It’s no secret that there’s a large Irish-American community over in the States. Irish people have been emigrating (sometimes permanently, sometimes not so permanently) ‘across the pond’ since Ireland suffered a famine in the 1840s. Many poor families had no other option but to send their children to the US in search of a better life, and young men, women and sometimes whole families made harrowing journeys on run-down ‘coffin ships’ across the Atlantic. When they arrived (if they survived the journey) they were emaciated and disease-ridden, and only allowed to settle in certain parts of whatever city allowed them to enter. Many people thrived once they’d settled in, making more money than they ever would have at home and sending most of it back to the families they left behind – despite only working low-wage, manual labour jobs.
The trend of emigration continued throughout the 19th century, although at a slower pace, and the Irish diaspora grew and spawned new generations. Each time the economy took a downward turn the numbers of emigrants would rise again, and this continued right up until recent decades. Nowadays with more stringent visa restrictions it’s difficult for people to stay for longer than a few years, but the Irish American community is still one of the largest in the States – especially in the north eastern cities like Boston and New York where the original emigrants made their lives. You don’t have to search very hard to find evidence of Irish culture and heritage in the US – in fact the American St. Patrick’s Day parades and celebrations are bigger than the Irish ones! Here are some members of the Irish American community that may surprise you – apart from the ones who have traditional Irish surnames, of course!
Gene Kelly: Gene’s paternal grandparent was one of the many Irish people to emigrate to New York from Derry during the Famine. According to his wife, Gene was very proud of his Irish identity and even applied for an Irish passport. When his paperwork arrived in Gaelic, she said he was ‘like a little kid with it’.
Kurt Cobain: Nirvana’s frontman only discovered his Irish roots at the height of his fame, when he discovered that his surname was Irish by flipping through a phone book and noting similarities with the more common surname of ‘Coburn’. After his death his ancestry was chased up, and it turns out he’s the fifth generation of Samuel and Letitia Cobane, who emigrated to the States from Co. Tyrone.
Henry Ford: The man who revolutionised motor transport by creating the Model T, Henry Ford, was a direct descendant of an Irishman. William Ford left his tiny cottage in Ballinscarthy, Co. Cork, for the land of opportunity in the late 19th century. Henry returned in 1912, already a rich man, and attempted to buy his old homestead. When the current owners asked for an astronomical price, he gave up on the idea – but not before stealing the cornerstone of the house and taking it with him.
Walt Disney: Walt Disney’s great grandfather was born in Kilkenny in 1801. He made the trip over to the US with his wife and family, eventually settling in Ontario, Canada. The family eventually made its way south again to Missouri, where Walt was born in 1901. Always connected to his roots, Walt had his honeymoon in Ireland was even known to have worn a claddagh ring.
F Scott Fitzgerald: The author of The Great Gatsby is usually thought of as a classic American author, but in fact he has Irish blood on both sides. His mother’s family emigrated from Ireland during the Famine and started their life in America in poverty. Fitzgerald was highly shameful of this fact and rarely spoke about it, preferring to attach himself to his father’s wealthy lineage instead.
Anne Rice: Anne Rice is another American writer who had Irish roots through both of her parents. She grew up in a strict Irish Catholic household in New Orleans’ Irish Channel, and from early childhood was surrounded by Irish storytellers which she cites as one of the factors that lead to her becoming an author.
Conan O’Brien: You can’t get much more Irish American than Conan O’Brien. Born and raised in Massachusetts, both of his parents are Irish Catholics, and all of his ancestors were too. They initially emigrated from Ireland in the 1850s and married only other Irish Catholics. He traces his lineage back to County Kerry, and visited his ancestral home for an episode of his TV show Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
John Ford: One of the greatest directors of Westerns in Hollywood history, John Ford was intensely proud of his Irish roots. His father hailed from Galway and his mother from the Aran Islands, and he often featured Irish immigrant characters in his films. Two of his best known films were set in Ireland too; The Quiet Man and The Informer.
