For generations, Irish people have been leaving their homeland for new opportunities and experiences in new cities, countries, and even continents around the world. Some return after a few years of adventures. Some settle down and build a new life abroad. Others become presidents of the United States!
A whopping 22 of the 44 US Presidents so far have been of Irish heritage, from 7 times great grandparents to direct descendants of immigrants. Although none were actually born in Ireland, if they had, they wouldn’t be eligible for the Presidency, plenty have come back to visit their ancestral homes and have been welcomed by crowds of well-wishers and on occasion, a complimentary pint in their home town.
Many of these Irish-American men went on to make history and are known all over the world for their achievements during their term of office. Here, we’ve listed 12 of the 22 Irish American Presidents, along with the story of their ancestors and how they ended up taking on one of the most powerful jobs in the world.
Andrew Jackson was the 7th US President and the first to claim Irish ancestry. He held office from 1829 – 1837. Born in 1767 in the border region of North and South Carolina, his parents emigrated from Ireland just two years previously with their two Irish-born sons. Sadly Jackson never met his father. His father died at 29, just a few weeks before his birth. As a young boy, he worked as a courier in the American Revolutionary War. Later, he went on to become a lawyer, contributing to the founding of the state of Tennessee. He also spent some time in the Tennessee militia before being nominated for President in 1822. Although he lost the first time around, he was successfully elected in 1828, and is largely remembered for the not so humane Indian Removal Policy, which banished Native Americans from their own land.
James Knox Polk
The 11th US President was James Knox Polk, born in 1795 and elected from 1845 – 1849. One of ten children, his family was of Scots-Irish descent and was one of the first European settlers to arrive in the US. When he began his term of office, Polk was the youngest man ever to become President at the age of 49. He pledged to hold office for only one term and successfully achieved each goal he had set out for at the beginning of his term; to re-establish the Independent Treasury System, to reduce tariffs, and to acquire Oregon Country, California and New Mexico (the latter actually involved invading and waging war with Mexico!). Unfortunately, however, his tireless work impacted on his health, and he died from cholera just a few months after finishing his term.
James Buchanan was another President of Scots-Irish descent, or more specifically, Ulster-Scots descent on both sides. His father emigrated from Donegal in 1783, and raised James and his ten siblings in Pennsylvania. Buchanan went on to win multiple political titles, including Secretary of State. During his term of office from 1857 – 1861, he failed to impress most people and is largely remembered for missing many important opportunities later taken up by his successor, Abraham Lincoln. Many also speculated that he was gay due to his apparent lack of interest in his fiancé, choosing instead to immerse himself in his work. She broke off the engagement and died soon after, seemingly from hysteria induced by a laudanum (a form of opium) overdose.
Ulysses S Grant
The great-grandfather of Ulysses S Grant was an Irishman named John Simpson, hailing from County Tyrone. Unusually for settlers of the time, Grant was not baptised and never joined any particular church denomination despite his parents belonging to the Methodist church. Although born Hiram Ulysses, when he joined the US Military Academy his name was mistakenly recorded, and he was Ulysses S Grant from then on. Military life did not appeal to Grant and he left as soon as his minimum service was completed but struggled to find an alternate vocation until eventually involving himself in the civil war again. His term of office lasted from 1869 – 1877 during which time he lobbied for a peace process with Native Americans and civil rights for freed slaves, among other things. Grant visited his ancestral home in 1878 after his second term of office; the first Irish American president to do so. The house of his great grandfather in Tyrone, which he visited, is now an exhibition centre dedicated to Grant’s life story.
William McKinley, 25th President of the US, was the descendant of an Irish farmer from Conagher in County Antrim. Very proud of his Irish heritage McKinley even addressed one of the national Scots-Irish congresses held in the late 19th century. He is credited with rapid economic success during his term of office from 1897 – 1901, but sadly his contributions to America and the rest of the world were cut short when he was assassinated during a meet and greet with the public by a man hiding his gun under a tissue.
