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The Irish & the White House – Why Irish Eyes are Smiling

James Hoban, architect of the White House, grew up by Desart Court, County Kilkenny.

 

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Wilmington, Delaware, 2020. When Joe Biden accepted the nomination of the Democrats to stand as their representative at the United States presidential election, he ended his speech by reciting a verse from ‘The Cure at Troy’ by the Nobel Prize winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

There’s a good reason why Biden quotes Heaney so much, not to mention James Joyce, and why his greatest hero is Wolfe Tone, why his secret code name as vice-president to Barack Obama was ‘Celtic’, why he was the most googled person in Ireland in 2020, why he congratulated the Irish rugby team after they trounced the all-Blacks in 2021, why he proclaimed March 2022 as ‘Irish American Heritage Month.’ Or why County Louth’s virtuoso violinist Patricia Treacy played Patrick Casey’s ‘Proclamation’ composition to the Bidens in a private Mass service just before his inauguration as president. The Chieftains, Joe Biden’s favourite band, were set to perform at the after-party until Covid-19 lockdown rules spoiled their fun. Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘The Cure at Troy’ was also read aloud by Hamilton star Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Celebrating America event hosted by Tom Hanks that same evening.

Joe Biden is the most ‘Irish’ president since John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He is also just the second practicing Roman Catholic to hold that office, Kennedy being the first.

 

Rise of the Scots-Irish

 

The Irish links to the White House run deep. The building itself was designed and constructed by the Kilkenny-born architect James Hoban for George Washington. After it was burned down by forces commanded by Robert Ross, an Ulsterman, in 1814, Hoban and fellow Irish-American Benjamin Latrobe were commissioned to rebuild it. (The nearby US Capitol Building, which today host the House of Representatives and the Senate, was also burned by Ross’s men. The present structure is largely the design of Charles Frederick Anderson, an English architect who was based in Ireland during the 1830s and 1840s. See below. [1])

At least twenty-two US presidents had Irish ancestry, including the last twelve bar Donald Trump and, possibly, bar Bill Clinton.[2] Three had a parent or parents born in Ireland. Since John FitzGerald Kennedy’s state visit in 1963, six presidents have followed suit.[3]  One could be forgiven for thinking all these ‘Irish American’ presidents shared Biden and Kennedy’s Catholic faith. In fact, most descend from Scots-Irish Presbyterians.

In the 2017 American Community Survey, just over three million US citizens claimed to have ‘Scotch-Irish’ ancestry. The number of Scots-Irish, or Ulster-Scots as they are sometimes called, is probably far higher but the historical distinctions between Irish and Scots-Irish have been lost along the way.  The story of the Scots-Irish began in the seventeenth century when approximately

Approximately 200,000 Scots are thought to have moved west across the 13km North Channel from Scotland to Ireland. These ‘planters’ were predominantly Presbyterians who settled in Ulster, the island’s northerly province. In the early twentieth century, six of the nine Ulster counties were partitioned to make up Northern Ireland, while Counties Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan would become part of the present-day Republic of Ireland.

During the eighteenth century, Ireland was a country in which those Protestants who adhered to the Established (Anglican) Church were top of the pecking order. Ireland’s free-spirited Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers and other non-Anglican Dissenters were consequently classified as lesser citizens, although their rights under the penal laws were still considerably better than those of Irish Catholics. Unwilling to tolerate such discrimination, vast numbers of Scots-Irish sailed for the Thirteen British Colonies in America where they could practice their religion with greater freedom. Indeed, it is a curious statistical duplicate that, following the arrival of the aforementioned 200,000 Scots into Ireland in the seventeenth century, 200,000 Scots-Irish are said to have sailed for the colonies in the following century. One of the busiest eras was between 1770 and 1774 when more than 30,000 Ulstermen emigrated, fed up with agrarian unrest (The Heart of Steel boys), rack-renting, insecurity of tenure and a sudden collapse in the market for Irish linen in late 1772.

Many Scots-Irish settled in New England and Pennsylvania but, with most the prime land already snapped up by earlier settlers, others pushed onwards to the Appalachian frontiers. By the 1760s, this famously God-fearing farming community was a major player across Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas, where they attempted to put manners on the wilderness and waged constant and brutal battles with the indigenous American tribes.

One of the key issues for Presbyterians was their inherent distaste for hierarchies. This set them at odds with the Protestant elite whose very definitive colonial and ecclesiastical hierarchies were both headed up by the British monarch. The Rev Francis Makemie, born in 1658 and raised in Ramelton, County Donegal, became the first Presbyterian minister in North America when he arrived in Maryland in 1683. As well as being a substantial landowner in Virginia, he founded the first Presbytery in the New World at Philadelphia in 1706. Today, he is hailed as both the founder of Presbyterianism in the US and as a pioneer in promoting freedom of speech.

 

Founding Fathers

 

Maryland was also the home state of James McHenry, the Founding Father for whom Fort McHenry is named. Born into a Presbyterian family in Ballymena, County Antrim, on 16 November 1753, he was classically educated in Dublin before being sent to Philadelphia in 1771.  He served as an army surgeon during the Revolution and also assisted in the drafting, writing and organization of Washington’s correspondence. . A Maryland-based signatory of the US Constitution in 1787, he initiated the recommendation for Congress to form the Navy. Washington applauded him as “a man of Letters and Abilities, of great integrity, sobriety and prudence… of an amiable temper; very obliging, and of polished manners.” He went on to serve as US Secretary of War from 1796 to 1800, under both Washington and Adams. (See here.) His name is recalled by Fort McHenry, the fort that protected Baltimore during the War of 1812.

It is not surprising that most of the eleven Irish-born or Irish-American signatories of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were from the Scots-Irish tradition. So too was Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress, who was born in Maghera, County Derry. Thomson designed  the Great Seal of the United States in conjunction with William Barton (1754–1817), a Pennsylvania lawyer, whose father the Rev. Thomas Barton was an immigrant from Carrickmacross, County Monaghan. Carlow-born Pierce Butler, one of the signatories of the Constitution of the United States in 1787, was also one of the biggest slave-holders and plantation owners in the US.

The Declaration itself was printed by another Presbyterian, John Dunlap, who was born in Strabane, County Tyrone. Dunlap also published the Pennsylvania Packet, America’s first successful daily newspaper.

In 1752, Cork-born Philip Syng (1703–1789), a renowned silversmith, created the Syng inkstand, which was used to sign the Declaration in 1776, as well as the United States Constitution in 1787. Since 2013, the obverse of the United States one-hundred-dollar bill has presented a stylized representation of the Syng inkstand’s inkwell.

Dunlap presumably had much to talk about with the financier Oliver Pollock, who was born in Bready, just north of Strabane, and who not only helped bankroll the Patriots during the American Revolution but would also be credited with inventing the famous $ sign for the US dollar in 1778.[4]

Indeed, there is every reason to suggest that Cork-born Stephen Moylan was the first to coin the phrase ‘United States of America.’ Born in Shandon, Cork City, Moylan was a younger brother of Francis Moylan, who became Bishop of Cork from 1787 until 1815. Stephen had been a shipping merchant in Lisbon before settling in Philadelphia in 1768, after which he joined the Patriots. He was also first president of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, founded in 1771. As 1775 turned into 1776, Moylan has high hopes of being named ambassador to Spain. On 2 January 1776, seven months before the Declaration of Independence and a week before the publication of Thomas Paine’s ‘Common Sense’, Moylan wrote a letter to his friend Colonel Joseph Reed, Washington’s aide-de-camp, in which he stated: “I should like vastly to go with full and ample powers from the United States of America to Spain” (to seek foreign aid for the Patriot cause). At the time he wrote the letter, Moylan was at the Continental Army’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That’s the earliest record yet found of the USA. Moylan is not known to have made a claim to have invented the name. As both he and Reed were on Washington’s staff, it may be that the name was in common circulation among such people at the time. However, Moylan’s letter remains the earliest known record of it. He did not become ambassador to Spain but he was appointed Quartermaster General of the Continental Army on 5 June 1776, retaining the post until 28 September 1776. (The deputy quartermaster of the English army at the time was Colonel Henry Bruen of Boyle, County Roscommon, and, later, Oak Park, Carlow).  After the war, Washington appointed Moylan Commissioner of Loans in Philadelphia in 1793. He is recalled by the name of Moylan, an unincorporated community in southeast Pennsylvania.

Benjamin Franklin, the envoy of the American Revolution, visited Ireland in 1772.

The lawyer Joseph Reed (1741–1785), a Founding Father of the United States, was President of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council during the American Revolutionary War (a position akin to being Governor today). His brother Bowes Reed (1740–1794) served as Secretary of State of New Jersey.  The Reeds were grandsons of Joseph Reed (1650–1727) of Carrickfergus, County Antrim who settled in West Jersey.

The commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy was Commodore John Barry, born and raised in County Wexford. Barry’s most successful captain was Donegal-born Gustavus Conyngham, a privateer who was commissioned as a captain in the Continental Navy during the American Revolutionary War. He captured a record-breaking 24 ships in the eastern Atlantic between May 1777 and May 1778.

The explorer and Indian agent James Robertson (1742–1814), one of the founding fathers of what became the State of Tennessee, had Scots-Irish roots. From 1790 until 1798, he was Washington’s brigadier-general of the territorial militia. Robertson’s son Felix was President Andrew Jackson’s doctor.

Fort Wayne, Indiana, is named for General “Mad Anthony” Wayne (1745–1796), one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He was the son of  Isaac Wayne (1699–1774), an immigrant from Rathdrum, County Wicklow, and his grandfather, a Derby man, fought for King Billy’s army at the Boyne and received lands in Rathdrum by way of payment. [5] General Wayne’s legacy is greatly clouded by his support of slavery and his actions against Native Americans, including the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans in the Ohio Valley.

And while we’re on a roll with Irish claims on US heritage, it transpires that the tune to “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the national anthem, is metrically identical to a traditional Irish melody called “Bumper Squire Jones” that was composed in 1723 by the blind harpist Turlough O’Carolan, the last of the Irish bards. “Hail to the Chief”, the personal anthem of the president of the USA, is attributed to English composer James Sanderson (1769–c.1841) but is seemingly taken from a Scottish Gaelic melody.

General James Wolfe (1727–1759), the famed Hero of Quebec descended from Irish settlers and is credited with the earliest recorded use of the word “Yankee” in reference to the New England soldiers under his command.

Dublin-born John Mercer emigrated to Virginia in 1780 and became a prominent attorney, as well as a colonial prosecutor for the King’s court of Virginia. He offered legal advice to a young George Washington for several years. His sons were George Mercer (surveyor, military officer, and politician), James Mercer (a delegate for Virginia to the Continental Congress in 1779), John Francis Mercer (Captain of the 3rd Virginia during the Revolutionary War, and Governor of Maryland, 1801–3) and John Fenton Mercer (killed at the “Battle of the Great Cacapon River” in 1756).

James Mathers, an Irish-born veteran of the Revolutionary War, was chosen as the first Senate doorkeeper on 7 April 1789, a day after the first Senate established a quorum. He had served a similar role in the last Continental Congress. He died in 1811, after a fall down a slight of steps. By that time, he had held the post of Senate sergeant at arms for longer than any one of his many successors. (See here)

The wine merchant John Shaw (1750-1820) was said to be the first Irishman to become a naturalized citizen of the United States. Based at Water Street, New York, he had a ship called Drager that sailed between Dublin and New York. Shaw was painted by Gilbert Stuart.  According to The Art Digest 1928-09: Vol 2 Iss 20, p. 14, Shaw owned the ship on which Stuart returned to America in 1792 after having been a pupil of Benjamin West in London.

“The artist did not have the means to pay his passage, so agreed to paint the merchant’s portrait. Afterwards he made a replica. One of them is in the possession of a descendant of John Shaw in Louisiana, but they are so alike that it is impossible to tell which is the original and which the replica.” See also here.

Samuel Latham Mitchill, the US Senator for New York (1804-1809), recorded: ‘As I walked out this morning I observed the sons of Hibernia had adorned their hats with the shamrock in honor of St. Patrick, their tutelary saint.’

84 Fitzgeralds enlisted in the Revolutionary Army, including Colonel John Fitzgerald, Washington’s friend and aide-de-camp who is said to have been the finest horseman in the army. He gave his name to the town of Fitzgerald, Georgia. Born in Ireland and “bred to trade,” Fitzgerald immigrated to Virginia by 1773 and established himself in Alexandria as a merchant. (See here).

For more on the Irish links to the Revolution see the book ‘A Hidden Phase Of American History – Ireland’s Part in America’s Struggle for Liberty’ by Michael J. O’Brien, istoriographer, of the American Irish Historical Society, here.

 

1. George Washington (1789-1797)

 

I have written in depth about Hercules Mulligan, the New York tailor who saved Washington’s life twice. On one of those occasions, Private Thomas Hickey, one of Washington’s bodyguards, attempted to assassinate Washington with poisoned peas in 1776; Hickey duly became the first person executed by the Continental Army for “mutiny, sedition, and treachery”.

Another of Washington’s spies was Armagh-born John Honeyman (1729—1822), a poor farmer’s son, whose disinformation and intelligence was “crucial” to Washington’s victory in the Battle of Trenton.

Prior to the Battle of Trenton, Washington established his headquarters (14-24 Dec 1776) at the Keith House in Upper Makefield Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. This was the home of  William Keith (1714-1781), who emigrated from Derry with his mother when he was a small boy, about 1717. (See here) William may have been related to Margaret Keith, who was the subject of a 3-page letter written in Philadelphia in 1811 by James Neale to Bushrod Washington:

‘Neale desires information of Margaret Keith from Ireland, who accompanied Gen. Washington on all his campaigns in the Revolution until 1779 or 1780 — she had several illegitimate children, of which the writer seems to be one — he has been enabled to rise in a small degree above his lowly beginnings.’ (See here.)

Washington’s “Life Guard” was a precursor to the Secret Service, created to protect the general. Among its officers was James Ira McCrory whose birthplace is given as Larga on the River Bann in County Antrim, which could feasibly be Largy or Lurgan. He emigrated with his three brothers in 1775 and moved to Baltimore. Promoted to the rank of ensign in 1777, aged 19, he remained one of Washington’s bodyguards throughout the war. He eventually retired to Alabama and lived out his life in what would become Tuscaloosa. (See here.) Another member of Washington’s bodyguard was Tristram Patton who had emigrated from Ireland in about 1775 and formerly worked as a school teacher in Pennsylvania.

Timothy Murphy, a rifleman, was regarded as Washington’s greatest sniper after he reputedly shot and killed Sir Francis Clerke (General Burgoyne’s chief aide-de-camp) and General Simon Fraser at 300 yards at the Battle of Bemis Heights, the second Battle of Saratoga, on October 7, 1777. According to Wikipedia, his parents were Presbyterians from County Donegal who moved to the US where Murphy was born in 1751 near the Delaware Water Gap. When he was eight, they relocated to Shamokin Flats (now Sunbury, PA).

