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.