A History of Irish American Presidents, Past and Present

 

From the Emerald Isle to the White House

Irish Americans have made a large impact on the history of the United States. In fact, nearly half of the people to serve as the President of the United States can directly trace their roots back to Ireland. From Andrew Jackson to Joe Biden, Irish Americans have called the White House home for almost two hundred years.

Andrew Jackson

The 7th President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, was also the first Irish American president. His parents, Andrew and Elizabeth, had immigrated to America just two years before Andrew was born. They settled in North Carolina, a common location for Scots who felt at home in the rolling hills. 

In fact, Andrew Jackson identified as Scots-Irish, a little bit of political maneuvering from fellow Irish presbyterians all throughout the 19th century. (Andrew and Elizabeth Jackson had emigrated to Scotland from Ireland before continuing on to the New World.) Jackson and others wanted to make it clear to voters that they were not Catholic, a borderline death sentence in the contemporary political climate. It wouldn’t be until John F. Kennedy in 1960 that a Catholic would call the White House home.

Ulysses S. Grant

The future Civil War hero, known to his soldiers as “Uncle Sam”, was born Hiram Ulysses Grant in Point Pleasant, Ohio. The famous “S” indicating a phantom middle initial originated from a clerical error when young Mr. Grant enrolled at West Point. He stuck with the accidental name change, enjoying the connection to his country with the initials “U.S.” 

U.S. Grant was also quite fond of his ancestral homeland and would become the first president to visit Ireland. However, he had left office when he made his trip to the Emerald Isle in 1879.

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Teddy Roosevelt

One of the great stewards of America’s natural resources, Teddy Roosevelt claims Irish ancestry on his maternal side. He was quoted as saying that Irish Presbyterians are a “bold and hardy” people, showing great respect for his mother’s roots in County Antrim.

Interestingly, though Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd President, are distant cousins – FDR does not have any Irish ancestry.

John F. Kennedy

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was notable for many reasons: presiding over the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Space Race, and the early events of the American Civil Rights movement. He was also the first non-protestant American president.

Both sides of JFK’s family would arrive in the United States from Ireland during the Irish Potato Famine. His maternal ancestors, the Fitzgeralds, hailed from County Limerick while the Kennedys, his paternal ancestors, called County Wexford home before crossing the Atlantic. Little did they expect their great-grandson would become the first Catholic president of the United States.

Ronald Reagan

For some, it’s a long way to Tipperary, but not for the 40th President of the United States! While most Americans know the Gipper from his roots in Hollywood, his family roots come from Ballyporeen in County Tipperary.

The surname “Reagan” actually comes from the phrase “Little King”, which feels like a fitting title for a man who would lead his country through the Iran hostage crisis and out of an economic recession.

George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush

The second pair of father and son to reach the Highest Office in the Land, it makes sense they share a more than similar background. The majority of their genealogical tree grows in England and Germany, but there is at least one distant root in Ireland.

In 2005, historians traced the lineage of the 41st and 43rd presidents to Ireland. They were surprised to find a direct connection to one of the most notorious Irishmen of all time: Dermot MacMurrough. MacMurrough was a deposed King of Ireland who asked for military help from King Henry II of England. He would ultimately lose the conflict and is seen as the first person to bring the English to Ireland—setting off centuries of conflict between the two island nations.

Barack Obama

Most often associated with the tropical state of Hawai’i, it might surprise some to find President Barack Obama on the very long list of United States presidents with Irish ancestry. Yet, the 44th president can trace his roots to the small hamlet of Moneygall in County Offaly. 
The link on President Obama’s maternal side even inspired a hit single and an official visit from the sitting president in 2011.

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Joe Biden

The sitting U.S. president in 2023 might be able to claim some of the most Irish ancestry of any president outside of Kennedy. Joe Biden has confirmed 62.5% Irish ancestry, stretching back to County Louth, County Londonderry, and County Mayo. 

For those inclined to researching their roots, Joe Biden has a pretty easy case. His earliest traceable ancestry is his great-great-great-grandfather Edward Blewitt from County Mayo. The reason genealogists salivate at this connection is Blewitt is actually quite a rare name in Ireland, making any mention of the family notable and quick to find.

Other Irish American Presidents

We have just barely scratched the surface of Irish American presidents. Over twenty of the 46 presidents through American history can trace their roots back to the Emerald Isle—and there is even at least one who claims Irish ancestry without proof (looking at you, Bill Clinton). 

The list of Irish American presidents includes James K. Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Harry S. Truman, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and (of course) George W. Bush. It is plain to see that Ireland and the Irish way of life has had a major impact on the history of the United States.

From Ireland to the United States

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