Lewis Nicola is said to have been the person who suggested that Washington assume the mantle of monarch, a notion Washington rejected. Born to Huguenot parents in Dublin in 1717, Nicola served in the British Army during the War of Austrian Succession and in the Seven Years’ War and fetched up as commander of Fort Charles near Kinsale. He subsequently emigrated from Ireland to Philadelphia and became a merchant. Opposed to British taxes, he was appointed town major of Philadelphia in 1776.

It was George Washington who, on 17 March 1780, issued a general order to commemorate St. Patrick’s Day. Washington also had an Irish housekeeper, Elizabeth Thompson, who came to work for him aged 72 and who he then invited to spend her final years with his family at Mount Vernon. (See here) He clearly had a thing for Irish tailors too. In 1786, he received an Irish-born tailor named Caven Bowe (c.1765-1798) (here) as well as a shoemaker, Thomas Ryan. As he put it:

“Received from on board the Brig Ann, from Ireland, two Servant Men for whom I had agreed yesterday—viz.—Thomas Ryan a Shoemaker, and Caven Bowe a Tayler redemptioners for 3 years Service by Indenture if they could not pay, each, the Sum of £12 Sterg. which sums I agreed to pay.”

Christopher Sheels, Washington’s personal valet, was almost certainly an Irishman, or Irish-American, the name being an anglicizations of Ó Siadhail, which becomes Shiel, Sheals, Shields, etc, here.

Oney Judge, a female slave in Martha Washington’s household in Philadelphia in the 1790s, may have been part-Irish, as in Owney Judge, here.

Dublin-born John Mercer, mentioned above, was Washington’s lawyer in the 1760s. Mercer had a young Irish apprentice named John Patterson. Bound to work for Washington at Mount Vernon for four years, Patterson was head carpenter and overseer of the enslaved carpenters tasked with supervising the renovation. (Laura R. Sandy, The Overseers of Early American Slavery: Supervisors, Enslaved Labourers, and the Plantation Enterprise (Routledge, 2020), here.

Following a recommendation by  Irish politician Sir Edward Newenham, Washington commissioned Richard Thorpe (or Tharpe), an Irish-born stucco artisan, to be the “principal workman” on the ornamental plasterwork in the New Room at Mount Vernon, Washington’s estate. Samuel Vaughan drew the famous plan of Mount Vernon and sourced its furnishings.

Michael Tracy, an indentured bricklayer from Ireland, began working at Mount Vernon in 1768, and appears to have been sold again in July of 1770. Thomas Branagan, an indentured joiner, arrived at Mount Vernon in the summer of 1784, after being hired from a ship that had just landed in Baltimore direct from Ireland. He remained at Mount Vernon until 1787. In August 1784, another 23 Irish ‘servants’ were sold from the ships Angelica and Washington at Alexandria. Among them was Cornelius McDermott Roe who worked as an indentured stonemason and bricklayer at Mount Vernon from 1784 until 1787. He went on to work as a paid contractor for Washington, while two of his brothers were employed by Washington as ditchers. Also sold in the August 1784 sale was Irish-born Thomas Mahony, who worked as an indentured house carpenter and joiner at Mount Vernon from 1784 until 1792. James Butler, an elderly Irish bachelor, served as overseer for Mansion House Farm at Mount Vernon from December 1792 until December 1794. (See here)

The first artist to paint Washington as the sitting President of the United States was Dublin-born John Ramage (1742-1802), who studied at the Dublin Society Schools in the 1760s and emigrated to Nova Scotia in 1772.

Gilbert Stuart, who spent six years in Dublin, painted by John Neagle, c. 1825

According to a detailed article in Irish Central by the eminent Denis Bergin entitled ‘A House in Black and White – and Green!‘:

‘In 1790, the first plans for the setting out of a street grid in the new capital of the United States involved two interesting characters, both mathematicians: Benjamin Banneker, the African-American grandson of Molly Walsh, thought to have been an Irish-born indentured servant, and James Dermott, an Irish-born teacher at an Alexandria school attended by the extended family of George Washington. Banneker’s almost photographic memory of the marker placements in the original survey of the Maryland side of the Potomac River allowed him to recreate for the Ellicott brothers the outlines of streets and circles as conceived by Pierre Charles L’Enfant after the latter’s dismissal by President Washington. Dermott saw opportunity here and moved from his teaching post to becoming an early entrepreneur in the new Federal enclave. His 1792 survey of the capital site gave him an important foothold in the ordering of the early civil works that prepared the way for the construction of the President’s House and the U.S. Capitol. Dermott’s slaves helped to haul the Aquia stone from the barges at the Potomac landing to the elevated site where the executive mansion would rise, but it took another Irishman [Hoban] and his slaves to bring the project to fruition.’

I have written a separate chapter in ‘The Irish Diaspora‘ on James Hoban, the Kilkenny architect who built the White House for Washington. In his early career, he ran a small construction business and drawing school with Pierce Purcell, a fellow Irishman.

Born on Rhode Island in 1755, Gilbert Stuart made his name with his famous portraits of George Washington. He lived in Dublin for six years between 1787 and 1793, while on the run from his creditors. Inspired by conversations with his Irish friend James Dowling Herbert, an artist and writer, Stuart specifically crossed the Atlantic with a view to persuading Washington to sit for his portrait. In 1795 he went to Philadelphia and painted his first portrait of Washington, known as the Vaughan type after its first owner, Samuel Vaughan. He painted the president twice more. The third was commissioned by Senator William Bingham and his wife Anne as a gift for William Petty, Lord Shelburne, the first Marquess of Lansdowne, a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Dublin born miniature-painter Walter Robertson (c. 1750–1801), nicknamed Irish Robertson,  was commissioned to paint a portrait of both George and Martha Washington. A friend of Gilbert Stuart, he came from a family of miniaturists and jewellers based on Ormond Quay.

Born in Rathdowney, County Laois, and described as “bred to trade,” John Fitzgerald immigrated to Virginia by 1773, established himself as a merchant in Alexandria , and became a close friend (and aide-de-camp) to Washington.

Denis Bergin’s 2009 article here notes two that there were other prominent Irish community leaders in Georgetown, in the form of Limerick-born shoemaker and merchant Thomas Corcoran, and Washington City, ‘where Thomas Carbery was one of a handful of Irish council members – with James Hoban – and served as mayor from 1824.’

 

2. John Adams (1797-1801)

 

Matthew Lyon (1749-1822), a Wicklow-born immigrant elected to Congress for Vermont in 1797. In 1798, he wrote a letter published in a  Vermont newspaper accusing Adams of pursuing “a continual grasp for power, in an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice” and of basically trying to create a nation ruled by wealthy aristocrats. He was arrested and became the first person to be tried under the anti-immigrant Alien and Sedition Acts. He served four months in jail and paid a hefty fine. When he was released, he was hailed as a hero and returned to Congress as a martyr to free speech.

 

3. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)

 

Thomas Jefferson was an enthusiast for the Irish-owned vineyards of Bordeaux.

Thomas Jefferson liked his wine and was blown away by how much influence the Irish ‘wine geese’ had in Bordeaux. (See here).

Jefferson’s core staff when he took office in 1801 included three Irish servants as coachman, valet-porter, and housekeeper.

His coachman and head of stables was Joseph Dougherty, a native of Londonderry, who previously worked for John and Abigail Adams. Jefferson described him as “sober, honest, diligent, & uncommonly intelligent in business.” At one point, Jefferson instructed Daugherty to purchase ewes and ‘his Shetland ram was immediately put to the task of reproducing his own kind.’ (See here)  Joseph’s wife Mary Dougherty also worked for the president for most of his two terms, although their marriage nearly came asunder. Robert Dougherty, Joseph’s brother, was footman and manservant for Jefferson’s private secretary from 1807 until 1809. In 1818, Joseph Dougherty was appointed superintendent of buildings for the departments of Navy, War, and State, but he lost this office that same year after being tried and imprisoned for “cowhiding” Samuel Lane, commissioner of public buildings. Joseph died in 1832.

Dougherty and Jefferson maintained a close correspondence after his presidency. Jefferson sought his advice on animal husbandry, especially on breeding merino sheep. In 1810, Dougherty requested a loan to start a Washington-based ale and porter bottling company, which proved short lived. In 1815 Jefferson sold his personal book collection to the Library of Congress; Dougherty offered to superintend the wagon transport of books from Monticello to Washington. These details are recorded by Lucia Stanton in “A Well-Ordered Household: Domestic Servants in Jefferson’s White House,” White House History, 17 [2006].

Dougherty appears to be the man who later declared:

‘I, Joseph Daugherty have this day the 10th, of July 1810 for value received and other good causes, set at free Liberty my Yellow women Lethe, who calls herself Lethe Tanner, a slave that I purchased a few days ago…”

Jefferson also employed an Irish washerwoman named Biddy O’Boyle.

There is a question over whether Edith Hern Fossett (1787–1854), Jefferson’s enslaved African-American chef, had Irish roots.

James Dinsmore (c. 1771-1830), a joiner from Ulster, oversaw the work of the Joiner’s Shop erected to build Monticello, Jefferson’s neo-classical plantation house outside Charlottesville, Virginia. Dinsmore worked alongside John Neilson (c. 1770-1827), a joiner from Ballycarry, County Antrim, who had served as an architect’s apprentice in Belfast. Neilson was exiled from Ireland after his participation in the United Irishman’s Rebellion of 1798 (in which his 15 year old brother was hanged). Naturalized in Philadelphia, he worked at Monticello from 1804 to 1809.

Neilson is said to have been the father of John Hemmings (1776-1833), an enslaved joiner at Monticello, who was trained by Dinsmore. John Hemmings mother Betty Hemings (1735-1807) was the enslaved matriarch of the largest family to ever call Monticello home. Betty was also mother of Sally Hemings (1773-1835), frequently associated with Jefferson, as depicted by Thandie Newton in the 1995 film, Jefferson in Paris.

Bernard McMahon (1775-1816), Jefferson’s gardening mentor, was born in Ireland “of good birth and fortune.” He moved to Philadelphia in 1796 to avoid political persecution. By 1802, he had established a seedhouse and nursery business, from which supplied plants to Jefferson. McMahon’s seminal work, The American Gardener’s Calendar, first published in 1806, has been described as Jefferson’s horticultural “Bible.” In 1857, John Jay Smith, editor of The Horticulturist, described Mrs. M’Mahon [sic] as having ‘some considerable Irish accent, but a most amiable and excellent disposition.’

In 1804, the Irish poet Thomas Moore met Jefferson at the White House. “I found him,” recalled the poet, “sitting with General Dearborn, and one or two other officers, and in the same homely costume, comprising slippers and Connemara stockings.” (here)

George Clinton, the first governor of New York State, served as vice president under both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. His father Charles hailed from Corby, County Longford, and emigrated to New York in 1729. George’s older brother James was co-commander with John Sullivan (of the Beara peninsula in Cork) of a successful but awful ‘scorched earth’ campaign against the Iroquois in New York.

David Bailie Warden (1772-1845) was born at Ballycastle near Newtownards in County Down (where his father was a tenant of Lord Castlereagh) and educated at Bangor. Exiled for his role in the 1798 Rebellion, he impressed Jefferson who sent him to Paris as a US consul in 1808. He retained the position on and off into the Madison presidency, being a close friend of Dolly Madison, the President’s wife. Warden, who condemned slavery, was also ‘favoured’ by Eliza Parke Curtis, Washington’s granddaughter. In the US, he allied himself with other United Irish exiles such as Thomas Addis Emmet, William MacNeven, William Sinclair and John Chambers.

 

4. James Madison (1809-1817)

 

John Armstrong Jr. (1758 –1843) served as US Secretary of War under James Madison (1813-1814), as well as being Jefferson’s Minister to France (1804-1810). He was the younger son of General John Armstrong Sr,  who held high rank in the Pennsylvania Militia during the Revolutionary War, and was a delegate to the Continental Congress for Pennsylvania. General Armstrong was born in Brookeborough, County Fermanagh, and learned how to be a civil engineer in Ireland before emigrating to the US.

During Madison’s presidency, a key figure at the White House was Charles Bizet, described by Denis Bergin as ‘a talented French horticulturalist who had looked after the Montpelier landscape.’ His assistant was Thomas McGrath, an Irishman, who helped organise ‘the vast untamed spaces around the executive mansion.’  As Bergin points out, ‘McGrath ‘rescued’ Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington from the impending conflagration when the British slashed and burned their way through Washington City in 1814.’ I suspect Thomas McGrath was the Thomas McGaw referred to as Dolly Madison’s Irish gardener in ‘The Darkest Day’, p. 143.

James Dinsmore, the Irishman who worked for Jefferson at Monticello, is also credited with the major architectural changes at Montpelier, the Madison plantation in King George County, circa 1808.  John Neilson was also involved. (See here).

It was an Irishman named Robert Ross who burned the White House down during the War of 1812-1814, and it was another Irishman, James Hoban, who returned with his trusty team of Irish and African-American labourers to rebuild it.

Mary Dixon Kies (1752–1837) is thought to have been the first woman to receive a patent. On 5 May 1809, her patent for a new technique of weaving straw with silk and thread to make hats was signed by President Madison. Her father, John Dixon, was a farmer from Ulster born in 1679 and her mother was Janet Kennedy.

The first eight barrels of Guinness porter arrived in the USA on 16 October 1817, landing in South Carolina.

 

5. James Monroe (1811-1817)

 

As the US minister to France between 1794 and 1796, Monroe was introduced to Archibald Rowan Hamilton, a leading light in the United Irishmen, by Thomas Payne in 1794. Hamilton was on the run at the time. Monroe gave him a letter of introduction to his secretary of state, Edmond Randolph.

On 15 February 1796, Wolfe Tone (travelling as an American artisan, ‘James Smith’) presented his true credentials to Ambassador Monroe, before making his way to the French foreign ministry.

Between 1811 and 1824, one of the most powerful duos of the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant religious revival in the USA, were Thomas Campbell of County Down, a Presbyterian minister, and his son, Alexander Campbell, who was born in Broughshane, County Antrim. Much influenced by Scottish Enlightenment philosophy, they sought to reform the church from within, with the end-goal being “the unification of all Christians in a single body patterned after the church of the New Testament.” In 1832, they merged their “Disciples of Christ” movement with another run by Barton W. Stone to form the American Restoration Movement (aka the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement). By 1906, it had about 1,142,000 members.

 

6. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)

 

John Ousley was born in County Wexford in about 1795  and immigrated to the USA in 1818, arriving at South Amboy, New Jersey, on 7 May. Within seven years, he was working in the kitchen at the White House under John Quincy Adams, who mentioned him several times in his diary during his presidential term. He was cook at the White House from 1825–1852 and, learned in botany, also  taught the presidents about the various plants he cooked with. As well as Adams, he served under Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, and Franklin Pierce.

John Quincy Adam wrote ‘Dermot MacMorrogh or the Conquest of Ireland; an historical tale of the twelfth century,’ published in Boston in 1832. The poem is described by Elizabeth FitzPatrick in History Ireland here as ‘a lengthy mock-heroic epic of 266 stanzas and four cantos’: ‘The Elopement’, ‘The Expulsion’, ‘The Restoration’ and ‘The Conquest’. To prepare for the work, he read historical works of Cambrensis, Hume, Leland and Lingard. His poem took a dim view of ‘the centuries of oppression.’ Homing in on MacMorrogh’s [sic] treachery, Adams warned his fellow Americans about an example of a country sold to a foreign invader by the joint agency of violated marriage vows, unprincipled ambition and religious imposture…

 

7. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) & John Caldwell Calhoun (1825-1832)

 

Portrait of Andrew Jackson, 1845, by Irish-American artist George Healy.

