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President Kennedy leaving Ireland from Shannon Airport during his 1963 visit.

Presidential Visits to Ireland

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President Kennedy leaving Ireland from Shannon Airport during his 1963 visit.

Ollie Hayes runs a cozy pub in Moneygall, County Offaly. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It was at Ollie Hayes Pub, after all, that President Barack Obama tossed back a pint when he visited Ireland back in May.

“My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall Obamas, and I’ve come home to find the apostrophe we lost somewhere along the way,” the president later quipped.

Now that the pomp and circumstance of Obama’s visit is over, a question remains: Will Ollie Hayes follow the precedent set by Ballyporeen publican John O’Farrell?

Twenty-seven years earlier, O’Farrell poured a pint for a visiting U.S. president. Ronald Reagan paid a visit to his ancestral village in Tipperary in June of 1984. The visit made such an impression on

O’Farrell that he famously changed the name of his pub to The Ronald Reagan.
Will Moneygall locals some day drop by The Barack Obama for a pint? Time will tell. What we do know is that Obama’s visit in May was not the first time a U.S. president electrified an audience in Ireland. Seven presidents have paid a visit to the Emerald Isle, each with a story as unique – and at times, as controversial – as the presidents themselves.
 
Ulysses S. Grant in Ireland

The first president to visit Ireland was no longer president when he arrived in Dublin in 1879.
Ulysses S. Grant had dominated the American political scene for well over a decade. By the end of the U.S. Civil War he was Commanding General of the Union Army. Such a prominent role in the military made him a strong candidate for president in 1868, when he defeated Democrat Horatio Seymour, New York’s governor.

Following his two tumultuous terms as president, Grant announced he would be taking a trip around the world. Stops included Germany, China, Russia, Britain – and Ireland.

Grant arrived in Dublin on January 3, 1879 and over the next few days, visited Trinity College, the Royal Irish Academy and the Bank of Ireland. Speaking to a crowd outside of City Hall, Grant said: “I am by birth a citizen of a country where there are more Irishmen, either native born or the descendants of Irishmen, than there are in all of Ireland.”

But Grant’s public embrace of the Irish concealed some disturbing facts. For example, he had sympathized with the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know Nothing movement back in the 1850s.

The anti-Catholic label stuck to Grant in Ireland. Catholic members of the Cork City Town Council objected to Grant’s visit, so Grant went to Ulster instead. Historians have speculated that Grant felt more comfortable in the heavily Protestant North.

Nevertheless, as President Grant had voiced support for the Irish Fenians movement, and did visit Pope Leo XIII during his world tour.

Grant visited (what he called) Londonderry as well as Belfast, speaking warmly of Ulster’s deep connections to the U.S. Grant’s own roots are in Dungannon, Tyrone, where his great-grandfather left in the 1730s.

Grant, ultimately, was embraced by the Irish, even if the tour he was given tended to conceal the nation’s political and social problems. (Grant later wrote that he saw “no distress and no poverty in Ireland.”) Not long after Grant visited Ireland, a stevedore on the Boston docks was on his way to buying a saloon and becoming an influential ward boss. Little did P.J. Kennedy know that his grandson John would make a famous visit to the Irish village P.J.’s own parents had fled at the height of the Famine.
 
JFK’s Homecoming

When John F. Kennedy finally decided to visit his ancestral home in Dunganstown, Co. Wexford in June of 1963, most Irish Americans were thrilled. Not all, however.

“You’ve got all the Irish votes in this country that you’ll ever get,” Kennedy aide Kenny O’Donnell objected. “If you go to Ireland, people will say it’s just a pleasure trip.”

To which Kennedy responded: “That’s exactly what I want!”

Between civil rights and the Cold War, these were tense times for JFK. Right before he visited Ireland, Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech at the Berlin Wall.

JFK’s trip to Ireland in June 1963 is now the stuff of legend. He met with de Valera and was greeted like a rock star.  In the weeks leading up to the trip, the humble cottage owned by Mary Kennedy Ryan – a distant relative – had to endure several modest improvements. Concrete was poured in the muck-filled front of the barn and indoor plumbing was installed.  (As Kennedy family historian Thomas Maier has noted, though Mrs. Ryan seemed like a quaint rural matriarch, she actually had an active past with the IRA.)

JFK told his distant relatives: “When my great-grandfather came to America and my grandfather was growing up, the Irish Americans had a song about the familiar sign which went: ‘No Irish Need Apply.’” He then said: “In 1960, the American people took the sign down from the last place it was still hanging – the door of the White House.”

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