Many people all over the world can trace their roots back to Ireland. For centuries, Irish men, women and children emigrated to the four corners of the world hoping to find a better life for themselves.
It therefore comes as no surprise that many Irish emigrated to the United States of America, where they helped build the society, culture and country we know today. It is no wonder then that there are many famous Irish Americans, some of whom have even made it to be president.
Did you know that there are at least 23 Irish American presidents as of 2021? That means that more than 50% of the 45 individuals to take office (Grover Cleveland served as 22nd and 24th president, that’s why there are only 45 and not 46) are American presidents with Irish heritage!
So, if you ever wondered which US presidents have Irish roots, here is everything you need to know to brush up on your knowledge of Irish American presidents. Below you find the 10 most important Irish American presidents plus some fun facts so you can shine at the next pub quiz.
1) Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. – 46th American president with Irish roots (2021 – …)
President Joe Biden takes pride in being of Irish descent. And with his 2021 inauguration, he will be the newest member in an exclusive list of Irish American presidents. His Irish heritage can be traced back to both his mother’s and his father’s lineage. Joe Biden’s Irish ancestors come from Ballina in County Mayo and from the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth.
Joe Biden’s Irish heritage on his mother’s side can be delineated to the Blewitts from Ballina in Co Mayo. Joe Biden’s great-great grandfather Patrick Blewitt was born there in 1832 and immigrated into the USA in 1850.
On his father’s side of the family tree, Joe Biden’s Irish roots can be traced to his other great-great-grandfather, Owen Finnegan, from the Cooley Peninsula in Co Louth. In 1840, James Finnegan, Biden’s great-grandfather, was born there before the family emigrated from Ireland to America in the late 1840s.
His Irish connections via the Finnegan side of the family include Rob and Dave Kearney, Ireland rugby internationals, whose father is supposed to be a fifth cousin of President Joe Biden.
In 2016 he visited Ireland to trace his family heritage. Before embarking on his trip, then Vice President Biden expressed, “Northeast Pennsylvania will be written on my heart. But Ireland will be written on my soul.” Clearly, for Biden Ireland is a special country.
During his trip, he not only received an honorary doctorate from Trinity College Dublin, but also visited Ballina and his great-great-grandfather’s grave in Louth.
2) Barack Obama – 44th American president with Irish roots (2009 – 2017)
In 2011 President Barack Obama and the first Lady Michelle Obama visited Ireland in search of Barack Obama’s missing apostrophe (O’Bama). Obama had only found out about his Irish roots four years prior.
In 2007, with the help of 19th century church records, a genealogist from ancestry.com worked out that Obama’s maternal great-great-great-grandfather was Falmouth Kearney from Moneygall in County Offaly. Kearney emigrated from Ireland to New York as a 19-year-old in 1850.
On May 23rd 2011, President Obama visited Moneygall where he was greeted by his eighth cousin, Henry Healy (from then on known as Henry VIII), and famously drank a pint of Guinness at Ollie Hayes Bar. From now on, everywhere in the world and in Ireland Moneygall will be connected to the Obama Ireland visit.
On the same day he also gave a speech at College Green in Dublin to stress the importance of American Irish ties.
In 2014, just outside of Moneygall, the Barack Obama Plaza (a motorway service area) was opened. Since 2018 it is embellished by life-sized bronze sculptures of Michelle and Barack Obama.
Another fun fact: There is a quirky Irish folk song called “There’s No One as Irish as Barack O’Bama” by the Corrigan Brothers. You can check it out here.
3) George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush – 41st and 43rd American presidents with Irish roots (1989 – 1993 and 2001 – 2009)
George Bush Sr. and his son are the American presidents with probably the most impressive Irish roots.
Their heritage has been traced back to Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke (also known as Strongbow). Strongbow was the leader of the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1170.
Additionally they have also been genealogically linked to Dermot MacMurrough, the 12th century Gaelic king of Leinster.
Another Irish connection is to Erskine Hamilton Childers, Ireland’s 4th president.
However, their most ‘straight-forward’ Irish lineage is neither royal nor presidential. Their four resp. five times great-grandfather, William Holliday, comes from Rathfriland, County Down. Here he was born in about 1755 and settled in Kentucky where he died in 1811 or 1812.
4) Ronald Reagan – 40th American president with Irish roots (1981 – 1989)
President Ronald Reagan’s Irish heritage can be traced to Ballyporeen in County Tipperary.