One of the most iconic US Presidents of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt, had Irish lineage on his mother’s side. Her ancestors emigrated from Glencoe, county Antrim in 1729. Roosevelt is noted for saying that Irish Presbyterians (the faith his mother belonged to) were ‘a bold and hardy race’. Roosevelt himself was plagued by health problems and bad luck, suffering from severe asthma as a child and losing both his wife (who died during childbirth) and his mother (who died from typhoid fever) within 24 hours. He did, however, survive an assassination attempt so it wasn’t all bad!
28th President of the United States Woodrow Wilson has roots in this corner of the world; his paternal grandparents immigrated to Ohio from Strabane, County Tyrone, while his maternal ancestors were both Scottish and English. He was openly very proud of his Irish roots, several times during his political career reflecting on his ancestors influencing his constant quest for knowledge and fulfilment. Serving office from 1913 – 1921, he weathered the storm of the First World War, the Mexican Revolution and the struggle for Women’s suffrage, and is well regarded by historians and politicians alike.
John F Kennedy
Arguably the most well known (and well-loved) US President, John F Kennedy also has the strongest Irish lineage, with all four of his grandparents hailing from the Emerald Isle. His paternal grandfather was born and raised in New Ross, County Wexford, while his maternal grandfather hailed from County Limerick. Raised in Massachusetts and New York, the Kennedy dynasty is the definition of Irish-American and the charming John Francis easily won over Americans when his election came around – although his stellar military performance and political persona also helped things! Hailed as an Irish hero, Kennedy toured Ireland five months before his assassination in 1963, followed by throngs of well-wishers everywhere he went. He was the first foreign leader to address the Houses of the Oireachtas and also received two honorary degrees during his short 4-day visit. He and his wife Jackie visited Galway were presented with a pair of Claddagh Rings to honour Kennedy’s Irish roots. He must have liked it as he was photographed wearing it throughout his trip.
Ronald Reagan’s great grandparents, like so many others, were Irish Catholic immigrants. They travelled to the US in search of a new life. Born in Illinois in 1911, Reagan forged a career for himself in show business, becoming a film, radio and television actor. During this time he was also a secret FBI informant, providing details to the government of any high-profile actors he suspected to be communist sympathisers. After a stint as Governor of California he had an unsuccessful presidential bid, eventually winning his first term of office in 1981. He is well regarded among historians as steering America through such trying times as the Cold War, a wave of drug addiction in various cities, and a volatile economy.
George H W Bush
If you go back far enough in the family tree of the Bush family, it would appear that the 41st President of the United States, George H W Bush (or George Bush Senior), has an ancestor somewhat famous in the Irish history books; Richard de Clare. He was otherwise known as the Earl of Pembroke, or more commonly known as Strongbow himself! Shunned by King Henry II, he joined the 12th century Norman invasion of Wexford in exchange for power and land and subsequently married the King of Leinster’s daughter, Aoife, and gained succession rights to the province. Somewhere along the way, an ancestor travelled across the water, and the Bush family was the result.
During Bill Clintons two terms of office from 1993 – 2001 he contributed greatly to the Northern Ireland peace process. His motivation for which seemed to be out of more than just diplomatic duty according to historians. He visited the North in 1995 and gave a rousing speech in favour of peace, and during negotiations of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 encouraged all parties involved to reach a resolution via several telephone calls. He visited Ireland again in 2013 and received a hero’s welcome.
Former President Barack Obama ties to the Emerald Isle come from his mother’s side; his third great grandfather, Fulmouth Kearney. His third great grandfather left the small village of Moneygall in County Offaly for New York in 1850. After hearing of his Irish heritage, Barack and Michelle Obama travelled to Moneygall in 2011, where he enjoyed a pint in the local pub before giving a speech to thousands of onlookers on Dublin’s College Green. His visit to Offaly has been honoured with the Barack Obama Plaza, which is (of all things) a petrol station, fast food restaurant and convenience store.