BALLINA, Ireland — What already promised to be a day of high energy but also great emotion for President Joe Biden had even more in store than even his closest aides could have expected.
During one of his first stops in County Mayo on Friday, at Knock Shrine, the president was stunned to encounter the Catholic priest who had given the last rites to his late son, Beau, a White House official told NBC News.
The Rev. Frank O’Grady, who now serves at Knock Shrine, had been an Army chaplain based at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in 2015 when Beau Biden died from brain cancer. The priest’s presence at the shrine Friday was not something aides had anticipated, and he was not on the original guest list. The president became emotional at the chance encounter, the official said.
At an event later on Friday, Biden said the unexpected meeting with O’Grady was “incredible.”
“It seemed like a sign,” he said.
Biden’s team was already preparing for a sentimental moment since Biden was scheduled to visit a local hospice that included a plaque dedicated to Beau Biden. The president’s late son was also on his mind Thursday as he addressed Ireland’s parliament.
“I hadn’t planned on running for president again in 2020,” Biden said, referring to Beau’s death. “As a matter of fact, he should be the one standing here giving this speech to you.”
Biden has detailed how, in his son’s final days, Beau urged him to not let his grief overwhelm him, and asked his dad to promise he would remain engaged in public life. In October 2015, five months after Beau died, Biden announced he would not run in the 2016 presidential race, citing the emotional toll on his family.
In 2016, Biden and his family traveled to Ireland as he prepared for a life beyond politics, a trip that came just as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had secured the Democratic nomination. He returned to Ireland a year later as a private citizen for the groundbreaking of the hospice center, which opened in 2021.
The powerful emotional moments on Friday stood in contrast to the party atmosphere the president later encountered in Ballina, the hometown of his great-great-great grandfather. Thousands were in attendance for an event that included musical performances by the Chieftains and two other Irish rock bands.
When Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 election, one of the biggest celebrations in Ireland was in Ballina. The County Mayo town of more than 10,000 includes descendants of Edward Blewitt, a brick seller who sold 27,000 bricks used to build the Catholic cathedral where Biden spoke on Friday.
Ballina’s mayor has joked that the event might be one where Biden announces his reelection plans. Indeed, at times over the last three days, the support and encouragement the president has received from adoring crowds across his ancestral home counties and even from Irish lawmakers in Dublin Thursday energized a president abroad despite his shaky political standing at home. Biden is having “the time of his life,” Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Thursday.
But the moments of high emotion also inform why one longtime Biden adviser said he still is reserving the right not to run. He has often noted that while he intends to run, he’s also a “respecter of fate.”
“I’m at the end of my career, not the beginning,” Biden said toward the end of his remarks before Ireland’s parliament Thursday, noting that “you can see how old I am.”
“I come to the job with more experience than any president in American history. It doesn’t make me better or worse, but it gives me few excuses,” he said.