hall in 2020, Biden described himself as a child using his uncle Ed Finnegan's book of Yeats as he worked to overcome his stutter.

"I'd get up in the night — in the middle of the night — with a flashlight, and I'd look in the mirror and I would try to memorize what I could," Biden said. He would stare at his face, concentrating hard not to contort it when he got caught on a word.

In a way Biden found his own voice through Yeats. But it was a different Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright whom Biden quoted as he accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for president in August 2020.

When hope and history rhyme

"The Irish poet Seamus Heaney once wrote, 'history says don't hope on this side of the grave, but then once in a lifetime, the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme," Biden said at the convention.

Biden connected the writing to his campaign, saying that it was America's moment "to make hope and history rhyme, with passion and purpose."

Biden isn't the first or the only politician to quote that passage from Heaney's play "The Cure at Troy." Then-President Bill Clinton notably did so in Northern Ireland in 1995 to support the peace process.

But Biden may well be the politician who quotes those lines the most.

"That portion of the 'Cure at Troy,' I think for him is a touchstone," said Cluchey, the speechwriter. "I think it's one of those things. Not only the president is like this, but so many leaders are like this ... when they've found the perfect way of expressing a certain feeling, there's no improving on it, which it's hard for me to argue with that."

During his trip, Biden will mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, a 1998 peace accord that brought an end to decades of religious and ethnic violence in Northern Ireland. "The Cure At Troy" premiered in 1990 in the midst of "the Troubles." It was an adaptation of a Sophocles' play set in the Trojan war, but it clearly was meant to speak to a divided Ireland, said Cahir O'Doherty, the arts and travel editor for the Irish Voice. As a young man, he attended the premiere of the play.

"No matter how deeply stuck you feel, your country and a war might be, there is always the possibility that you can snatch some kind of hope or future or possible way forward," O'Doherty said of the play's message.

Soldiers and civilians are pictured in Northern Ireland during The Troubles in August 1969.
Evening Standard / Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Soldiers and civilians are pictured in Northern Ireland during The Troubles in August 1969.

O'Doherty said he's been in many a room when a politician starts talking about hope and history rhyming and everyone just rolls their eyes. But he sees Biden as someone who has lived a life of great joy and great sorrow in "the Irish way," something that is given voice by the great Irish poets.

"It may be a reflex, but I think it is heartfelt," O'Doherty said of Biden's frequent citations of Irish poetry. "I think that it steers him and steadies him. And it's something that he reaches for the way that the Irish people do themselves. We reach for the poets when language fails us, when history fails us, when we feel that there's no path forward."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 9, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story misspelled the name Yeats three times.
Tamara Keith
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. In that time, she has chronicled the final years of the Obama administration, covered Hillary Clinton's failed bid for president from start to finish and thrown herself into documenting the Trump administration, from policy made by tweet to the president's COVID diagnosis and the insurrection. In the final year of the Trump administration and the first year of the Biden administration, she focused her reporting on the White House response to the COVID-19 pandemic, breaking news about global vaccine sharing and plans for distribution of vaccines to children under 12.