Next to President Obama Chief Justice John Roberts is arguably the most powerful man in America. He is the man who saved President Obama’s original health care plan by leading the Supreme Court to a 5-4 verdict and now he has written the 6-3 decision essentially enshrining it in law.
He has strong County Limerick and Irish dancing connections.
Indeed, the Chief Justice loves ceili dancing and has taken part in many ceilis around the Washington DC area where he is a familiar figure at Irish dance events.
His mother-in-law, Kathleen O’Sullivan (nee O’Carroll) comes from Newtownbarry, Charleville, and Roberts and his wife, Jane, have a vacation home in Knocklong, County Limerick.
A 2012 profile in Newsweek of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts described him as a “raucous Irish dancer” and said ceili or Irish set dancing is how he unwinds from his hectic schedule at the court.
The profile, by Daniel Klaidman, stated that Roberts was introduced to Irish dancing by his wife, Jane Sullivan, a first generation Irish American from the Bronx, whose mother comes from Cork.
Sullivan is a highly successful lawyer who is “deeply attuned to her Gaelic roots and Catholic faith.”
Her Irish roots led to them renting a timeshare in a cottage in Knocklong, Limerick, near the Cork town of Charleville where her mother hails from. It was on their Irish trips together that Justice Roberts became a fan of Irish dancing. He has taken part in the Willie Clancy school, in Clare, where Irish set dancing is a major feature.
Klaidman wrote “As is often the case with highly disciplined people, Roberts seems to have at least one venue where he allows himself to cut loose: he is, according to friends, a raucous Irish dancer.
“He was introduced to the traditional dances by Jane on trips to Ireland, where the Roberts family has a one-eighth share in a cottage in County Limerick. And while céilí, the form of dancing Roberts does, is highly choreographed, with partners linking arms and lines formed, those who have seen him in action say he moves with great intensity and verve.”
Klaidman quotes a Washington attorney who has seen Roberts dance: “It was incredible...He was really getting into it, stomping his feet. His face was red. He was having a blast.”
His wife’s family have very positive recollections of the Chief Justice and wife Jane.
“We have had a few hooleys there – a song and dance,” Jane’s uncle Nicholas told the Limerick Leader.
The couple were delighted to get a residence in Ireland. “The way it happened was, I was going racing up the country and I saw these houses up for sale so I rang the sisters and told them. It was decided then to buy one as a holiday home,” Nicholas explained.
The chief justice and his wife have also enjoyed a barbecue at Nicholas's daughter Mary's house near Charleville.
“We had an impromptu barbecue here one summer and they were on holidays at the time. We had a great night,” said Mary
“He is very nice – very down to earth,” she said of the chief justice.
“We would have been very close to Jane growing up. She spent a lot of her summers here. She would have used Ireland as a base and stayed with us when she went hitch-hiking around Europe – she is the adventurous type.”
On his downtime in Ireland, Chief Justice Roberts likes to play a round of golf or go see a hurling match.
Nicholas recalls when he took the chief justice to Semple Stadium for the Cork and Galway All-Ireland senior hurling qualifier in 2008.
“He had one of the secret service with him, and during the game the secret service man’s phone rang and it was his wife. He said to her: ‘I’m watching one of the greatest games’,” said Nicholas.
Jane, whose mother left Charleville for New York in the 1950s, where she met and married John Sullivan, qualified with a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center. She met her future husband in the late 1980s and they married in 1996. They have two children, Jack and Josephine.
In 2009, Jane told IrishCentral's Niall O'Dowd how much her husband loves his trips to Ireland.
“The way to his heart was through the golf. Last summer we didn’t get any golfing, we hiked the Glen of Aherlow; there are many things to do there, it’s fabulous. We came to Ireland from Austria, and we did hiking there, but the hiking in Ireland is wilder; there’s hardly anybody out there, and it’s just us and the sheep.”