Here, Reagan’s great-grandfather Michael Regan (the spelling later changed) was baptised in 1829 and lived here until the early 1850s.
On June 3rd 1984 Regan visited Ballyporeen and the village church.
Reagan also paid a visit to John O’Farrell’s pub, where he drank a pint of Smithwicks and even held a cabinet meeting in the lounge. Later the pub changed its name to The Ronald Reagan.
The facade of the pub was shipped to The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, where it is the central piece to this day.
5) James Earl (Jimmy) Carter – 39th American president with Irish roots (1977 – 1981)
Jimmy Carter’s Irish roots can be found in his six times great-grandparents generation. His paternal great-grandmother Sophronia Cowan’s (married to Captain James Pratt, whose lineage has been lost) three times great-grandfather (so Jimmy’s six times great-grandfather) was Andrea Seawright from Derry in Northern Ireland. His wife, Mary Eleanor Dickson, came from Donegal. Another six times great-grandfather of Jimmy Carter was Andrew Cowan who is believed to come from County Down. Another Irish ancestor was six times great-grandfather, James Brownlee, who came from County Antrim. Brownlee and Cowan settled in Boonesborough in South Carolina in 1772.
6) Richard Milhous Nixon – 37th American president with Irish roots (1969 – 1974)
President Richard Nixon’s six times great-grandfather on his mother’s side was the Quaker Thomas Milhous, who had moved with his family from Carrickfergus in County Antrim to Timahoe in County Kildare until they finally emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1729.
During his presidency, Richard Nixon visited Ireland in October 1970 and explored this part of his Irish heritage. You can even find a stone monument of his visit in the Quaker cemetery at Hodgestown near Timahoe: “In memory of the Irish Quakers of Timahoe. Dedicated October 5, 1970 by Richard Milhous Nixon, President of the United States of America, whose maternal ancestors are resting here.”
On his father’s side, Nixon can also claim some Irish roots, as his six times great-grandfather James Moore was born in Ballymoney in County Antrim in 1777.
7) John Fitzgerald Kennedy – 35th American president with Irish roots (1961 – 1963)
President John F. Kennedy is the archetypal Irish American president. Not only was he the first Irish Catholic president (There are only two Irish Catholic US presidents, Joe Biden being the second one.), he was also the first president with Irish roots in the southern part of Ireland.
Additionally, Kennedy’s Irish lineage is somewhat more ‘straight-forward’ than most other American presidents with Irish ancestry.
Kennedy’s paternal great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy came from Dunganstown in County Wexford. Kennedy’s Irish paternal great-grandmother was Bridget Murphy from Owenduff, also Co Wexford.
On his mother’s side, his great-grandfather Thomas Fitzgerald was born in Bruff, County Limerick. His maternal great-grandmother was probably born in Kinawley or Tomregan in County Cavan.
In 1963 President John F. Kennedy visited Ireland for four days. The John F. Kennedy Ireland visit of 1963 is now stuff of legends. The famous Irish presenter Ryan Tubridy even is the author of a book about it. When Kennedy touched Irish ground in June 1963, he became the first serving American president in Ireland. He also started a tradition of Irish American presidents visiting Ireland, exploring their Irish heritage and at the same time ‘grooming’ potential Irish American voters back home.
According to Kennedy, the time in Ireland was “the best ‘four days of his life’”.
When President John F. Kennedy arrived at Dublin Airport on June 26th, the trip was portrayed by the media as a homecoming and he was celebrated by the Irish people and the news like a rockstar. On that day, President Eamon de Valera and Taoiseach Seán Lemass showed him around Dublin including Phoenix Park and O’Connell Street.
The next day, he began his ‘Kennedy in Ireland heritage tour’ by flying in a green and white helicopter to O’Kennedy Park in New Ross in County Wexford from where his relatives had emigrated. Afterwards, he was driven to the Kennedy family homestead in Dunganstown, Co Wexford, where his cousins already waited with tea and cake.
Fun fact: The humble abode of his cousin, Mary Kennedy Ryan, had to undergo several improvements in the weeks leading up to the visit of John F. Kennedy in Ireland. Indoor plumbing was installed and concrete was used to smoothen and flatten the dirty front of the barn.
Since 2013, his ancestral home, The Kennedy Homestead, is a visitor attraction and exhibition centre that delves into the Kennedy family Ireland connections and family history. For more intricate information on Kennedy in Ireland, make sure to definitely stop by when you travel to Ireland.
