Since JFK's trip to County Wexford in 1963, almost every US President has traveled to Ireland, many visiting their ancestral homes.

It was really when President Barack Obama visited his ancestral family home in Moneygall, County Offaly in 2011 that 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. 

Irish American presidents

The complete list of US President with Irish roots includes Andrew Jackson, James Knox Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant (also the first US president to visit Ireland), Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton (he claims Irish ancestry, though this is disputed), George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden.

Most of the 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.

During the early 20th century, those attitudes began to change, and then along came John F. Kennedy.

President John F. Kennedy

Although neither his parents nor grandparents were born in Ireland, Kennedy 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.

President John F. Kennedy in Ireland in 1963. (Getty Images)

President John F. Kennedy in Ireland in 1963. (Getty Images)

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."

President Ronald Reagan on St. Patrick's Day. (Ronald Reagan Library)

President Ronald Reagan on St. Patrick's Day. (Ronald Reagan Library)

The reputation of the Irish in the US

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.

*Originally published in 2013, updated in February 2022 with new information. 

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