Andrew ‘Old Hickory’ Jackson, the seventh president of the US, was the son of emigrants who were both born in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, as were his two older brothers.  They emigrated shortly before Jackson’s birth in 1767. The redheaded Jackson came to prominence in 1815 as commander of the US army that completely routed the British redcoats in the battle of New Orleans. His victory was so resounding that Ned Pakenham, the Westmeath-born British commander, was among those killed. General Pakenham’s body was subsequently pickled in a cask of rum and shipped back to Ireland for burial.[6]

Jackson’s first presidential election campaign was marred by the considerable heat over his beautiful wife Rachel (née Donelson) who had previously been married to Captain Lewis Robards. Jackson was alleged to have slept with her when she was still married to Robards. During the enquiry, a ‘quarrelsome and unpleasant man’ Irishman named Hugh McGary (1744-1806) gave testimony that he had seen the two “bedding together” in July 1790. McGary, who founded Oregon, Kentucky (originally McGary’s Station), became notorious after he murdered Moluntha, the grand sachem of the Shawnee, with a hatchet in 1786

Jackson, who went on to serve two terms in the White House, is frequently ranked as one of the US’s most successful presidents. Donald Trump had his portrait hung on the wall of the Oval Office shortly after he moved into the White House in 2016. The fact that Jackson’s portrait has also been on the $20 bill since 1928, the centenary of his election, is considered a classic case of historical irony given that he was fervently opposed to paper money during his lifetime.

According to Kieran Quinlan, author of ‘Strange Kin: Ireland and the American South’ (LSU Press, 1 Jan 2005), p. 35:

‘… early Irish immigrants Andrew Jackson in his bid for a second term in the presidential election of 1832 partly because they saw him as a fellow countryman . A ” Song for St. Patrick’s Day ” glorified Jackson as anti- British and an Irishman’s son:
An Irishman’s son our President is,
And now, to explain, we proudly declare,
The foes of old Ireland are no friends of his
By this token – he ne’er did their carcass spare.’

Described as  “a beautiful Irish adventuress,” Peggy O’Neale / O’Neill was the daughter of William O’Neill, a Washington D.C. tavern keeper, and the widow of a naval lieutenant named Timberlake. Rumours abounded that Peggy was the mistress of Senator John Eaton, Jackson’s Secretary of War. To stop the gossip, Jackson arranged for the two to marry. Led by Mrs Calhoun, society shunned the new Mrs Eaton but Jackson seems to have demanded she be given respect. The fact he championed an Irish woman would yield loyalty from Irish voters but the events, known as the Petticoat Affair, disintegrated his cabinet.

In 1845, Jackson sat to have his portrait painted by George Peter Alexander Healy (1813-1894), aka G.P.A. Healy, born in Boston in 1813 to an Irish merchant marine captain and his Irish wife. Two other presidents sat for Healy – James Knox Polk, with his wife Sarah, and a reluctant John Quincy Adams. He also used previous portraits, photographs or etchings to depict a further eight presidents, namely Van Buren, Tyler, Pierce, Fillmore, Buchanan, Lincoln, Grant and Arthur. (See here)

John Dick (1788-1824), one of Jackson’s bodyguards, was born in County Tyrone. He had immigrated to Virginia with his family when he was a boy and become a lawyer. He served under Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, as did the Armstrong brothers, of Fermanagh stock, about whom I have written in a story of the Choctaw Indians here.

To help rebuild the landscape around the White House, after its burning in 1814, he employed Jemmy Maher, an Alexandria nursery owner from Ireland who became the official gardener to Washington City.  He planted the elm trees that shaded a brick-paved courtyard around which Jackson stabled his racehorses in a new 10-stall brick and stone structure.

Jemmy O’Neill, an African-American, was a great favourite of Jackson when he was White House doorman in the 1830s. He occupied a porter’s lodge to the right of the north door ‘with a perspective onto the Entrance Hall where he monitored the comings and goings of the public.’ A humorous tale is told about him presenting Jackson to a man who could speak no English. Unable to establish the man’s identity, Jemmy (sometimes called Jimmy) spoke Irish to him but to no avail. Suspecting he was French, a French cook was hurried in from the kitchen but his appearance with ‘sleeves rolled up, apron on, and a huge carving-knife in his hand’ alarmed the newcomer who ‘feared some treachery, and made for the door, before which Jimmy planted himself to keep him in.’ At last, the cook was able to parlay with the man who revealed that he was the new Portuguese ambassador.

Jackson is perhaps the most controversial of the early presidents. He was the principal figure behind the relocation of some 60,000 Native Americans to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), an event that would become known as the Trail of Tears. Jackson was also an ardent supporter of slavery, owning at least 161 enslaved people.  In 1821, his wife, complained that a house slave called Betty had been “putting on airs” and washing their neighbours’ clothes without “express permission”. Jackson threatened to have Betty tied to a public whipping post and lashed fifty times if she repeated the offence. In 1832, the president arranged for the purchase of an eight-year-old girl named Emeline as a gift for his grandniece, Mary Emily Donelson. He is also said to have fathered a daughter by another African-American slave named Hannah who was in his bedroom when he lay dying in 1845. Hannah later stated that, shortly before he died, Jackson had declared, “I hope to meet you all in Heaven, both black and white.”

During the Black Lives Matter campaign of 2020, Jackson’s track record as a slaveowner motivated protestors to target his equestrian statue on Lafayette Square, Washington DC. A statue of John Caldwell Calhoun, Jackson’s vice-president, was removed from Charleston in the same week, shortly after the city mayor decried him as South Carolina’s ‘most consequential defender of slavery and white supremacy’. Calhoun, who was also vice president to John Quincy Adams, was the son of a Donegal-born Scots-Irish immigrant.[7]

Jackson’s doctor (and close friend) Felix Robertson (1781–1865) was a two-time Mayor of Nashville with Scots-Irish roots.

The Oscar winning actress Kathy Bates (aka Kathleen Doyle Bates) is the great-great-granddaughter of a Dr Doyle who emigrated to New Orleans in the 1830s and apparently also served as a doctor to President Jackson.

The first shamrock grown in the US is believed to have been planted at Grindstone Point in Winter Harbor, Maine, in 1832. According to an article in the Pike County Press (Milford, Pa.), June 24, 1898, p. 3, it was planted by Irish immigrants Mooney and Maloney who arrived from Cork and narrowly survived a shipwreck in 1832. They sent to Ireland for shamrock and, when it arrived, planted it on the point they clambered to dry land, naming it Shamrock Point. This later became Grindstone Point.

 

8. Martin van Buren (1837-1841)

 

A check made out to Catherine for her monthly wage of eight dollars is on display at the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site.

After he failed to win re-election in 1841, Martin Van Buren, 8th President of the United States (1837-1841) retired to his Lindenwald estate near the small New York village of Kinderhook where he was born and raised.

Van Buren’s letters document a number of Irish emigrants on his household staff at Lindenwald who had seemingly arrived in the US during the turmoil of the Great Hunger and taken up work as a cook, a waitress, a chambermaid, and possibly as a laundress or parlour-maid. Among those named were Bridget Clary, Margaret Kelly, Hannah O’Connor. (See here) and the Kelly twins, Catherine and Mary. A check made out to Catherine for her monthly wage of $8 is on display at the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site.

 

10. John Tyler (1841-1845)

 

John Tyler may have been the president when, as a letter writer recalled in 1843:

‘We were received by Jemmy Grant, the Irish doorkeeper, who, with an absence of ceremony which astonished my transatlantic companion, took us upstairs, and, pointing to the cabinet chamber, said: ‘You will find the old man in that room.’ (here)

Martin Renehan, doorman to the White House. Illustration: Derry Dillon

In the WASP-dominated US, it was hard for the Catholic Irish to make an impression in the political arena. Hostility to the Catholic Irish was exemplified by the infamous “No Irish Need Apply” signs that first began appearing across the US in the 1840s. Kilkenny-born Martin Renehan (1810-1884) was one of the few Catholics to make his mark on the White House staff where he served as usher and doormen to five presidents. A master of wit and wordplay, he was first hired as an attendant by Andrew Jackson, the 7th president, whose parents were both born in Ireland. By the time Zachary Taylor became the 12th president in 1849, Mr Renehan was principal doorkeeper at the White House. He and his Irish-born wife Margaret, née Hogan (1814-1894), lived at 1745 Seaton Street, Washington.

A rather charming anecdote is told about how Mr Renehan was summoned by President Tyler to investigate a sealed and unmarked wooden box in the entrance hall of the White House. ‘The devil himself puts into the heads of his children to manufacture infernal machines,’ intoned the Kilkenny-man, as he sized up the suspicious package. ‘And who knows but that powder and balls, and percussion dust, have been arranged with a view to blow you up for vetoing the Bank bill!’ He then smashed the box with a meat cleaver, while President Tyler hastily legged it behind a nearby marble columns. When the wooden box was no more, an innocent iron stove stood in its place. Tyler pleaded with his doormen to say not a word to anyone about the incident. ‘If you do they’ll have me caricatured.’ [9] He subsequently served as groundsman for the US Navy in Washington DC through into the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Julia Tyler, the First Lady, is said to have preferred Irish servants and formed a particularly strong attachment to Catherine Wing, who is thought to have been Irish, and who managed the black servants for Mrs Tyler. (See here)

The Tyler’s had an Irish-born coachman and two English-born servants. (See here)

 

11. James Knox Polk (1845-1849)

 

James Polk’s great-great-grandfather William was born at Cavanacor House, Lifford, Co. Donegal (www.cavanacorgallery.ie), and his great-great-great-grandmother Magdalen Tasker was born in Moneen, near Strabane, County Tyrone.

John Louis O’Sullivan (1813 -1895) was editor of the Democratic Review which backed the losing presidential candidate Martin Van Buren in 1840 and the winner, James Polk, in 1844. His parents were Irish-born John Thomas O’Sullivan, an American diplomat and sea captain, and Mary Rowly, a genteel Englishwoman.

O’Sullivan is said to have coined the term “manifest destiny” in 1845 by to promote Polk’s annexation of Texas and the Oregon Country to the United States. If O’Sullivan didn’t coin it, then it was probably an Irish-American journalist who worked for him named Jane Cazneau (1807-1878). She was the lobbyist daughter of William McManus, an Irish-American Congressman from New York.

Polk’s annexation of Texas in 1845 had the backing of Sam Houston, who had become the first president of the Republic of Texas in 1837. Houston was the great-grandson of John Houston (c. 1689–1754), an Ulster Scot, who migrated to Pennsylvania in about 1735.  Houston’s wife Tiana (sometimes called Diana) was the daughter of a Scots-Irish trader known as John “Hellfire” Rogers (1740–1833).

President Polk was a visitor to the (now famous, as per here) home of Enniskillen-born merchant Patrick Maguire (1775-1850) in Columbia, Tennessee. The president’s cousin Dr William J Polk later bought the land.  My account of the Maguire’s of Enniskillen is here.

As Polk lay dying, he was persuaded to convert from Presbyterian to Methodist by the Methodist preacher John Berry McFerrin (1807–1887), the descendant of Irish emigrants on both his paternal and maternal side. McFerrin, who also officiated at Polk’s funeral, was later a chaplain in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War.

 

12. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)

 

Ed McManus, an Irishman, was doorkeeper to the president’s office at the White House for every president from either Jackson or Polk through to Abraham Lincoln. He was one of five Irish-born staff listed in the 1850 census as part of President Zachary Taylor’s household, the others being a messenger named Thomas Cogan, a machinist named John Hannagan and not one but two young women called Mary Riley.  (There is no mention of Martin Renehan.) The housemaid was called Sophia O’Brien, although she was born in Sweden.

Among Taylor’s most die-hard supporters was Sarah A. Bowman (c.1813 –1866), aka Sarah Borginnis / Bourdette, an Irish American innkeeper, restaurateur, and madam, who is regarded as the first woman to become a US Army officer. Nicknamed “The Great Western” on account of her size, she came to fame as the “Heroine of Fort Brown” during the Mexican–American War.

James Shields, an Irish immigrant, is the only one person to have represented three different states in the United States Senate. Having emigrated to the US circa 1826, he was first chosen to represent the state of Illinois in 1849, the year of Taylor’s victory. He was later elected for Minnesota in 1858, and Missouri in 1879. “Shields’ remarkable life also included service as a state legislator and a judge on the Illinois Supreme Court, as well as a distinguished military career as a brigadier general in both the Mexican War and the American Civil War. In 1893, the state of Illinois honored him with a statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol.” (here)

 

13. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

Millard Fillmore was vice president when he succeeded to the presidency in July 1850 upon the death of Zachary Taylor. A book published in 1852 by T.W. Strong called Yankee Notions, of Whittlings of Jonathan’s Jack-Knife, offers tells the story in Volume 1, p. 200, of how Mr Preston of South Carolina sent his coach to the president to see if he would like to buy it. The president’s coachman was known as ‘Irish Jemmy.‘ He duly asked Jemmy whether he deemed the coach fine enough.

‘Och, it’s a good coach, your honor,’ replied Jemmy.
‘But is it good enough, Jemmy?’
Jemmy with a doubtful scratch of the head again answered in the same manner, when Mr Fillmore wishing a decisive answer said: ‘Jemmy, do you think a second hand carriage do for a President?’
‘Och! and remimber yer honor’s a second-hand President – and sure it’s jist right.’
The President, laughing heartily at the quaint conceit, took the coach.

In 1851, Fermoy-educated architect Charles Frederick Anderson (1802–1869) was one of three architects to win a premium for the extension of the US Capitol, Washington, DC. He later sought compensation for what he believed was plagiarism of his plans.

 

14. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)

 

During the Pierce presidency, a Jew by name of of Philip Phillips served as a Democrat from Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives (1853-1855) before settling in Washington, D.C., to practice law.  His wife Eugenia Levy Phillips (1819–1902), a native of South Carolina, was described as ‘a fiery and outspoken Confederate sympathizer.’ She hired an Irish woman named Phoebe Dunlap as her ‘confidential maid’; Phoebe became her close friend and they lived together for 15 years.

Pierce served in the Mexican–American War of 1846-1848 with the rank of brigadier general. His orderly sergeant was Thomas O’Neill. When he came into the White House, Pierce became the first president to have a full-time bodyguard, that man being the one and the same Thomas O’Neil.

In 1853, Pierce appointed Charles O’Conor the Attorney for the Southern District of New York. His father had left Ireland after the 1798 Rebellion.

As he lay on his deathbed in Concord, New Hampshire, on 8 October 1869, Pierce asked his Irish housekeeper to join him as he did not want to die alone. He held her hand until he died.

