Genealogists believe Irish blood has flowed in the veins of an amazing 22 of the 44 US presidents to date.
Most Dubliners know that the Irish Parliament building bears a striking resemblance to the White House in Washington DC, central, of course, to all American presidents. But many a visitor to the historic sights of the Irish capital – US citizens especially – do a double take when they come upon the beautiful Leinster House in the city’s Kildare Street.
And there’s good reason for the double take. James Hoban, the celebrated Kilkenny architect who designed the White House, modelled it on Leinster House, working hand in glove alongside the revered first president of the United States George Washington to create a building fit for a new country and constitution. In an Ireland choc-full of US presidential connections, and with America itself, the Irish delight in this close and direct link to the very beginnings of the most powerful nation on Earth.
But it is just the beginnings. Actually, three US presidents have addressed the Irish people from Leinster House (John F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton). And no fewer than five have visited Ireland in living memory (JFK, Reagan, Richard Nixon, Clinton and George W Bush). Now President Barack O’Bama, as the Irish affectionately dub him, will make it six as he touches down on the ‘oul sod’ in May 2011.
He will be heading straight for his ancestral home in Moneygall, County Offaly, and there and then the US Commander-in-Chief will instantly create a new destination for those who want to discover the trail of homesteads and birthplaces, events and attractions that tell the humble histories and stories of the US presidents from the Emerald Isle. For where presidents go in Ireland, and where presidents come from in Ireland, the interest is ginormous.
The Kennedy legacy
“JFK, the thirty-fifth president, probably relished his Irish heritage as much as any US president,” says Irish historian Clive Scoular. “He called his Irish homecoming ‘the best four days of my life’.
“Ireland loved – and still loves – him dearly. Actually a leading Irish TV personality recently published a new book entitled JFK in Ireland: Four Days That Changed a President.”
The Kennedy connections are to County Wexford near Dublin and there is a veritable Kennedy hotspot there, centered around the town of New Ross and with the Kennedy Homestead in Dunganstown its main attraction.
JFK’s great-great grandfather lived at the homestead prior to sailing to America to start a new life. It has an audiovisual presentation and guided tours, which takes visitors through five generations of the family history and the emigration and historical settings around the Kennedy legacy. New Ross also has the Kennedy Arboretum, Ireland's national monument to JFK, and the town’s annual JFK Dunbrody Festival (July) celebrates the connection with the Irish diaspora.
“Kennedy was the first Irish Catholic president,” adds Scoular, “but at least 12 US presidents have been found to be out of the Scots Irish Presbyterian stock from the northern half of the country. The Scots Irish emigrated in the seventeenth and eighteenth century from what is now Northern Ireland, mainly ending up in the US southern states. They were not in the main fleeing poverty, but seeking new opportunity and religious freedom.”
Scots Irish homesteads
There are three ancestral homesteads in Northern Ireland paying homage to former US presidents Andrew Jackson (the seventh president), Ulysses S Grant (the eighteenth president) and Chester A. Arthur (the twenty-first president). All are restored to their original condition and artefacts from the time portray the historical living conditions, but the Andrew Jackson Cottage in Carrickfergus, County Antrim is particularly tempting. It is the seaside location of the haunting and world-famous Irish ballad ‘Carrickfergus’ (I wish I was in Carrickfergus), has one of the most stunning Norman castles in Ireland, and is a good base for trips to the fabled Giant’s Causeway just a few miles away. The ‘Milhouses’ of Richard Milhous Nixon (the thirty-seventh president) antecedence also hailed from the Carrickfergus area.
The Grant Homestead meanwhile is in Ballygawley, County Tyrone, (Arthur’s is in County Antrim) and close to one of Ireland’s best open-air museums, the Ulster-American Folk Park. This very popular attraction celebrates the deep Irish-American links and brings to life the story of emigration, presidents and otherwise, from Ulster to America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Costumed actors go about the historically authentic cottages, cabins, shops, Conestoga wagons and even an emigrant ship, offering tastes of traditional food and demonstrating Irish and American crafts. The ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ layout of the park dynamically illustrates emigrant life on both sides of the Atlantic.