President Kennedy also visited Cork, Galway and Limerick before leaving on June 29th from Shannon. He had wanted to return in Spring the following year, yet five months later, he was assassinated.
8) Woodrow Wilson – 28th American president with Irish roots (1913-1921)
President Woodrow Wilson’s Irish ancestry stemmed from his grandfather, James Wilson, who was born in Strabane in County Tyrone (Northern Ireland) in 1787. Before Wilson was president, he managed to visit Ireland in August 1899, where he spent time in Belfast and also in Drogheda in County Louth. Wilson did not, however, trace his Irish heritage, and thus did not make it to his grandfather’s house in the townland of Dergalt in Strabane.
This house still exists though and can even be visited. Now known as The Wilson House, it is owned by the Ulster American Folk Park and is kept in its original state.
Although not actively searching in Ireland for his Irish heritage, Woodrow Wilson was well aware of his Irish roots and was proud of it. At a St. Patrick’s Day rally in New York in 1909, he proclaimed, “I myself am happy that there runs in my veins a very considerable strain of Irish blood”.
9) Ulysses Simpson Grant – 18th American president with Irish roots (1869-1877)
President Ulysses S. Grant’s Irish roots stem from his maternal great-grandfather, John Simpson (born in 1783), who came from Dergenagh outside Ballygawley in County Tyrone.
By visiting Ireland in 1879, he became the first US president to spend time in Ireland. He stayed in Dublin’s fancy Shelbourne Hotel (so did JFK after him) and also enjoyed a trip to Derry and Belfast.
President Grant did not, however, visit his ancestral place and stress his Irishness in order to canvas for Irish American voters (as other presidents after him did). In fact, in 1879, when the civil war hero visited Ireland, he was no longer in office and the trip was ‘merely’ part of his personal world trip.
Nowadays, you can visit the Simpson-Grant Ancestral Homestead. The house that belonged to the Simpson family from the 1600s up until the 1970s has been restored to the style and appearance of a mid-19th century small farmhouse.
10) Andrew Jackson – 7th American president with Irish roots (1829-1837)
May we introduce to you: The first Irish president! President Andrew Jackson is the first Irish American president and the only Irish American president who can claim to be 100% Irish. Both of his parents, Andrew Jackson Sr. and Elizabeth Hutchinson, were from Boneybefore in County Antrim (just outside of Carrickfergus).
Their farmhouse, nowadays known as The Andrew Jackson Centre (or Andrew Jackson Cottage), was built in the 1750s and can now be visited as a small museum. The rooms have been restored to its original state and you can learn more about the first Irish American president. Absolutely worth the visit!
Interesting and Fun Facts about Irish American Presidents
Now that you have found out about the most important Irish American presidents, here are some fun facts that you might find of interest.
- In 1952, President Harry S. Truman was the first American president who received a bowl of shamrocks by the Taoiseach of Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day. To this day, this tradition continues.
- Theodore Roosevelt probably had a family connection to Larne in County Antrim, but was not very kind describing the Irish in his diary entries: “They are a stupid, sodden, vicious lot, most of them being equally deficient in brain and virtue.” He was, however, fond of Celtic mythology and the literature of Lady Gregory and Douglas Hyde.
- Bill Clinton is the only US President who has visited Ireland three times (in December 1995, in September 1998 and in December 2000). He has claimed to be Irish, but there is no clear genealogical proof of Bill Clinton’s Irish heritage as of yet.
Nevertheless, his visits can be seen as the historically most important of them all, as he really weighed in to peacefully solve the conflict in the north of Ireland nowadays known as the Troubles.
- There are four Irish American president’s ancestral homesteads that you can visit today in their original condition: Andrew Jackson’s parent’s place in Boneybefore, Ulysses S. Grant’s family place in Dergenagh, Woodrow Wilson’s grandfather’s house in Dergalt and John F. Kennedy homestead in Dunganstown.
- When Obama sampled a pint in Moneygall, he gave the barman Ollie Hayes a €50 bill, which now is proudly displayed in the pub for all visitors to see.
- The pub where Reagan drank his pint, which is now on display at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, faithfully displays the actual glasses and kegs used on that day, including even the very bottle of Carolans liqueur for Nancy Reagan’s drink.
- Among the other American presidents of Irish descent are James Knox Polk and James Buchanan.