 

15. James Buchanan (1857-1861)

 

Like Jackson, James Buchanan, the fifteenth president, was also the son of a Scots-Irish emigrant. Both his father and grandfather were born at Low Cairn, near Ramelton, County Donegal. His father sailed from Londonderry in 1783 and bought a farm near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He must have felt peculiarly close to home, given that the surrounding townships had names such as Drumore, Antrim, Donegal, Letterkenny and Coleraine. James Buchanan remains the only President who never married, leading to inevitable speculations about his sexuality. In his younger years he was engaged to Anne Coleman, the willowy, black-haired daughter of a wealthy iron manufacturer who had emigrated from near Castle Finn in County Donegal. Anne’s sudden death shortly after she broke off the engagement has also been the subject of much debate, with suggestions that she died of a laudanum overdose. Buchanan, who was unable to attend her funeral, wrote to his father, ‘I feel happiness has fled from me forever.’

The song-writer Stephen Collins Foster’s sister married James Buchanan’s brother. Foster was a devoted supporter of Buchanan, a fellow Pennsylvania Democrat. He wrote two songs for Buchanan’s 1856 campaign and another song that dissed abolitionists. (See here)

The Galway-born bandmaster Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore performed at President James Buchanan’s inauguration in 1857.

In 1858 the first transatlantic telegram was successfully sent via 2500 miles of underwater cable from Valentia Island off the coast of County Kerry to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland. It was one of most remarkable feats in the history of global engineering.  An ecstatic Buchanan subsequently dispatched an 88-word message to Queen Victoria declaring the link to be ‘a triumph more glorious and far more useful to mankind than any battle’. He also hailed it as ‘a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world.’ It took seventeen hours for Buchanan’s message to be ‘downloaded’ but when his message was received, church bells rang in celebration from Killarney to London. Two weeks later, everything went horribly wrong when the Atlantic cable effectively burned out.

Seven years would pass before the connection was re-established, during which time the US fought its civil war, leaving perhaps as many as 750,000 people dead. Buchanan’s dithering leadership was widely blamed for the war, which began five weeks after he left office. He remained defiant to the end. The day before his death in 1868, he predicted that ‘history will vindicate my memory.’ History thus far disagrees and his name generally pops up on the lower rungs when anyone compiles a list of ‘Worst US Presidents’.

During the last part of Buchanan’s presidency, John Downie (1827-1897) served as Governor of California. Born in County Roscommon, he was the first governor of the state to be born outside the USA and made his money by running a successful pharmacy business in Los Angeles in the wake of the Gold Rush.

John Buchanan Floyd (1806-1863), Buchanan’s Secretary of War, had Irish roots. As governor of Virginia, he commissioned the monument to President George Washington in Virginia Capitol Square, and laid the cornerstone in the presence of President Zachary Taylor in 1850.

Buchanan specifically precluded Irish Catholics from working at the White House during his presidency.

 

Jefferson Davis 

 

Mary Shanklin, the midwife at Davis’s birth in 1808, descended from Gilbert Shankland of Enniskillen who emigrated to Albany, New York, in about 1750.

In 1829, Davis stood as best man to his West Point classmate Robert Emmet Clary (1805–1890), who was named after the executed Irish patriot Robert Emmet.

Jefferson Davis established a rival White House of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia during the American Civil War. Mary O’Melia, his housekeeper in Richmond, was born as Mary Larkin in 1822, in Galway and educated in a convent.  She married Matthias O’Melia, a ship captain, but was widowed at age 25 when he was lost at sea.

Varina Davis, the only First Lady of the Confederate States of America, was Davis’s second wife. Her mother Margaret Louisa Kempe was the daughter of an Irish immigrant James Kempe (or Kemp or Kempt) who apparently emigrated from Castlefinn, County Donegal, fought in the War of 1812, and accumulated significant wealth. Before he left Ireland, Kempe had — the family believed — fought with Robert Emmet.

Jefferson and Varina Davis employed several Irish nannies. The first was an orphan named Catherine Dunn, who would be at the centre of Kate Hewitt’s heart-breaking love affair. The second was another Catherine, surname unknown, who was sent to the Davis family by the Daughters of Charity. She would be unjustly blamed for the death of the Davis’s five-year-old son Joe, when he fell from from a balcony in the White House. The third was Mary Ahearn, also sent over by the Daughters of Charity, who became nurse to the Davis’s daughter Winnie and a loyal friend of the Davis family. The story of the Davis nannies is story is told by Frank Burns in ‘The two Catherines : an extraordinary true story from the American Civil War,’ available here.

In her Civil War diary Mary Boykin Chesnut, who also kept Irish servants, described seeing the Davis’s Irish nurse ‘weeping and wailing as only an Irish woman can.’

Davis’s friends included Dr William Lindsay Brandon, the son of Gerard Brandon, an Irish veteran of the American Revolution. W. L. Brandon served as a general in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War.

The seal of the Confederate States of America was made by Dublin-born sculptor John Henry Foley, R.A.

By 1861, the largest immigrant group in the South were Catholic Irish and Scots-Irish (Protestants). In consequence, 40,000 Irish fought for the Confederate Army in the US Civil War. (See: Phillip Thomas Tucker, ‘The Irish at Gettysburg (Civil War Series, 2018).

During the Civil War, Company F, First Texas Heavy Artillery, was known as the Davis Guards, named after President Davis. I have written about its galway-born commander Dick Dowling in more depth in my 2021 book, The Irish Diaspora, here.

In 1861 Irish songwriter Harry McCarthy’s song “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” about the unofficial first Confederate flag (using the tune from “The Irish Jaunting Car”) became so popular that it rivalled “Dixie” as a Confederate anthem. Its popularity wanted when McCarthy switched sides and moved to Philadelphia.

Born at Rooskey, County Roscommon and educated at Castleknock College in Dublin and St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Father John Bannon (1829–1913) was a Jesuit orator who served as a Confederate chaplain during the US Civil War. In 1863, Confederate president Jefferson Davis and secretary of state Judah Benjamin asked him to complete a secret diplomatic trip to Ireland in an effort to discourage Irish immigrants from joining the Union Army.

When Jefferson Davis was indicted for treason, Charles O’Conor was his senior counsel.

On the night of her on her eighteenth birthday, Winnie Davis enjoyed dinner with no less a guest than Oscar Wilde. The Irish author and playwright spent a night with the Davis family on 27 June 1882. “It’s like a butterfly making a formal visit to an eagle,” remarked a local newspaper. “I did not like the man,” observed Davis later, clearly immune to the charm of the man who left a carte-de-visite depicting himself fur-lined coat and velvet jacket and inscribed, “To Jefferson Davis in all loyal admiration from Oscar Wilde…”

In 1890, the Belfast-born artist Henry Arthur McArdle (1836–1908) was commissioned by Texan governor Lawrence Sullivan Ross to paint a portrait of Jefferson Davis to hang in the capitol building.

 

16. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)

James Shields (1806-1879) moved from County Tyrone to the US in around 1826 and became Illinois State Auditor in 1839. When he decided that paper money was not acceptable for taxes (i.e. only silver and gold could be used), his intelligence was questioned in a satirical piece published locally. The piece was written by Lincoln, who Shields then challenged to a duel. They met in 1842 at Bloody Island in the middle of the Mississippi river but fortunately nobody died. Shields is the only person to have represented three states as US Senator – Illinois from 1849 to 1855, Minnesota from 1858 to 1859 and Missouri in 1879.

In 1863, a journalist named Noah Brooks scoffed that ‘the president has succeeded in getting about him a corps of attaches of Hibernian descent whose manner and style (were) as about as disagreeable as can be.’  Beloved by the Irish, the Ancient Order of Hibernians formed a protective phalanx around Abraham Lincoln during one of his campaign rallies in 1860. Lincoln, who donated $10 (equivalent to around €500 in 2023) to Irish famine relief back in 1847, could recite Robert Emmet’s famous speech from the dock off by heart, while his favourite ballad was Lady Dufferin’s poem ‘The Lament of the Irish Emigrant’ set to music. He much enjoyed the writing of “Private Miles O’Reilly,” a pseudonym for Irish emigrant Charles Halpine.

Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham’s wife, was the great-granddaughter of David Levi Todd, who emigrated from County Longford via Pennsylvania, to Kentucky. Another of her great-grandfathers, Andrew Porter, was of Irish stock.

George Proctor Kane (1817–1878), Marshal of Police during the Baltimore riot of 1861, was the son of Irish immigrants. He was instrumental in providing protection and an escort for Mary Todd Lincoln on her arrival in Baltimore in February 1861 on her way to the inauguration of her husband. During the Great Hunger, he was active in organising relief work for Ireland as president of the Hibernian Society.

Ward Hill Lamon (1828-1893), Lincoln’s legal partner, trusted confidant and sometime bodyguard, was the grandson of George Lamon (1760–1826), reputed to have been born in County Tyrone.

When the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opened Lincoln’s pocket watch in 2013, they found a secretly engraved message from Jonathan Dillon, the watchmaker who repaired it in 1861. Dillon, who immigrated to Washington, D.C. from Waterford, engraved these words on the underside of the gold watch movement:

“Jonathan Dillon April 13- 1861 Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date.
J Dillon.
April 13-1861 Washington thank God we have a government. Jonth Dillon.”

Despite Mrs Lincoln’s apparent disdain of the Irish (here), the Lincoln’s employed an Irish-born housekeeper, Mary Ann Cuthbert, while the Lincoln’s children also had Irish nannies. Catherine Gordon, an 18-year-old immigrant from Ireland, was living at the Lincoln Home at the time of the 1850 Census. She seemingly earned Mrs Lincoln’s wrath by leaving her window open so boyfriends could enter. Margaret Ryan, another Irish native, claimed she lived at the Lincoln household until 1860 and witnessed Mrs Lincoln whacking her husband and chasing him out of the house. Mary Johnson, a woman of Irish descent, resided with the Lincolns at the time of the 1860 census. Niall O’Dowd tells (here) how Abe paid her a few extra dollars ‘to put up with his wife’s tirades.’  Mary Fagan, another Irish immigrant, recalled being taken out of school for two weeks aged 8 to work for the Lincolns. During that time she saw jelly, pig feet, and celery for the first time in her life. (here)

“Old Edward” McManus was seemingly still the chief doorkeeper when Lincoln was elected. He was also the first person to greet the Lincolns after the Inauguration on 4 March 1861. However, there is a confusion of Edwards as several Irish-Americans of that name – Edward (Ned) Burke, Edward McManus and Edward Moran – were all doorkeepers of the White House.

Edward “Ned” Burke was a White House steward and coachman. President Lincoln wrote this letter of recommendation for him on 4 March 1862:

“Edward Burke, the bearer of this, was at service in this Mansion for several months now last past; and during all the time he appeared to me to be a competent, faithful and very genteel man. I take no charge of the servants about the house; but I do not understand that Burke leaves because of any fault or misconduct.”

Burke, who reappeared on the White House payroll in 1865, drove the Lincolns to Ford’s Theatre on 14 April 1865.

Edward Moran was described by the daughter of Lincoln’s presidential secretary John G. Nicolay as ‘a short, thin, humorous Irishman, to be trusted equally with state secrets, or with the diplomatic management of the President’s unpredictable young son Tad.’  William O. Stoddard, Lincoln’s assistant private secretary, described Moran as the first man to succeed in making Mr. Lincoln laugh after he took office.

In 1863, Mrs Lincoln had ‘old Ed’ fired and replaced by Cornelius O’Leary of Tipperary, a veteran of the Irish Papal Brigade who tried to defend the pope from Garibaldi. As relayed in Niall O’Dowd’s 2018 book ‘Lincoln and the Irish: The Untold Story of How the Irish Helped Abraham Lincoln Save the Union,’ this seems to have been because Cornelius was more corruptible than old Ed, and the financially unstable Mrs Lincoln seemingly offered a ‘cash for access’ arrangement. The game was rumbled quite quickly and Cornelius was sacked. After his dismissal, he set off to Ireland to help the Fenians but was captured by the British and released on promise that he remain in the USA.

Portrait of Thomas F. Pendel from his 1902 memoir, Thirty-six Years in the White House.

Mrs Lincoln’s hostility to the Irish cannot have been calmed by the actions of their Irish-born coachman Patterson McGee, who was dismissed on 10 February 1864, shortly before the White House stables burned. McGee was sighted at the scene and arrested for arson but released due to the lack of evidence.

Charlie Forbes, Lincoln’s valet, was an Irishman, as per the anecdote here. Charlie was present in Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot.

Thomas F. Pendel, known as Tom, was a White House doorman / bodyguard for 37 years between the Lincoln administration and the turn of the 20th century, during which time three presidents were assassinated (Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley.)  Born at Georgetown, Washington D. C, in 1824, he was a grandson of an Irish immigrant, also named Thomas Pendel. He disarmed an apparent assassin who came to kill Chester Arthur (here) in 1881.

Another of Lincoln’s bodyguards was Alphonso Dunn (or Donn).

Ohio-born Dan Emmett (1815-1904) was the grandson of John Emmett from Ireland who emigrated sometime before the revolutionary war. In 1859 Dan Emmett wrote “Dixie’s Land,” aka “Dixie,” a smash hit that went across party lines.  Lincoln played it at many of his campaign rallies for the 1860 election, while it was also played at Jefferson Davis’s inauguration.

At least 190,000 Irish fought for the Union Army in the Civil War, of whom 146 won Medals of Honor, while there were another 23,600 in the Union Navy.  Thomas Francis Meagher and Michael Corcoran were among the other Irish heroes. The Pennsylvania Irish  69th and the New York Fighting 69th were immense. Among those who fought was Jenny Hodgers from County Louth, who became Albert Cashier; I’ve written that story in The Irish Diaspora. After the Union Army’s victory at Malvern Hill, Virginia, Lincoln kissed the Irish flag and said, “God Bless the Irish”.

One of Lincoln’s war advisors was Senator Francis Kernan (1816–1892), the son of General William Kernan, from Cavan, and his Irish-born wife, Rose Anna (née Stubbs). Kernan’s wife Hannah was the daughter of Nicholas Devereux whose parents came from County Wexford, possibly Enniscorthy.

General Philip Sheridan, a Union Army icon, was either born in Killinkere, County Cavan, where his parents lived, or on the ship during the voyage over. Promoted to general by President Cleveland, Sheridan’s track record is much tarnished by his brutal treatment of what he deemed ‘the Indian problem,’ a policy that would ultimately inspire Hitler’s twisted dreams of a Final Solution.

When the New York City Draft Riots took place between13-16  July 1863, the rioters were predominantly Irish. According to Toby Joyce (“The New York Draft Riots of 1863: An Irish Civil War?” History Ireland (March 2003) pp 22–27), the riot represented a civil war within New York’s Irish community, whereby:

“… mostly Irish American rioters confronted police, [while] soldiers, and pro-war politicians … were also to a considerable extent from the local Irish immigrant community.”

Limerick-born transit worker Peter George Doyle (1843–1907), who was Walt Whitman’s sometime lover, was an eyewitness to Lincoln’s assassination. 

A story is told that Lincoln carried a four-leaf clover with him everywhere but left it at home the night he was assassinated.