John McEnroe: With a surname like McEnroe it shouldn’t come as surprise to many that this hot-headed tennis player has Irish blood; it comes from his father’s side. The sports star also married a woman with Irish roots; actress Tatum O’Neal, with whom he had three children (one of whom has the typically Irish name of Sean).
Jackie Kennedy Onassis: Although she was presented to the American public as the descendant of French aristocrats, the woman behind JFK was in fact at least half Irish. Her entire maternal family came from the Emerald Isle, two of whom were from county Clare. With surnames like Lee, Norton, Merritt and Curry, she’s almost as Irish as the Kennedy family she married into!
Zooey Deschanel: Her surname might not sound very Irish, but Zooey Deschanel can claim Irish roots on her mother’s side. Her mother’s maiden name was Weir, and her ancestry is made up of not only Irish, but also French, Dutch, Swiss and English parts. Zooey and her sister Emily were raised in a Catholic household.
Macklemore: One of the biggest rap musicians to come out of the States in recent years, Macklemore’s real name is Ben Haggerty. Born and raised in Seattle, a large part of his heritage is Irish and judging by the crowds that turn up at his Irish concerts (last year’s Dublin gig was the largest crowd he’d played for in his entire career to date), we’ve truly welcomed him as one of our own. In one of his most popular songs, Irish Celebration, he details his Irish upbringing.
Rosie O’Donnell: Veteran TV star Rosie O’Donnell only traced her Irish heritage in the last few years as part of the show ‘Who do you Think you Are?’ Having lost her mother at the age of 10 she never knew how far back her roots went. It turns out, her Kildare ancestors were forced into a poorhouse during the famine, and only managed to escape to America and Canada because of a generous benefactor.
Pink (Alecia Moore): With a surname like Moore, it’s not surprising that pop singer Pink (real name Alecia) has some Irish blood. It comes from her father’s side, who traces his lineage from both Irish, English and German family members. Her father was raised Catholic and fought in the Vietnam War, and instilled typically Irish values in his children growing up.
Joe Biden: Current Vice President of the United States (until 2016), Joe Biden is just one of a long line of American politicians who claim an Irish background. He has links to the Emerald Isle on both sides of the family, but primarily his mother’s. Her family – the Finnegans – hailed from Louth and Derry. Joe and his siblings were raised in a strict Roman Catholic household.
Maureen Dowd: One of the most well known columnists in America, Maureen Dowd has written for the New York Times since the 1990s, and previously held positions at Time Magazine and the now defunct Washington Star. Her mother’s surname was Meenehan and both her mother and father claim Irish ancestry. Like many others on this list she comes from a Catholic background.
Tom Brady: NFL star Tom Brady has Irish ancestry and is extremely proud of it, too. His great-grandparents came from Cavan and Cork, emigrating to the States during the famine. He has made several trips to Ireland and speaks highly of the time he has spent over here so far, saying that anyone who visits Ireland leaves with ‘a greater sense of history’.
Anjelica Houston: Veteran actress, director and all round film star Anjelica Houston has true Celtic roots; her father has both Irish, Welsh and Scottish ancestry! She has spent plenty of time over in Ireland, writing about it in the first volume of her memoirs. She also directed and starred in Agnes Browne, a film about an single Irish mother set in Dublin.
Jimmy Fallon: This popular TV presenter’s family tree branches entirely from Boston, and before that, Ireland. his great-grandparents were the first to be born in the States, with their parents emigrating to escape the famine in 1841. He traces at least 5 ancestors to various corners of Ireland including Galway, Cork, Leitrim and Longford.
Martin O’Malley: Last but not least is 2016 presidential hopeful Martin O’Malley. His family tree comes from Connemara and he still has cousins who live there. Not only that, but he’s married to another Irish American, Catherine Cullan (with ancestral roots in Kilkenny) and has his own traditional Irish/rock band called O’Malley’s March.