If you’re of the Reagan tribe, you have American Presidents and High Kings of Ireland in your background. Yet what are the Irish origins of the surname?
An Irish name with great significance in American history and culture, the most famous Reagan worldwide is undoubtedly that of the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan. It can mainly be found in the province of Leinster in Ireland with the variants Regan and O Riagáin.
Born on February 6, 1911, Reagan became Governor of California (with a margin of over a million votes) in 1967 after a successful career as a movie actor.
However, his career as a national politician was to be infinitely more successful, with Reagan rising in popularity thanks to his positive, can-do attitude in the face of the Iran hostage crisis and the floundering economy. Two main challenges for the United States in the run-up to his election.
During his term as President, Reagan continued to prove immensely popular and was regarded as a superb communicator and a man of great decency, with a common touch. By all accounts, his policies helped America return to prosperity, as well as improving job creation and bolstering the country’s national defense.
He also had that indefinable quality of making Americans feel better as a nation. After taking office in 1981, he was the victim of attempted assassination after just 69 days. He was hospitalized for his gunshot wounds, but recovered and returned to office, which only bolstered the public’s growing fondness for him.
Reagan remained the oldest President ever elected to office, aged 69 when he took up his first term; he was sworn in for his second term in 1985. This record was only beaten by 45, Donald Trump, who was elected in 2016 aged 70.
Reagan passed away on June 5, 2004, aged 93, after a ten-year battle with Alzheimer’s Disease, and was survived by his wife Nancy until her death in 2016.
Although there is an ongoing debate about his legacy and long-term effects on the US of ‘Reaganomics’, he still ranks among the most popular of modern Presidents in American opinion polls.
Reagan’s Irish roots can be traced to the Tipperary town of Ballyporeen, where his great-grandfather Michael Regan (who later changed the family name to Reagan) was baptized in 1829. Michael Regan left Ireland to find a better life, first traveling to London, and then emigrating to America in 1857. Ronald Reagan famously referred to his Irish-American ancestry more than once and even visited the village of Ballyporeen in 1984 during his presidency.
The name Reagan can first be found originally in three main septs across Leinster and beyond, and is said to mean ‘son of the little king’. The main sept from Tara was one of the Four Tribes of Tara, who were active and vital forces against Scandinavian invasions during the tenth century. They were ultimately defeated around 1180 by Normans and were driven away to Leix.
Another significant sept were Riagáins who ruled across Leinster and were descended from Donnchadh, brother of Brian Ború, High King of Ireland from 1002-1014. A smaller sept using the name was found in County Cork and was related to MacCarthys of South West Cork and the town of Carbery.
* Originally published in March 2018, updated in 2022.