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.
“Kennedy was the first Irish Catholic president,” adds Scoular, “but at least 12 US presidents have been found to be out of the Scots Irish Presbyterian stock from the northern half of the country. The Scots Irish emigrated in the seventeenth and eighteenth century from what is now Northern Ireland, mainly ending up in the US southern states. They were not in the main fleeing poverty, but seeking new opportunity and religious freedom.”
Scots Irish homesteads
There are three ancestral homesteads in Northern Ireland paying homage to former US presidents Andrew Jackson (the seventh president), Ulysses S Grant (the eighteenth president) and Chester A. Arthur (the twenty-first president). All are restored to their original condition and artefacts from the time portray the historical living conditions, but the Andrew Jackson Cottage in Carrickfergus, County Antrim is particularly tempting. It is the seaside location of the haunting and world-famous Irish ballad ‘Carrickfergus’ (I wish I was in Carrickfergus), has one of the most stunning Norman castles in Ireland, and is a good base for trips to the fabled Giant’s Causeway just a few miles away. The ‘Milhouses’ of Richard Milhous Nixon (the thirty-seventh president) antecedence also hailed from the Carrickfergus area.
The Grant Homestead meanwhile is in Ballygawley, County Tyrone, (Arthur’s is in County Antrim) and close to one of Ireland’s best open-air museums, the Ulster-American Folk Park. This very popular attraction celebrates the deep Irish-American links and brings to life the story of emigration, presidents and otherwise, from Ulster to America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Costumed actors go about the historically authentic cottages, cabins, shops, Conestoga wagons and even an emigrant ship, offering tastes of traditional food and demonstrating Irish and American crafts. The ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ layout of the park dynamically illustrates emigrant life on both sides of the Atlantic.
Music fans should time their visit to coincide with the park’s annual Appalachian and Bluegrass Festival (September), which has become one of the largest bluegrass events outside of North America.
Many Americans choose to take grand overnights in the presidential suites of Irish castles and top hotels while tracing the Irish influence on their commanders-in chief and lapping up the top sights and experiences of the Emerald Isle. The presidential suite at the Ritz-Carlton Powerscourt, County Wicklow, near to Dublin, for instance, is one of the most prestigious in the country, while close to Shannon Airport, Dromoland Castle in County Clare is one of the finest castle accommodations anywhere. Period. Ask Richard Harris, Robin Williams, Angelica Huston, John Travolta and one President George W Bush, just a few of the recent visitor book signatories at this castle.
Away from the lavish golf facilities, or the world-class dining, equestrian pursuits, fishing, shopping and Irish heritage sightseeing, from either luxurious destination in no time you can be at Obama’s patch in County Offaly; in Reagan’s town, Ballyporeen, County Tipperary; or treading Kennedy’s hallowed ground in County Wexford.
You’d also be close to the medieval city of Kilkenny, which like Moneygall is claiming Obama. Magical Kilkenny, the centre of craft in Ireland, is a treasure trove of historical buildings and landmarks, exemplified by the magnificent Kilkenny Castle. A tomb recently discovered at the city’s thirteenth-century St Canice's Cathedral is now the only burial place in Ireland of one of the president’s direct relatives.
Kilkenny is also the birthplace of James Hoban and well worth a visit is an impressive memorial arbour to him, naturally in white, erected by architecture students from the Catholic University of Washington DC and local craftsmen.
Others combine finding out about Irish-American presidents with their own root-searching family history or genealogy trips. Complementing the growing online resources, there are ever-increasing numbers of services in Ireland assisting visitors with their genealogical research. Dublin's Shelbourne Hotel even provides a genealogy butler for guests.
There is also a genealogy centre for those wishing to trace their ancestry at the Queenstown Story Heritage Centre in Cobh (pronounced ‘cove’) in County Cork. Over 2.5 million people departed from Cobh as a result of the Great Famine, making it the single most important place to understand the Irish emigration to America.
Many check out the US presidential history on scenic driving tours, staying in the famous Irish guest houses and B&Bs where they are welcomed like the president and first lady anyway. A really unique trip would be to follow Ulysses S Grant’s five-day tour through Ireland in 1879. It led him from Dublin northwards to Drogheda and Dundalk, and then to a circuit of what is now Northern Ireland, with overnights in both Londonderry and Belfast.
Grant visited the historic Walls of Derry and in Belfast he went to the famous Harland & Wolff Shipyard, which within 20-odd years would build and launch the RMS Titanic. Belfast is organising massive celebrations for the centenary of the most iconic ship in the world for 2012. No US president is at this stage is linked to the great liner. But this is Ireland, give it while.
****Courtesy of Discover Ireland