James O’Beirne, the provost marshal of Washington, D.C, who helped track Lincoln’s killer down was born in Ballagh, County Roscommon. His father Michael was a lawyer who immigrated to New York in 1832 and became a member and later partner of the Roche brothers. His mother, Eliza, was a niece of Gregory Dillon, first President of the Irish Immigrant Savings Bank, and a cousin of Robert J. Dillon, one-time District Attorney of New York City.

Edward Doherty (1838-1897), who led the detachment that captured and killed John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s killer, was the son of immigrants from Sligo.

James “Tugboat” McLean was the Reuters correspondent who alerted Europe to the shocking news of Lincoln’s assassination.

John Conness (1821–1909), the last surviving pall-bearer at Lincoln’s funeral worn in Abbey, County Galway, and emigrated with his family in 1836. He served as a U.S. Senator (1863–1869) from California during the Civil War and Reconstruction era.

Dublin-born detective Patrick D. Tyrrell helped foil a bizarre plot hatched by Irish-born Chicago crime boss James “Big Jim” Kennally (or Kinealy) to steal Lincoln’s remains on 7 November 1876.

George Bernard Shaw would coin the phrase the “cult of Lincoln” while Lincoln’s statues in London’s Parliament Square and Chicago’s Lincoln Park are the work of Dublin-born sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The Lincoln statue from 1868 located outside the District of Columbia City Hall and the nation’s oldest extant memorial to the assassinated president – is the work of Limerick-born sculptor Lot Flannery (1836– 1922).

When Eamonn de Valera went to Springfield, Illinois in 1920 (1919?), he was given a gold locket containing a shamrock grown on Lincoln’s lawn. It was presented by Lincoln’s great-niece, Eva Evans.

NB: James Buchanan Jameson, commander of President Lincoln’s and Andrew Johnson’s body guard, is thought to have been Scottish rather than Irish, but I am aways willing to stand corrected.

17. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)

 

Following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in the wake of the civil war, the office passed to his vice president Andrew Johnson, whose grandfather hailed from the Mounthill, south of Larne, in County Antrim.[8]

Johnson is presently the first sitting US president I know to have worn a shamrock, as per a discovery by Belinda Evangelista in February 2024. On 25 March 1868, The Catholic Telegraph reported: ‘The President wore a shamrock, which was brought from Ireland, while reviewing the St Patrick’s procession in front of the White House yesterday.’

On the plus side, Johnson appointed William Slade, Abraham Lincoln’s personal messenger and friend, as the first African-American steward of the First Residence in the wake of the Civil War.

In 1865, Johnson appointed Edward Clark (1822–1902) Architect of the US Capitol, a position he retained until 1902. He was the son of Philadelphia architect James Clark whose father Dublin-born Michael Clark was one of the first new arrivals to the newly formed US in the 1770s, being eager to avoid anti-Catholic persecution in England. The extension of the Capitol was completed on Edward Clark’s watch in 1868. He also introduced numerous technological improvements to the Capitol, including electricity, steam heat, and elevators. Edward Clark  was a close friend of the banker William Wilson Corcoran (1798 –1888), the son of Thomas Corcoran, a Limerick-born immigrant who became one of the wealthiest men in Baltimore and the District of Columbia.

ALife of Andrew Johnson’ was written by John Savage (1828–1888), the Dublin-born Young Ireland poet and author. He initially wrote it for a work called Our Leading Representative Men, containing sketches of Presidential candidates that lined up in 1861. In return, Johnson proposed Savage as United States Consul in Leeds; the appointment was never made, perhaps because Savage was also a prominent supporter of the Fenians. In 1854, he married Louise Reid, whose father Samuel Chester Reid reputedly designed the present form of the American flag.

Johnson’s finest hour was the acquisition of Alaska from the Russians in 1867.

 

18. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)

 

Ulysses Simpson Grant was the great-grandson of John Simpson who was born in 1738 at Dergina, near Dungannon, County Tyrone.

One of Grant’s closest confidantes was John Aaron Rawlins (1831–1869), the descendant of Scotch-Irish immigrants. Grant appointed him as his Secretary of War when he took office in 1869 but Rawlins succumbed to tuberculosis just five months later.

During his first term as president, Grant attempted to stop the Fenian Brotherhood and reputedly supported anti-Catholic policies.

In 1872, Charles O’Conor became the first Catholic presidential nominee when put forward by the Straight-Out Democratic Party, with John Quincy Adams II as his running mate. O’Conor did not accept the nomination – the election was a landslide for the incumbent Republican Ulysses S. Grant.

In 1874, newspapers carried glowing accounts of Grant reviewing the St Patrick’s Day parade in Washington DC.

Among Grant’s staff was a domestic named Annie Brown, née Anna Elise Lenahan, who arrived from Limerick in the late 1860s and married one of Grant’s groundsmen Frank Brown. She worked at Grant’s home at 991 Ocean Avenue, dubbed “The Summer Capitol”, his getaway at Long Branch in Monmouth County, New Jersey. Annie was born Anna Elsie Lenehan but married Frank Brown, the Grant’s groundskeeper at Long Branch, as per here.

Horace Greeley (1811–1872) was the founding editor of the New-York Tribune who unsuccessfully contested the 1872 presidential election against incumbent President  Grant, who won by a landslide. Greeley’s mother’s family descended from Scots-Irish immigrants from the village of Garvagh, County Derry, who had settled Londonderry, New Hampshire. Some of Greeley’s maternal ancestors fought at the siege of Derry during the Williamite War in Ireland in 1689. Greeley supported the Irish move towards independence from the United Kingdom. When Confederate president Jefferson Davis was captured at the end of the war, Greeley initially advocated that “punishment be meted out in accord with a just verdict”.

Grant joined President Chester Arthur at a St Patrick’s Day gala in 1882. (Bordewich, p. 114)

Kilkenny-born telegrapher Daniel Hogan (1849-1912) emigrated to Pulaski County, Illinois, with his parents when he was young. His telegraphy skills made him a key part of Grant’s team during the Civil War, and he was at many major battles including Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Corinth, Nashville, and Iuka. In 1882, Hogan was elected as a Republican to the Illinois Senate, holding the seat until 1890.

When Grant went on his two-year-long world tour between 1877 and 1879, he was accompanied by the County Tyrone born journalist John Russell Young (1840–1899), whose role was to record the journey, which he duly published in a two-volume work. Young went on to serve as US Minister to the Qing Empire of China (1882-1885) before President William McKinley appointed him as the seventh Librarian of the United States Congress (1897-1899). His younger brother James Rankin Young served three terms as a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania from 1897 to 1903.

Grant arrived in Dublin on 3 January 1879 and left Ireland five days later. During this time, he was presented with the Freedom of the City of Dublin by Sir John Barrington (1824–1887), a soap-making businessman who was the first Quaker to serve as Lord Mayor of Dublin. In his speech, Barrington declared:

‘Ireland mourned for [Lincoln’s] loss when she heard the news that the great disciple of freedom had been struck down. A truly great general took his place and carried out the work that had been begun…the shackles of the negro and slavery disappeared from America, every part of which is now free.’

Grant visited his County Tyrone homeland in 1878 (1879?). My cousin Dick Crampton tells me he went to see the homestead with QUB Prof Jennifer Adgey, a fellow cardiologist, and that it was still lived in by one of USG’s ancient collateral relations at the time.

Born in Lisburn, Alfred Harding (1852–1923) emigrated to the US in 1867 and served as Grant’s personal physician from 22 October 1884 until the former president’s death on 23 July 1885. In 1909, Harding  was consecrated as the second Episcopal Bishop of Washington.

 

19. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)

 

In 1880, President Hayes received a gift from Queen Victoria of a large desk in thanks for the recovery of a Royal Navy ship, HMS Resolute, by an American whaler. The desk was, in fact, made from the timbers of Resolute and, located in the Oval Office, is known as the Resolute Desk. The ship was commanded by Henry Kellett (1806-75) of Clonacody House, Fethard, County Tipperary, but became trapped in ice during the search for Franklin and was abandoned. It was recovered in 1855 and broken up in 1879. (The Franklin expedition and Kellett are the subjects of two separate chapters I wrote for the 1847 book. Kellett’s story is told in Herald and Pandora: A chronicle of Panama belles, Irish Colonies and Giant Tortoises.)

President Hayes gave an audience to Charles Stewart Parnell during his highly successful US tour. On 2 February 1880, Parnell addressed the US House of Representatives.

 

21. Chester Arthur (1881-1885)

 

The assassination of another president, James Garfield, in 1881 likewise propelled his vice president Chester Arthur into the White House. William Arthur, Chester’s father, was born in Cullybackey, County Antrim, where his thatched homestead now serves as an interpretive centre detailing the story of the president and his Presbyterian forbears. William studied in Belfast before emigrating to Canada in about 1819. Prior to his nomination as vice president in 1880, Chester Arthur’s political opponents began spreading rumours that he was also born in Ireland and did not move to the US until he was fourteen years old. Had that proved true, Arthur would have been constitutionally ineligible for the vice-presidency. However, the ‘birther’ conspiracy failed to gather momentum.

President Arthur was joined by former President Grant at a St Patrick’s Day gala in 1882. (Bordewich, p. 114)

On St. Patrick’s Day 1884, Chester. Arthur ‘received the “Clan ne Gael” and other Irish societies from the portico of the White House, a time honored custom at the Capital.’ (American Court Gossip, p. 173.)

 

Breakthrough for Irish Catholics

 

In 1851, Barney McGinniskin, a Catholic from Glenfarne in County Leitrim became the first Irishman to serve in the Boston Police Department, and possibly in the USA. At the time, there was just one Irish representative on Boston’s 48-man City Council. McGinniskin was fired in 1852 on the basis that he was “not a fit or suitable person” to become a police officer, although the Boston Pilot maintained he had been sacked ‘for no other reason than he was a Catholic and born in Ireland’. [9a]

The breakthrough against such bigotry commenced in 1880 when Billy Grace became the first Catholic to be elected mayor of New York. Hugh O’Brien, an Irish immigrant, was elected Boston’s first Catholic mayor four years later. Grace was one of three Irish-born mayors of New York, the others being Sligo-born Thomas Gilroy (1893-1894) and Mayo-born William O’Dwyer (1946-1950). New York has also had at least eight Irish-American mayors, including Hugh Grant (the son of an Irish liquor merchant, and the youngest mayor in New York history), Al Smith (see below) and Robert Wagner Jr. (the city mayor from 1954 through 1965).

Patrick A. Collins (1844-1905), Boston’s second Irish-born Mayor, was also the first Irish Catholic elected as a US Congressman (1883-85). He hauled from Ballinafauna, a townland near Fermoy, County Cork. Twelve mayors of Boston have had Irish roots, including, most recently, Martin J. Walsh (2014- 2021).

[Longford-born Frank McCoppin, a former policeman with the Royal Irish Constabulary, was the first Irishman to be elected Mayor of San Francisco in 1867, but I am assuming he was not Catholic.]  As recently as 1965, the mayors of Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and San Francisco were all Irish American. See Irish connections to Chicago here.

Irish Americans came to dominate the Catholic Church in the US to such an extent that by 1900, half of the bishops in the US were actually born in Ireland. The Irish also held considerable sway in both the Democratic Party and the trade unions.

 

22. 24. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889; 1893-1897)

 

Grover Cleveland – the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms – was the grandson of Abner Neal, a Presbyterian Scots-Irish merchant from County Antrim. Arguably Cleveland’s best-known Irish connection came in the early 1870s when, as Sheriff of Erie County (Buffalo, New York), he was compelled to pull the scaffold lever that sent two condemned men – one Irish-born, the other Irish-American – to meet their maker. Cleveland served his first term from 1885 to 1889 and his second from 1893 to 1897.

The nominating speech for Grover Cleveland at the 1888 Democratic National Convention was delivered by Philadelphia lawyer Daniel Dougherty (1826–1892), the son of an Irish-born surveyor. He also delivered the nominating speech for Winfield Scott Hancock’s unsuccessful campaign at the 1880 convention.

Cleveland certainly had a fondness for the Irish. On his first election to the White House in 1885, he replaced Chester Arthur’s French cook, Monsieur Fortin with Katharine Keenan, described by the Pilot on 20 June 1885 (here) as ‘an intelligent young Irish woman … she has been employed about the White House since President Cleveland has been there, and came down from Albany with him.’ (See also a defence of M. Fortin versus Ms Keenan here.)

John Francis McKenna (1841–1898), who served as Cleveland’s Chief Usher of the White House from 1887 to 1889, was born in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, and emigrated to the US with his parents and siblings in 1849. He was also a prominent Irish nationalist.

Cleveland’s principal White House physician for both terms was his close friend Robert Maitland O’Reilly (1845–1912). He descended from General Alexander O’Reilly of Baltrasna (near Bective), County Meath, who had been Spanish governors of Louisiana in 1769. Dr O’Reilly also attended to Sheridan during his last illness.

Wilson S. Bissell, chief groomsman at Cleveland’s wedding, was of Scotch-Irish ancestry.

Another of Cleveland’s friends was Senator Francis Kernan (1816–1892), the son of General William Kernan, from Cavan, and his Irish-born wife, Rose Anna (née Stubbs). Another was Cincinnati journalist James W. Faulkner (1863–1923), the son of hotelier John Faulkner and Ellen O’Connell, immigrants from County Cork.

Cleveland was among those who has his palms read by the astrologer and occult mystic Cheiro (1866–1936). Born William John Warner in Rathdown, County Dublin, Cheiro initially reinvented himself as Count Louis Hamon or Count Leigh de Hamong. Among others whose palms Cheiro read were Mark Twain, W. T. Stead, Sarah Bernhardt, Mata Hari, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Edison, the Prince of Wales, General Kitchener, William Ewart Gladstone, and Joseph Chamberlain.

Richard Golden (1854–1909), the son of an Irish immigrant, became one of the best-known comedians in the US after his play “Old Jed Prouty” in 1889. His break came after his soprano wife Dora Wiley sang “Home, Sweet, Home” in front of President Cleveland at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1888.

John Boyle O’Reilly, the poet, journalist, author, and activist, was born in Dowth, County Meath. His influence was such that Cleveland consulted him in New York on discuss the pros and cons of a pending extradition treaty with Britain, a proposal O’Reilly opposed. On learning of his death in 1890, Cleveland remarked: ‘I have heard with sincere regret that John Boyle O’Reilly is dead. I regarded him as a strong and able man, entirely devoted to any cause he espoused, unselfish in his activity, true and warm in his friendship, and patriotic in his enthusiasm.

Cleveland, Ohio, would develop strong bonds with Achill Island, County Mayo, over the coming century.

 

23. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)

 

Benjamin Harrison’s mother Elizabeth Irwin was descended from two great-grandfathers from Ulster: James Irwin and William McDowell, who emigrated in the early 1700s.

William Henry Harrison, Benjamin Harrison’s grandfather, served as aide-de-camp to General “Mad Anthony” Wayne (see above) at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, which opened most of the Ohio area to settlement. W.H. Harrison became Secretary of the Northwest Territory in 1798. In 1801, he became Governor of the Indiana Territory, serving 12 years.

 

25. William McKinley (1897-1901)

 

Cleveland’s successor William McKinley descended from David McKinley, an immigrant from Dervock near Ballycastle in County Antrim. His ancestral homestead was dismantled some years ago and is stored in numbered stones at the Ulster American Folk Park, awaiting resurrection.

