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Callum PATON, with Jitendra JOSHI and Aurélia END in Dublin

Tearful Biden ends Ireland trip with nod at re-election

US President Joe Biden addressed an estimated 27,000 people in the town of his ancestors in Ballina, northwest Ireland. ©AFP

Ballina (Ireland) (AFP) - US President Joe Biden ended an emotive visit to Ireland on Friday with a campaign-style exhortation for hope, as he inched closer to formally launching his 2024 bid.

The 80-year-old Democrat, who has Catholic Irish roots, had a tearful encounter with a priest before a concluding speech that coincided with an angry address back home by Donald Trump, his potential Republican rival for next year's White House battle.

"I told you my plan is to run again," Biden told reporters before flying to the United States.

"I've already made that calculus.We'll announce it relatively soon.But the trip here just reinforced my sense of optimism about what can be done." 

Biden was feted by an estimated 27,000 people as he spoke in front of the floodlit St Muredach's Cathedral in Ballina, one of his family's ancestral hometowns, in northwest Ireland.

In 1828, Biden's forebear Edward Blewitt sold the bricks that went into the construction of the Roman Catholic cathedral, using the money to fund his famine-stricken family's later emigration to the United States.

The Irish and Americans were united by an optimistic vision, Biden said in the speech.

"More than anything, hope is what beats in the hearts of all our people," he said, reprising the core message of his and Barack Obama's historic campaign in 2008.

"Even during times of darkness and despair, hope has kept us marching forward toward a better future, one of a greater liberty, greater dignity and greater possibilities."

'Shock of his life'

Biden was in a more sorrowful mood earlier on a visit to the celebrated Roman Catholic pilgrimage shrine at Knock, near Ballina.

Organisers made the last-minute discovery of a link between the Biden family and one of their priests, Father Frank O'Grady, who returned to Ireland after years serving as a chaplain in the US army. 

The president's son Beau Biden died of brain cancer aged 46 in 2015.Father O'Grady administered the last rites at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center outside Washington.

O'Grady was not on the official guest list but was given hurried security clearance.

Biden said it was "incredible" to meet by chance with the priest.

"It seemed like a sign," he said of the 10-minute meeting, which was joined by his remaining son Hunter and the president's sister, Valerie Biden Owens. 

O'Grady told Irish broadcaster RTE that Biden "certainly misses his son" but that the president said his Catholic faith had "sustained him". 

"He has been grieving a lot, but I think the grief is kind of going down a bit," the priest said.

Knock Shrine parish priest Richard Gibbons told the BBC that Biden "got the shock of his life" at discovering O'Grady's presence in Knock.

"He was crying, it really affected him and then we said a prayer, said a decade of the rosary for his family.

"He lit a candle and then he took a moment or two of private (reflection) for prayer."

The US president went on to visit the Mayo Roscommon Hospice nearby with his son, sister, and Irish cousin Laurita Blewitt. 

In 2017, he came for the building's groundbreaking, and a plaque there commemorates Beau Biden.

'I'm home'

Biden then headed to the picturesque riverside town of Ballina, which was proudly displaying US flags and red, white and blue bunting as locals thronged the streets in anticipation.

Ballina commissioned a five-metre-high (16-foot-high) mural of Biden when he won the 2020 presidential vote.

Blewitt descendants still live in the town, where the Mocha Beans cafe changed its shop sign to read "Mocha Biden" for the occasion.

"That buzz is incredible around Ballina today," the cafe's owner Trevor Mangan told AFP.

As a baby, Flori Garvin was given a cuddly toy donkey by Biden when the Democrat visited Ballina as vice president.Now aged seven, she was back with her grandmother, Elizabeth Robinson, 63.

"She hasn't stopped talking about it," Robinson said."She thinks she's going to see him herself."

The surrounding county of Mayo was the ancestral homeland of one branch of the Biden family, and the president also toured a genealogy centre to find out more about his origins.

Biden had declared in a speech Thursday to the Irish parliament: "I'm home."

Ahead of a potential rematch against Trump, the president dwelt both at the parliament and the cathedral on the success of Irish emigres in carving out a new life far from home.

"We Irish," he said on Friday, "we always believe in a better tomorrow because no matter what, we've always carried hope in our hearts."

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