Since JFK's trip to County Wexford in 1963, almost every US President has traveled to Ireland, many visiting their ancestral homes, including the new POTUS Joe Biden.
It was really when President Barack Obama's visit to his ancestral family home in Moneygall, County Offaly historians were encouraged to take a closer look at the 22 American presidents with roots in Ireland. What better day to look at these results than on President's Day!
John Robert Greene, a historian, and author of dozens of books explained: "It's very simple, Catholic votes …There's not a huge love of Irish tradition, with the possible exception of JFK, Reagan, and Bill Clinton, but there's a huge love for Catholic votes and particularly Irish Catholic votes."
Today, of course, Joe Biden resides in the White House, a proud Irish Catholic, with roots dating back to the Irish Famine, and a strong family connection to County Mayo and County Louth. Today, President's Day, we look at the history of Irish heritage among the United States presidents.
President Ronald Regan
Famously back in 1984, President Ronald Regan and his wife Nancy visited Ballyporeen in County Tipperary. Eight bed and breakfasts, two cafes, and souvenir businesses opened up. The tourist boom lasted for six or seven years.
The local pub was renamed after the president before he even arrived and after his death in 2005 the Reagan presidential library acquired the interior of the pub. The walls were decked with images of the president around the world.
The pub's owner, Mary O'Farrell, told the BBC, "He was real Irish in temperament …You'd know he was Irish, he had that sense of humor and glint in his eye."
22 Irish American presidents
Most of the 22 Irish American presidents have their roots in Co Tyrone and Co Antrim and come from a Protestant background of 19th century Ulster. They generally settled in the south and west in the US.
Later, they labeled themselves Scots-Irish in a bid to distinguish themselves from the Catholics fleeing Ireland during the potato famine of the 1840s. It better served those running for the presidency to not associate with those coming out of Ireland, who were being accused of stealing American jobs.
The complete list includes Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, James Polk, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant (also the first US president to visit Ireland), Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
During the early 20th century, those attitudes began to change, and then along came John F. Kennedy.
John F. Kennedy
Although neither his parents nor grandparents were born in Ireland, he forged a solid Irish identity and he became the first Catholic to take the office. At Kennedy's rallies, filled with prominent Irish Catholics such as Tip O'Neill, "Danny Boy" was the tune of choice.
Talking about Kennedy, Greene said, "He clearly wanted the link to the Irish and he made himself more Irish than any other American president."
Since Kennedy, every president apart from Gerald Ford has claimed some sort of Irish ancestry, says Greene. Although he commented that in Bill Clinton's case there was no evidence.
The reputation of the Irish
Carl Shanahan, the founder of Wild Geese, an organization that promotes Irish culture in the US and worldwide, says "Being Irish doesn't hurt you at any level of society. We were never at war with Americans like the Germans, the Italians, and the Japanese. In Washington's army, the numbers were a third Irish or Scottish-Irish …There is an affinity by association. It's the reputation of the Irish, the Fighting Irish. A guy who gets off his feet and fights the battle and wins. We had boxing champs and baseball teams."
He continues, "We fought their wars, opened up their territories and built their cities. There's nowhere to tell that story and if we don't tell it, then people will forget."
One excellent demonstration of this is the St. Patrick's Day parade, which is older than the United States itself. The first parade took place 250 years ago in 1766, in New York, ten years before the Declaration of Independence.
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* Originally published in 2013, updated with recent information in 2021.