In his book ‘Recollections of Thirteen Presidents’ (1906), John Sergeant Wise recalled a party he hosted in New York in the winter of 1894 or 1895 attended by the actor Henry Irving and his assistant, Bram Stoker, the Dubliner who wrote Dracula, as well as the then Governor William McKinley. Wise describes a lively gathering that continued until 5 in the morning. Stoker also visited the White House, twice, and met Teddy Roosevelt.

McKinley wore a shamrock for St Patrick’s Day, 1897, as per this report found by Belinda Evangelista in The Dalton Argus (Georgia) of 27 March 1897, p. 9:

‘The rush of senators and office seekers to the White House was greater yesterday than it has been since Mr McKinley was inaugurated. Neither St Patrick’s Day not the pugilistic encounter that took place under the shadow of the Sierras seemed to keep the crowd back …  President McKinley wore a bunch of shamrock, presented to him by Capt. Green. The gallant captain said : “Mr. President, pin on the lapel of your coat this spring of shamrock, in honor of St. Patrick and his day; some of your people, many years ago, were probably beheaded for wearing it, but you stand in no such danger here. I hope you will even donate the sentry boxes which have dotted the White House grounds to some of the city hospitals for kindling wood; you don’t need them any more, nor forty-eight police men to guard you ; we are glad to see you walking around among us.” The President thanked him. The captain pinned the shamrock on the lapel of his coat and left. Most all in our department wore the shamrock. A lady friend of mine gave me a bunch of real shamrock from the Old Ireland; she also sent by me a nice bunch to Secretary Bliss, which lie received with thanks. So, you see, Old Ireland has many friends in Washington.’

This is the earliest instance of shamrock-giving to the White House that I know of to date. Confusingly, a similar story is told in the Catholic Press (Sydney, NSW) of 22 May 1897, p. 2:

GREATER IRELAND.
AMERICA.
President M’Kinley wore the green on St Patrick’s Day. Captain A. P. Cunningham visited him in the afternoon, as the Chief Magistrate was talking to ex-Governor Ordway [former Governor of Dakota Territory] and a few other well-known citizens, in his office in the White House. ‘Allow me,’ said the Captain, ‘ to pin on the lapel of your coat’ Mr. President this sprig of shamrock, in honour of St Patrick and his day. Some of your people were beheaded for wearing it, but you stand in no such danger.’ I hope you will even donate the sentry boxes which have dotted the White House grounds to some of the city hospitals for kindling wood; you don’t need them anymore, nor 48 policemen to guard you. We are glad to see you walking around among us’ for the American people will always respect and treat most becomingly an American President.’ Captain Cunningham then pinned the shamrock on the coat of the smiling President. The latter thanked him and walked down to the Blue Room to receive a delegate.’

So two accounts, very similar, but the latter credits a Captain Cunningham rather than Captain Green. This was perhaps A. P. Cunningham, District of Columbia, who was on the Committee on Rules and Order of Business in 1895.

Green or Cunningham, the giver must have felt awful when President McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, New York, in 1901.

Incidentally, McKinley’s bodyguard was Joseph E Murphy but we have yet to establish his Irish connections. He appears to have served under three presidents in total. (See here) In ‘Reilly Of The White House’, p. 14, Michael F Reilly wrote:

‘Joe Murphy was the greatest of all White House men. He guarded every president from Teddy to Franklin Roosevelt, and though both Roosevelts were, in time, to be the targets of assassins’ bullets, it was while they were out of Joe’s charge. Teddy was the toughest of all presidents to guard, according to Murphy.’

McKinlay’s friends included Michael D. Ratchford (1860–1927), president of the United Mine Workers of America (1897-1898), who was born in County Clare. Another friend was Homer Laughlin (1843–1913), a West Virginia potter of Scotch-Irish descent.

In 1898, he invited the explorer and scientific lecturer Martha Craig (1866–1950) to the White House to discuss “Erin’s hopes and freedoms” with him. Born at Carneal, Gleno, County Antrim, Martha was a member of the Henry Joy McCracken Society and advocated radical land reform in Ireland end “landlordism”.

The author L. Frank Baum, best known for  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, had Scots-Irish roots.  He published a poem in support of William McKinley.

Carrie Nation, a radical member of the temperance movement, was the daughter of George Moore, a Kentucky farmer, stock trader, and slaveholder of Irish descent. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, she applauded because she suspected he was a ‘secret drinker’ and drinkers ‘got what they deserved’.

 

26. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)

 

Roosevelt also sent Redmond an undated letter, thanking him for the shamrocks and stating that he was reading Lady Gregory’s translation of Cuchulain of Miurmethue (sic) as per here:

Following McKinley’s assassination in 1901, he was succeeded by his vice-president Theodore Roosevelt whose forbears – and by extension the forbears of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president – came from the village of Glenoe, County Antrim. James Bulloch, Roosevelt’s ancestor, emigrated from Glenoe to South Carolina in 1729 and was father to Archibald Bulloch, Governor of Georgia on the eve of the British invasion of Savannah. Archibald’s sudden death at that time is generally attributed to poison. His great-granddaughter Mittie Bulloch was Theodore Roosevelt’s mother.

In his autobiography, Teddy credits the adventure writer Thomas Mayne Reid  (born in Ballyroney, near Katesbridge, County Down) as a major inspiration for his early interests in zoology and exploring.

Douglas Hyde, co-founder of the Gaelic League in 1893, and later Ireland’s first President, visited North America in 1891-92 and again in 1905/06.  During the latter visit, he lunched at the White House with Roosevelt, accompanied by Dr Ó Duínn, the Professor of Irish at the Catholic University. The president told him that he had recently published an essay comparing the old Irish stories with the Norse sagas. As Hyde recalled in his memoir ‘Douglas Hyde: My American Journey’:

“We had an invitation from President Roosevelt himself to dine with him for lunch. [John] Quinn and I went to the White House at one o’clock and the President welcomed us warmly.
He introduced us to his wife, a pleasant lady, to their second daughter (Alice, the eldest, known as the princess was not at home), to his sister-in-law, and to the other children, and we sat for lunch with no fuss or ceremony. It was a simple lunch with one black servant waiting on us; a cup of tea and glass of sherry to drink. Apples and green grapes, direct from the barrel, with ashes still on them, for the second course.
He was very well-informed about Irish and Norse mythology and compared them.
We smoked in each other’s company after lunch; he informed us that he had had Irish nurses when he was young and that he had always known the names of Cú Chulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhail long before he saw them written. He also said his own family had Irish nurses, too.
He was of the opinion that there were still too many “colonies” in America; it was a nation composed of many nations and since there were so many Irish in their midst, America should accept everything good, worthy or interesting in the life of the Irish and make their own of it. He said he was to write an article for the North American Review urging wealthy Irishmen in the United States to establish Irish-language professorships in the colleges.’

Roosevelt was certainly an enthusiast for the stories of Cú Chulainn and Queen Maeve, encouraging the success of the Gaelic Literary revival. Among the books he read were Lady Gregory’s “Cuchulain of Muirthemne” and Douglas Hyde’s “Literary History of Ireland.” He even wrote an essay on the subject entitled “The Ancient Irish Sagas,” published in The Century magazine in New York in 1907.

When John Millington Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World” had its stage debut in New York in 1911, potatoes, stink bombs, and rosaries hit the stage in protest at the use of the word “shift” for underwear. No, really, that was one of the reasons. Lady Gregory successfully urged the actors to “keep playing”. Two nights later, she got her friend, the former president Roosevelt to attend. (Lady Gregory’s great-grandfather had known George Washington.) The show went on to Philadelphia where, after further riots, the lead of the local Clan na Gael brought an injunction against the production on the grounds of indecency and the actors were arrested. As Brendan Daly notes here: ‘John Quinn, a New York lawyer and Irish American patron, won the court case and the tour continued to Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Chicago.’ (Quinn later provided financial support to both WB Yeats and James Joyce.)

Chicago-born Finley Peter Dunne (1867–1936) was an American humorist, journalist and writer famous for Mr. Dooley in Peace and in War (1898), a collection of sketches about a fictional man Irish immigrant from County Roscommon expounding upon political and social issues of the day from his Chicago Irish pub. Roosevelt was a frequent target of Mr. Dooley’s barbs but the president was seemingly a fan …  Dunne’s Wikipedia entry states:

‘When Roosevelt published his book, The Rough Riders, Dunne wrote a tongue-in-cheek review mocking the war hero with the punchline “if I was him I’d call th’ book ‘Alone in Cubia'” and the nation roared. Roosevelt wrote to Dunne: “I regret to state that my family and intimate friends are delighted with your review of my book. Now I think you owe me one; and I shall expect that when you next come east you pay me a visit. I have long wanted the chance of making your acquaintance.
The two finally met at the Republican Convention in 1900, where Roosevelt, then governor of New York, gave him a news scoop—he would accept the nomination as vice presidential candidate. In later years, Dunne was a frequent guest for dinner and weekends at the White House.’

William Owen ‘Buckey’ O’Neill, one of the most famous of Roosevelt’s ‘Rough Riders’ stated his place of birth as Ireland and was the son of Captain John Owen O’Neill. He was killed in the Battle for the San Juan Heights in Cuba in 1898.

Roosevelt’s diaries from the 1880s were outrageously damning of the Catholic Irish populace of New York, whom he repeatedly denigrates as ‘a stupid, sodden, vicious lot’ and like words. That said, three different sets of Irish sisters worked for the Roosevelts  between 1900 and 1940 – namely Mary and Rose McKenna (listed as servants at Sagamore Hill on the 1900 US Census);  Anna and Katie O’Rourke (also employed as servants in the 1900s) and Bridget and Kitty Tubridy (described as a cook and kitchen maid, respectively, on the 1925 New York State census).

Born in Ireland, Mary Ledwith, aka Mame, was nurse to Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt as a child and was nurse to the Roosevelt children. See original photo here, and with Quentin Roosevelt here..

Teddy’s wife Edith brought her childhood nursemaid Mary Ledwith, another Irish immigrant, to Sagamore Hill  to be a nurse for her own children. Sylvia Morris, author of ‘Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Portrait of a First Lady’ (Random House, 2009) adds:

‘Mary Ledwith, “Mame,” as everyone called her, had emigrated in the 1840s in a sailing ship. With her rosy cheeks and graying hair pulled back into a tight bun , she looked every inch an ” amiable and solicitous [stops].’

Mary Sweeney, another Irishwoman, worked in the Roosevelt home for approximately 40 years.

On 11 April 1903, the Chico Record in California noted on p. 2:

‘Shamrock For White House.
John Redmond, the well known Irish member of parliament from Dublin, sent to President Roosevelt a box of shamrocks ns a reminder of St Patrick’s day. Mr. Redmond has sent a box of shamrocks to the White House each year for several years.’

Roosevelt completed his two terms as president between 1901 and 1909. The following year, he embarked on a safari across Africa, reaching Khartoum in modern Sudan, in March 1910. His last night in Khartoum was also the night before St. Patrick’s Day. He reportedly appeared ‘with a sprig of shamrock in his hand, one of a bunch which a patriotic Irishman had sent him’ and, when asked, replied: “I always wear the shamrock on St. Patrick’s day”. (See here)

During Roosevelt’s presidency, one of the US’s most celebrated entertainers was George Cohan (1878-1942). Born in Providence, Rhode Island, he was the son of Catholic traveling vaudeville performers from Ireland. His patriotic songs include “You’re a Grand Old Flag” (1906) and “The Yankee Doodle Boy” (1904). The best known version of the latter was recorded by Cohan’s contemporary and fellow Irish-American Billy Murray, the son of immigrants from County Kerry. Cohen was the subject of the Oscar-winning film Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).

Thomas Francis McManus (1856-1938), the Boston-born son of a sailmaker from Fingal, was a naval architect who became known as the “Father of the Fishermen’s Races.” He made the fastest vessels of their type in the world. He met Roosevelt when the president spoke in Provincetown in 1907. Roosevelt remarked on McManus’s large family (12 children) and invited him to the White House.

In 1907, Roosevelt spoke in Provincetown at the laying of the cornerstone of the Pilgrim Monument. Much of the work on the Pilgrim Monument was done by John Cashman, an engineer from County Cork, ancestor of Jay Cashman of Kilkea Castle.

The president attended a banquet hosted by the Irish American Historical Society for 300 guests at the Hotel Raleigh, North Carolina, on 16 January 1909. (See here)

In 1912, Roosevelt planned to meet with a Father O’Flannigan about getting the ‘study of Gaelic’ into the schools. (See here).

The mining heiress Evalyn McLean (daughter of tycoon Thomas Walsh from Baptistgrange, Lisronagh, Tipperary) was a friend and confidante to Teddy’s eldest daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

In about 1932, the playwright George Bernard Shaw visited Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (1887-1944), the then Governor General of the Philippines, at the Governor’s Palace in Manila. (See photo here)

See also remarks under White House staff above.

 

27. William Howard Taft (1909-1913)

 

When Taft addressed a St Patrick’s Day banquet in Chicago, the organisers announced that he would deliver his speech on “a piece of the ould sod” brought from Ireland. According to Jonathan Zimmerman, ‘The Politics of St. Patrick’s Day’ (WHYY, March 11, 2015, here): ‘Having never seen “the real soil of the Emerald Isle,” excited guests carried it away before Taft could begin his talk.’

The census results (here) reveal the following Irish citizens worked in William Howard Taft’s Boyhood Home between 1860  and 1880:

  • Margaret Mulligan 28 Cook Ireland
  • Rosa Mulligan 20 Nurse Ireland
  • Edward Mulligan 22 Hired Man Ireland
  • Mary Farrell 30 Servant Ireland
  • Mary Conner 23 Servant Ireland
  • John McGrath 19 Hired Man Ireland
  • Mary O’Connell 30 Servant Ireland
  • Mary Vale 28 Servant Ireland
  • Mary Devany 29 Servant Ireland

 

28. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)

 

Woodrow Wilson, the president from 1913 to 1921, was the grandson of James Wilson, a printer from Strabane, County Tyrone. (Wilson senior was encouraged to emigrate by his friend, the aforementioned John Dunlap,  who wrote to him: “The young men of Ireland who wish to be free and happy should leave it and come here as quickly as possible. There is no place in the world where a man meets so rich a reward for conduct and industry as in America.”) The cottage where he lived is now owned by the Ulster American Folk Park. James emigrated to Philadelphia in 1807 and, shortly afterwards, he married Ann Adams, who is believed to have been born at Sion Mills, also in County Tyrone.

Woodrow Wilson was a 44-year-old professor at Princeton University when he visited Ireland in 1899 although he did not seek out either of his grandparents’ homes. A supporter of Gladstone’s Home Rule campaign for Ireland, Wilson was not averse to playing up his Irishness to woo the ‘green’ vote when he began campaigning for the presidency. At a Democratic rally in Chicago in 1912, he affably declared: ‘I get all my stubbornness from the Scotch [on his mother’s side], and then there is something else that gives me a great deal of trouble, which I attribute to the Irish. At any rate, it makes me love a scrap…’.

