Joe Biden: US Vice President returns to his Irish roots

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Joe Biden has Irish ancestry on both his mother's and father's side

"Being Irish, without fear of contradiction, has shaped my entire life."

The words of US Vice President Joe Biden just last month at an Irish-American event in Washington.

The American-born 73 year old is proud of his Irish heritage and, on Tuesday, began a six-day visit to the land of his forefathers.

He is among the 34.7m US residents who claim Irish ancestry according to the most recent census in 2010.

They include former presidents John F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and the current US president, Barack Obama.

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Barack Obama chose Joe Biden as his running mate in the 2008 US Presidential election and the pair have been in office for almost eight years

Obama's right-hand man was born Joseph Robinette Biden Jr into a family of Irish-American Catholics in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1942.

With Irish ancestors traced in both his mother's and his father's lineage, he is estimated to be "roughly five-eighths Irish".

That is according to the US genealogist Megan Smolenyak, who has researched his pedigree in great depth, earning her a personal message of thanks from Mr Biden.

The vice president flew into Dublin on Tuesday evening and his itinerary includes visits to counties Louth and Mayo, reflecting the various branches of his family tree.

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Joe Biden said: "Being Irish, without fear of contradiction, has shaped my entire life" as he opened the 'Ireland 100' arts festival in Washington last month

His most influential Irish connection stems from his late mother, Jean Biden, whose full maiden name was Catherine Eugenia (Jean) Finnegan.

She is descended from the Finnegan family from County Louth, close to the border with Northern Ireland.

'In midst of tragedy'

Smolenyak's research suggests that Mr Biden's maternal great-great-grandfather, Owen Finnegan, emigrated from the port of Newry, County Down, in 1849.

He was among the estimated 2m people who left Ireland during the Great Famine, which saw nearly one-eighth of the entire population die from starvation and disease.

"Owen Finnegan arrived in New York on May 31, 1849, just five weeks after Joseph Kearney, Obama's ancestor," Smolenyak writes on her website.

"Curiously, both men were shoemakers."

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Joe Biden, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny and Barack Obama joked with reporters during St Patrick's Day celebrations at the White House

Ahead of this week's visit, Mr Biden spoke about his family's Irish values in an interview with the Irish Times newspaper and state broadcaster, RTÉ.

"I grew up in a household where my grandfather and grandmother Finnegan, all my mother's brothers and my father told us about the courage and commitment it took for our relatives to emigrate from Ireland - in the midst of tragedy - to distant shores where they didn't know what awaited them," he said.

"And those values - their passion and principle, their faith and fortitude - shaped the way my siblings and I were raised."

The Finnegans' influence has been passed on to the vice president's own descendants - one of his grand-daughters is named Finnegan Biden.

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Vice President Joe Biden took the oath of office on 20 January, 2009, in front of members of his family in Washington, DC

His Irish roots stretch not only to County Louth but also into County Mayo, from whence his great-great-great-grandfather, Edward Blewitt, emigrated in 1851.

'Thoroughly Irish'

Blewitt was the maiden name of Mr Biden's maternal grandmother and distant relatives still live in County Mayo.

Some of them remember his mother personally, as Jean Biden visited the Republic of Ireland in the late 1970s and met members of her extended family.

Mr Biden credits his mother with instilling in him a sense of equality, and a belief that everyone "deserves to be treated with dignity and respect".

He describes her outlook on equality as a "thoroughly Irish sentiment".