The playwright Eugene O’Neill, the son of an emigrant from Kilkenny, is alleged to have been kicked out of Princeton University for throwing a beer bottle into the window of the home of then Professor Woodrow Wilson.

Miss Josephine A. Duda, Shamrock Expert, The Day Book, 1915.

For St Patrick’s Day 1913, Woodrow Wilson wore a sprig of shamrock given to him by his Irish-American private secretary, Joseph Patrick Tumult. (here)  In 1914, Wilson again marked St Patrick’s Day with a sprig of shamrock in the buttonhole of his jacket, this time a gift from the nationalist leader John Redmond. (here) The Day Book of 20 February 1915, p. 31, carried this tale:

CHICAGO COLLEGE “COLLEEN” RAISES IRISH SHAMROCKS FOR THE PRESIDENT
President Wilson will wear a Chicago-grown Irish shamrock on St Patrick’s day – that is, he will if Miss Josephine A. Duda of the University of Chicago doesn’t’ let Jack Frost or the bolweevils destroy her crop of shamrocks. Miss Duda is a college girl, not a regular gardener, but the white house shamrocks that will decorate the White House on St Patricks day are being raised at the University of Chicago conservatory, and Miss Duda has charge of the shamrock garden.

In 1914, President Wilson spoke at the dedication of a statue to Philip Kearny in Arlington National Cemetery. Born to a wealthy Irish-American family in New York, Kearny was a prominent officer in the Mexican–American War and American Civil War. He also served in French Emperor Napoleon III’s Imperial Guard at the Battle of Solferino. The first U.S. citizen to be awarded the French Légion d’Honneur, he was killed in action in the 1862 Battle of Chantilly.

The sinking of the Lusitania off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland, by a German U-Boat 10 weeks later would do much to shift US public opinion in favour of the Allies. However, the ‘grave menace of the Irish problem’ brought growing pains to Wilson during the course of his presidency. After the Easter Rising of 1916, he turned a blind eye to requests that he intervene to save Sir Roger Casement, one of its leaders, from the hangman’s noose. In 1918, his secretary wrote that Wilson ‘did not intend to appoint another Irishman to anything [because] they were untrustworthy and uncertain.’ Despite intense pressure from the Irish-American lobby, Wilson kowtowed to David Lloyd-George, the British prime minister, and resisted putting the subject of Ireland’s right to self-governance on the agenda for discussion at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. He also seems to have kept his counsel amid the furore over the hanging of eighteen-year-old Kevin Barry in 1920. On the other hand, he did meet with Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, the Irish nationalist, pacifist, suffragette, who thus, in her own words, became ‘the first Irish exile and the first Sinn Féiner to enter the White House, and the first to wear there the badge of the Irish Republic.’

John Trotwood Moore Jr. (1858–1929) was a Tennessee-based journalist, historian and Klu Klax Klan who served as State Librarian and Archivist of Tennessee from 1919 to 1929. Moore, who had Scots-Irish roots, penned historical sketches on Presidents Jackson, Johnson and Polk, as well as Sam Houston. In 1925, he was invited to give a speech at the dedication of a bronze plaque in honor of President Jefferson Davis at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

Mary Pickford, whose mother was from Tralee, and Douglas Fairbanks had lunch with Wilson at the White House in April 1918.

 

29. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)

 

Wilson was succeeded as president by Warren G. Harding. His mistress Carrie Phillips (1873 –1960) was the great-granddaughter of Thomas Kennedy (1782–1821), an Irish-born wheel and spinning-wheel maker. Thomas’s sons Matthew T. Kennedy (1804–1884) and Samuel Kennedy (1810–1886), established the Kennedy Keg Works at Fallston, Pennsylvania. Their sister Mary Ann Kennedy (1812–1887) and her husband George Washington Fulton (1802–1864) were Carrie’s grandparents.

There is a suggestion if Irish roots for Robert Milton Redmond (1907-1976) who worked a gardener at the White House for 40 years. He began mowing lawns as a teenager during Warren G Harding’s term, and was still there when JFK took office. However, we have not established his Irish link. (See here).

Harding was especially good friends with Cincinnati journalist James W. Faulkner (1863–1923), the son of hotelier John Faulkner and Ellen O’Connell, immigrants from County Cork. (Faulkner was also pals with Cleveland).

Florence Harding, Warren’s First Lady, often went to the movie theaters and played bridge with the mining heiress Evalyn McLean, whose father emigrated from Tipperary.

 

30. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)

 

Grace and Calvin Coolidge

Born at 26 Upper William Street in Listowel, Co. Kerry (here), Kathy Buckley (1885-1969) was head cook in the White House for three successive presidents, namely Coolidge, Hoover, and Roosevelt. Kathy was the eldest of seven children born to Lawrence Buckley, a cooper, and his wife, Ellen Kearney, who hailed from a long-established family of grocers and shoemakers from Listowel’s Church Street. Lawrence was a Listowel Town Commissioner and founder member of the Listowel Total Abstinence Association.

She learned how to cook with the Huggard family at the Butler Arms Hotel in Waterville. Arriving in the US, she initially worked at J.P. Morgan’s mansion in Hartford, Connecticut. Calvin Coolidge was a close friend of J.P. Morgan and often visited Hartford. When he took over as president on the sudden death of Harding in 1923, Coolidge invited Kathy to become head of the White House kitchens. Her story is told in fuller detail here. See also note under Herbert Hoover below.

Ellen Agnes Riley (1884 -1972), known as Ella, was head of housekeeping at the White House in the latter half of the Coolidge administration between 1926 and 1929. Her father William J. Riley was born in Boston in 1859 to Irish immigrant parents, John and Abigail (Cushman) Riley, who had had Cavan and Donegal roots, as per here. See her White House Papers (1926-1961) here.

An article in the Daily News (New York) of 1960 refers to the chandelier in the Blue Room at the White House as ‘Mrs. Calvin Coolidge’s Irish crystal chandelier’. Was it Irish? Waterford?

According to M.C. Murphy’s biography, ‘Calvin Coolidge: The Presidency and Philosophy of a Progressive Conservative’ (McFarland, 2023), p. 85, Coolidge had favoured the services of an Irish shoemaker named Jim Lucey since he was a college sophomore in 1893. Murphy describes Lucey thus:

‘A stocky, thick-haired, mustached man in his late 60s, with blue eyes and iron-rimmed spectacles, the Irish shoemaker had apprenticed at 15, married at 21, and emigrated from County Kerry at 23, following his brother to western Massachusetts. By working six days a week, 14 hours a day, and earning about $4 a day, he could support his wife and eight children, and live happily at that. By working alone he knew every shoe was done properly, hand sewn in places where machine stitching caused stiffness, and made with right and left heels, which, though more expensive than same-heeled shoes, were necessary for a proper fit. He was a shoemaker, not a cobbler, he corrected the head of the Smith English Department one evening.’

Calvin and his wife Grace earns kudo for this exchange recorded in a book of white House love letters called ‘Are You Prepared for the Storm of Love Making?\ by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler.

‘Passing the chicken yard on a visit to a farm in the 1920s, Grace asked how often the rooster mated.
“Dozens of times a day,” said the farmer.
“Tell that to the president,” she laughed.
When this exchange was relayed to Coolidge later, he asked if it was always with the same hen.
“Oh no, Mr President, a different one each time,” came the reply.
“Tell that to Mrs Coolidge,” he said.’

 

Al Smith’s Campaign

 

Al Smith, the grandson of immigrants from County Westmeath, served four terms as governor of New York. In 1928, he became the first Irish Catholic to run for president, the Democratic Party’s nominee, losing to Herbert Hoover. His campaign was accompanied by a performance from the newly established Shannon Rovers Fife and Drum Corps (later the Shannon Rovers  Irish Pipe Band) of Chicago. The band was established in 1926 by Tommie Ryan and some fellow Irish emigrants.

Al went on to oversee the building of the Empire State Building, the world’s tallest skyscraper, which was conceived as way to boost New York’s morale in the gloomy aftermath of the Wall Street Crash. On Smith’s request, construction of the project commenced on St. Patrick’s Day 1930. (Governor Smith also developed the shamrock tradition on St Patrick’s Day. In 1927, his desk was reported (here) to have ‘two pots of shamrock in a green metal casket bearing the emblems of Erin, the harp and shamrock.’)

 

31. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)

 

Mary and Hannah Heffernan with Kathy Buckley outside the White House, 1930.

On St Patrick’s Day 1930 there were eleven residents in the White House, namely President Hoover, his wife Lou Henry, their son Allan Henry Hoover and eight staff. Five of those staff were Irish, namely the aforementioned chef Kathy Buckley (by now 44) and two of her Kerry relatives by marriage, Mary Heffernan (36) and Hannah Heffernan (32) from Moyvane, six miles from Listowel, as well as Sarah Clarkin (20) and Nora J Mannix (35). (See here)

I suspect the aforementioned Kathy Buckley is the lady referred to as Katherine Bruckner in this amusing anecdote relayed by Catherine Schmidt, author of The President’s Salmon: Restoring the King of Fish and its Home Waters’ (Down East Books, 2015), p. 59:

‘Sometimes the White House staff were too efficient. When the director of the Penobscot Salmon Club arrived at the White House to present Horace Chapman’s fourteen-pound salmon in April 1929, and take what had become customary photos with the president, the fish had already been sent to the kitchen, where the cook had cut off its head and tail, and begun preparing it for the oven. The cook, an intelligent Irish woman named Katherine Bruckner, was equal to the emergency. She sewed the head and tail back on and stuffed the fish with cotton.
A secretary brought the fish out to the White House lawn. “Hold it horizontal, it’s fragile,” he advised Hoover, but one of the photographers had already noticed a large piece of cotton sticking out of the fish. “Something is wrong,” the photographer whispered to the president, who promptly covered the cotton with his hand as he held the fish up as dozens of photographers snapped away. “Just one more!” “Over here, just one more Mr. President!” The cotton kept oozing out of the fish.’

Essie Paul, who was employed by the White House as a maid / companion to Mrs. Hoover, was born in Ireland and emigrated to the US as a young woman, probably during the 1920s. Her Serbia-born husband Kosta Boris was President Hoover’s valet. (See here and here). Hoover left money to Essie in his will. (See here.)

Charlie Chaplin, whose great-grandmother was ‘a gypsy from Cork’, lunched with Hoover.

 

32. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945)

 

Franklin D. Roosevelt was president from 1933 to 1945. He and his wife Eleanor were married in New York City on St Patrick’s Day 1905. The bride was given away by her uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt. (See here) When they posed together in the Oval Office on their 36th wedding anniversary in 1941, the First Lady brought the President a gift of some shamrocks to mark the holiday as well.

Mike Reilly, aka Michael Francis Reilly, was FDR’s Chief of the White House Secret Service from the outbreak of the war, following the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December  1941 until the President’s death in Warm Springs, Georgia, in April 1945. Mr. Reilly, who liked to refer to himself as an “Irish cop,” was in charge of Roosevelt’s physical safety and, as such, his usual place was at the President’s elbow, a position known as the “anchor spot.” In 1939, he saved Roosevelt’s life in Tehran, along with Churchill and Stalin. (See here). His memoirs were published in ‘Reilly of the White House,’ as told to William J. Slocum, and are available to read here. His father Bernard “Barney” Reilly (1879-1948) was born in Cargahagan (Cargaghbane? Cargaghoge? Cargaghramer?), County Monaghan. In 1900 Barney was married in Anaconda, near Butte, Montana, to Rose Reilly (1879-1955), née Marron, who was also born in Monaghan and emigrated to the US as a young girl.

FDR’s mistress Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd descended from John Mercer (1704-1768), a Dubliner who emigrated to the Americas and died in Stafford County, Virginia, in 1768. Marguerite “Missy” LeHand (1896–1944), FDR’s intimately connected private secretary, who was born into a blue collar, Irish-American family in upstate New York. When Missy suffered a stroke in 1941 and left the White House, her assistant Grace Tully took over. Grace, another Irish-American, typed the first draft of the speech that Roosevelt delivered to the U.S. Congress following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Roosevelts had no shortage of Irish or Irish-Americans in their rank and file. Maureen Corr (1917-2009), Eleanor Roosevelt’s secretary, was born in Armagh.

Mary Campbell, FDR’s cook, was from the remote townland of Killian in Co Donegal and made her mark by introducing Irish stew to the White House. She also prepared meals for Pope Pius XII. (See here).

Henry F. Nesbitt (1865-1938) from Ballyhaise, County Cavan, was custodian of the White House from 1933 until his death aged 72 in 1938. His widow Henrietta, was Mrs Roosevelt’s Minnesota-born housekeeper and referred to her own husband as ‘Dad’. (That said, “Eat before you come to the White House” became a mantra during the Roosevelt presidency). In her White House Diary (p. 43, p. 277), published in 1948, Henrietta mentions how ‘Dad, being Irish,’ brought a pot of shamrock up to Mrs Roosevelt on the morning of St Patrick’s Day and so started the shamrock tradition that continues to this day. That said, John Redmond had presented Woodrow Wilson with some shamrock way back in 1914. Redmond thus also trumps another claim that the shamrock tradition was introduced In 1952 when John Hearne, Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, sent a small box of shamrocks to Harry Truman, Roosevelt’s successor.

James Vincent Forrestal (1892–1949) had the distinction of being the last Cabinet-level US Secretary of the Navy and the first US Secretary of Defense, serving under both Roosevelt and Truman. Born in Matteawan, New York, Forrestal  was the youngest son of James Forrestal, an Irish immigrant, and his devoutly Catholic wife Mary Anne Toohey (the daughter of another Irish immigrant).

Daniel Leahy’s 1844 application for US Naturalization. His headstone is in St Columbkille Catholic Cemetery, Elba, Dodge County, Wisconsin, here.

Flag Admiral William Daniel Leahy (1875-1959) was the first flag officer ever to hold a five-star rank in the U.S. Armed Forces as well as the most senior U.S. military officer on active duty during World War II. He was the grandson of Daniel Leahy (1806-1881) and Mary Egan from Cork;  Daniel may have been from Whitechurch.

FDR was the first of many presidents for whom the Shannon Rovers Irish Pipe Band of Chicago, Illinois, performed.

In December 1934, the poet and political thinker George William Russell, aka AE, sailed to New Yor for a lecture tour, mainly on ‘rural policies’. He was met by US Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace, later Vice-President, and spent time with President Roosevelt in the Oval Office. Russell’s thinking was seemingly a founding influence on FDR’s New Deal Programme.

In 1938, Roosevelt’s guests at the White House included Douglas ‘Wrong Way’ Corrigan, a Texan of Irish descent, who had lately flown from Brooklyn to Baldonnel Aerodrome in Ireland.

One January, Roosevelt issued James Cagney and his wife with an invite to the White House: “Mrs. Roosevelt requests the pleasure of the company of Mr. and Mrs. Cagney at luncheon Tuesday January the thirteenth at one o’clock.”

Sumner Welles (1892–1961) was FDR’s Under Secretary of State from 1936 to 1943. His second wife was Esther Slater. While serving in the US embassy in Tokyo circa 1916 and 1917, the family had a Boston-Irish nanny, Peggy Lynch.

Basil O’Connor (1892–1972) collaborated with FDR on starting two foundations for the rehabilitation of polio patients and the research on polio prevention and treatment. O’Connor, the son of a tinsmith from Taunton, Massachusetts, described himself as an “Irishman one generation removed from servitude”.

Michael Joseph Ready (1893-1957), Bishop of Columbus, Ohio, was the son of Irish immigrants.  He gave the benediction at FDR’s 1941 inauguration.

(The actor Mickey Rooney played the piano at Roosevelt’s inaugural gala in 1941. However, he was actually Scottish not Irish! Rooney claimed JFK was “one of my best friends. We first met in the elevator at The Waldorf-Astoria hotel and we spoke again at the White House.” When Reagan invited Mickey and his wife Jan to a White House dinner in 1985, Mickey regretted: ‘Damn it! It’s always when I’m working, but thank goodness I am.’)

In 1941, Roosevelt named Jack Kelly (1889-1960) – son of a Mayo man, father of Grace Kelly – as the National Physical Fitness Director, a post he held throughout World War II. In 1985, his son Jack Kelly junior was elected president of the U.S. Olympic Committee shortly before his premature death aged 57.

At the end of January 1941, Dublin-born actress Maureen O’Hara was invited to a luncheon the White House to celebrate Roosevelt’s birthday. She sat next to the president but things turned sour when Roosevelt claimed Ireland was a communist country. ‘I’ve never heard such rubbish in my life,’ countered Maureen, as recalled in her memoirs here.

John Joseph Cantwell (1874–1947), who became the first Archbishop of Los Angeles in 1936, was born in Limerick, the eldest of fifteen children, to Patrick and Ellen (née O’Donnell) Cantwell. He grew up in Fethard, studied in Thurles and had an uncle who was Mayor of Limerick.  When he celebrated his silver jubilee as a bishop in December 1942, he received congratulatory messages from Pope Pius XII and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. (After World War II, he condemned the imprisonment of Hubert Butler’s nemesis Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac.)

When FDR was young, New York’s most-powerful Democrat was Charles Francis Murphy, the boss of Tammany Hall, who FDR regarded as ‘a noxious weed [to] be plucked out.’ The two men later made a pact and one of FDR’s key political advisors at the Yalta Conference was, in fact, a Murphy protégé named Edward J. Flynn, known as Ed Flynn, the son of Irish immigrants and himself a Democratic boss of the Bronx from 1922 through until his death in 1953. Flynn, who was also closely associated with Truman, died in Dublin on 18 August 1953, while on a visit to Ireland.

Other Irish-American bosses of this era were Frank Hague of Jersey City (the son of immigrants from Cavan), James Michael Curley in Boston (the son of  an emigrant from Oughterard, County Galway), and Jim Pendergast and Joe Shannon in Kansas City.

 

33. Harry Truman (1945-1953)

 

Between 1949 and 1952, President Harry S. Truman effectively handed the White House over to John McShain (1898-1989), the son of immigrants from Derry. McShain had created one of the US’s largest building companies, based in Philadelphia. He had already shown his mettle by constructing over five million square feet of space for 40,000 employees at the Pentagon in less than two years. His team built the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York. His company duly completed an extensive renovation of the White House, gutting the entire central section while leaving the outer walls intact. John McShain died in Killarney, County Kerry, on 9 September 1989, aged 90. **

Truman’s secretary from 1945-1953 was Kansas-born Rose Angela Conway whose grandfather John Conway (1832-1915) emigrated from Ireland to Iowa.

In 1969, Nixon invited Washington Post journalist Edward T. Folliard to come with him on Air Force One to visit Truman in Missouri for his 85th birthday. Folliard’s parents were from Ireland.

34. Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961)

 

Eisenhower formally proposed to his wife Mamie Doud on St Patrick’s Day 1918. (Pietro, p. 223).

During World War Two, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was based at Telegraph Cottage, a villa south of London, from where he led the Allied forces during World War II. In the space of 14 months, he was raised from the rank of colonel to lieutenant general. Mickey McKeogh, an Irish-American who served as his chauffeur, dishwasher, letter writer, was likewise upped in the ranks to staff sergeant. Asked how he got the promotion, McKeogh replied: “Simple. Every time I get the General one he gets one for me.”

Eisenhower also became extremely close to his chauffeur and personal secretary, Kay Summersby (1908-1975), who was with him for almost three years during the war. Born in Ballydehob, County Cork, she was the daughter of Donald Florence MacCarthy-Morrogh, a retired Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, and his wife Vera (née Hutchinson). Serving alongside Kay and Mickey in Eisenhower’s London crew were a black valet named John Moaney and a Scotty pup called Telek.

John P ‘Jack’ Bailey (1925-2008), another of General Eisenhower’s drivers (and bodyguards) in the war, was a member of the Irish-American Cultural Society of Central Florida. Does he have a deeper Irish connection?

Maureen Flavin Sweeney of County Mayo made the first observation of a coming storm that threatened Allied vessels in the English Channel. Following her observation, Eisenhower agreed to postpone the invasion of France by 24 hours. Flavin Sweeney received recognition for her wartime role from the US Congress in 2021. She died in 2023.

Robert James Gorman (1915–2007), a Chicago attorney with County Tyrone roots who served at Normandy, was in the Jeep that General Eisenhower rode into Paris.

James Campbell Hagerty (1909 –1981), White House Press Secretary during the Eisenhower Presidency, descended from an Irish Catholic family in New York.

G. Gordon Liddy, a director J. Edgar Hoover’s personal staff (and Hoover’s ghost-writer) was the great-grandson of Patrick Liddy, born in Ireland in 1835.

Mike Quill (1905-1966), co-founder of the Transport Workers Union of America, came from Kilgarvan County Kerry, and was a dispatch rider for the Irish Republican Army from 1919 to 1921. He moved to the US in 1926 and co-founded the union in 1933. It was initially for subway workers in New York City but expanded to represent employees in other forms of transit. He served as its President for almost first thirty years, during which time he offered advice to Eisenhower when the president became frustrated by a dispute among elite US universities. Quill supported the civil rights movement and the activities of Martin Luther King.

The Waterford-born lawyer John Hearne was nicknamed “Ireland’s Thomas Jefferson” for his role in the drafting of the 1937 Constitution of Ireland. In 1950 he became the first Ambassador of Ireland to the USA. On St Patrick’s Day 1953, he presented Eisenhower with a bowl of shamrocks, sent from Ireland. “As he left, the Ambassador proudly told reporters that Mr. Eisenhower had laid claim to a little Irish blood – from his mother’s side of the, family.’ (The Mercury (Tasmania), 19 March 1953, p. 20).

For St Patrick’s Day 1953, Eisenhower also received ‘a genuine shillelagh, right from Ireland.’ According to The Daily Illini, 14 March 1953, p. 3: ‘The two-foot club was presented to the President by Rep . Busbey ( R-Ill ), who lunched at the White House with a group of other Congress members. Eisenhower displayed the shillelagh—an advance St . Patrick s Day gift—as he posed for photographers on the White House steps . It had a bright green ribbon and a paper shamrock tied to it . Busbey said he obtained it in Cork when he was abroad in 195. “I suggested to the President that he might have it handy at his Monday morning conferences with the congressional leaders,” Busbey said .’

 

35. John FitzGerald Kennedy (1960-1963)

 

Lester Bowles Pearson served as the 14th prime minister of Canada from 1963 to 1968, as the head of two back-to-back Liberal minority governments won in the elections of 1963 and 1965. Like JFK, he was of Irish descent although his ancestors, the Young family, originally hailed from Germany’s Palatine.

In 1959, David Leo Lawrence (1889 –1966) became the first Catholic to be elected as Pennsylvania’s governor. Born into a working-class Irish Catholic family in downtown Pittsburgh, he was instrumental in the nominations of FDR in 1932 and JFK in 1960, and became known as the “maker of presidents”.

The Irish allegiance to the Democrats came good in 1961 when John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the first Catholic to be inaugurated as president of the US. This young man was the descendant of two Irish immigrants who had married shortly after their arrival in Boston in 1849. The bride was twenty-eight -year-old Bridget Murphy, who had grown up in a single room cabin on a farm of less than 30 acres near Gusserane in County Wexford. The groom was Patrick Kennedy, an emigrant cooper who made and repaired wooden churns, buckets and caskets. He is thought to have come from Dunganstown, also in County Wexford. The Kennedys settled on Noddle Island in East Boston’s docklands where Patrick died of cholera in 1858, leaving Bridget to raise their four surviving children on her own. She established a grocery, a variety store and a bakery, while her three daughters became seamstresses. Her son Patrick ‘P.J.’ Kennedy initially worked as docker but later bought several saloons, made a small fortune as a whiskey distributor and became a prominent ward boss and Democratic state senator in Massachusetts.

Cork-born artist Patrick Hennessy’s painting of JFK at the end of his trip to Ireland in June 1963, shaking outstretched hands as he boards Air Force One.

P.J. Kennedy’s son Joseph proved a whizz at stockbroking, commodity investments and real estate. As well as becoming a multi-millionaire, he served as US ambassador to the UK during the early part of the Second World War. In 1914, he married Rose Fitzgerald, the eldest daughter of John ‘Honey Fitz’ Fitzgerald, the son of famine emigrants from Limerick and Cavan, who became the first Irish American-Catholic to be elected mayor of Boston in 1906.

[Rose Kennedy employed Mary O’Donahue, an Irish woman, as nanny at their family home 83 Beals Street in the Coolidge Corner neighbourhood of Brookline, Massachusetts (now the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site). Mary lived on the third floor, along with the Kennedy’s French maid, Alice Michelin. After she emigrated from Ireland, she found work with a family at Quincy, Massachusetts. Mrs. Kennedy wrote that when she moved to Beals Street “one of my friends sent me her maid–a gay neat Irish girl who cooked & served & made the beds…& made us quite happy.” This may have been Mary. It is not known how long Mary worked for the Kennedy family or where she went next.]

In 1961, Joseph and Rose’s son John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the 35th president of the US. As he took his oath of office, a clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court held up the Fitzgerald family bible, carried over from Ireland by his mother’s people. Having already visited his ancestral family home at Dunganstown as a young man, JFK returned to New Ross during his superbly choreographed state visit to Ireland in June 1963. He duly paid tribute to his plucky ancestors in a speech that aired all over the world.[10] ‘In that moment, he reshaped the narrative so that he was no longer simply a rich Ivy League urban brat. He was now the epitome of a rags to riches triumph, a worthy heir to the ‘log cabin’ frontier presidents of earlier days, a symbol of optimism for all those hard-working Ellis Island immigrants who had made America great. The Wexford trip was the only time JFK is known to have made the sign of the cross and publicly acknowledged his Catholicism. ‘This is not the land of my birth,’ he said later, ‘but it is the land for which I hold the greatest affection.’ During that four-day trip, he also became the first foreign leader to address the Houses of the Oireachtas (the Irish parliament), while at the City Hall in Cork, he again underlined the essence of the Irish diaspora: “Most countries send out oil or iron, steel or gold, or some other crop, but Ireland has had only one export and that is its people.”

JFK and Jackie meeting with Patrick V. McNamara, the Democratic Senator for Michigan from 1955 until his death in 1966. He was the son of Irish immigrants Patrick Vincent McNamara and his wife Mary Jane (née Thynne).

The Kennedy presidency did much to put Ireland on the map for Americans. Indeed, there were so many Irish-Americans on Kennedy’s core team that they were dubbed the Irish Mafia.

Dean Rusk, his Secretary of State, was the son of a Scots-Irish Presbyterian minister. Bob McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the early years of the Vietnam War, was the grandson of a famine emigrant from Cork.

Larry O’Brien, his presidential campaign manager, was the son of emigrants from Skibbereen and Dunmanway in West Cork.

Kenny O’Donnell, Bobby Kennedy’s roommate at Harvard, was one of JFK’s most trusted Special Assistant during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Another was Dave Powers, the son of emigrants from the Beara Peninsula in West Cork. Powers and O’Donnell were in the Secret Service car following directly behind the presidential limousine when JFK was shot in Dallas.

Bill Greer (1909-1985), the driver of JFK’s car, grew up on a farm at Stewartstown, County Tyrone, and emigrated to the US in 1929, at the age of twenty.

Jim Rowley, the head of the Secret Service at the time of the assassination, was the son of Irish immigrants who met and married in New York City.

Dick Donahue, another of Kennedy’s advisors, was the grandson of a Kerryman. He went on to work on the presidential campaigns for both Bobby and Teddy (winning New York for the latter) before becoming become president of Nike in 1990.[11]

Grant Stockdale, JFK’s Ambassador to Ireland, was so upset by the assassination that he took his own life in Miami a week later. His son is the poet Lee Stockdale, winner of the 2022 National Poetry Competition for his poem ‘My Dead Father’s General Store in the Middle of a Desert’.

Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s assassin, was the great-grandson of Mary Tonry (1831-1894), an emigrant from Sligo, and her Philadelphia-based husband David (“Harry”) Harvey of Philadelphia.

Joe Biden with the late Ted Kennedy.

Richard J. Daley, another vital cog in JFK’s victory, was the longest-serving mayor in Chicago history – until his son Richard broke his record in 2011. Like the Kennedys and Bob McNamara, the Daleys descend from famine emigrants, originating in Dungarvan, County Waterford. I have explored the Irish connections to Chicago history separately here.

James Donovan (1916-1970), was the Irish American lawyer who negotiated the famous spy swap – two Americans for a Soviet spy – and negotiated the release of hostages in 1962 after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, as depicted in Bridge of Spies. He was a son of Dr John J. Donovan and his wife Harriet, née O’Connor, both of Irish descent.

The Washington Post journalist Edward T. Folliard (1899–1976), the son of Irish immigrants, declared JFK to be ‘probably the most brilliant President of our time’ who had also delivered ‘the best Inaugural speech I ever heard.’ Folliard was in the Dallas motorcade when Kennedy was assassinated. He wrote the page one article that ran the next day, headlined “President Kennedy Shot Dead; Lyndon B. Johnson Is Sworn In.”

Judith Exner (1934-1999) who claimed to be the mistress of JFK (amongst others) was the daughter of Frederick Immoor, an architect of German descent, and Katherine (née Shea), of Irish descent.

Judy Garland (a kin of the Fitzpatricks of Dublin) was among JFK’s special guests at a White House event on 28 November 1962.

Bing Crosby was such a fan of JFK that he had a wing added to 70375 Calico Road — his Morocco-inspired California home from 1957 – comprising two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a full living room which he named for Kennedy after the president stayed as a guest of Crosby, allegedly accompanied by Miss Marilyn Monroe.

Patricia Kelly (née Ward), wife of Gene Kelly, recalled how Gene and JFK were  ‘buddies’ and that ‘Gene used to sing Irish rebel songs with him in the White House.’ (See here)

One of the highlights of the Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in 1963 was watching a contingent of the 37th Cadet Class from the Irish Defence Forces perform the Queen Anne military drill during a ceremony to honour the Easter Rising dead at Arbour Hill, Dublin. On the request of Jackie Kennedy, the president’s widow, a contingent of 26 Irish cadets executed the same silent drill by his graveside during his funeral in Washington DC. The cadets came from the Curragh Camp in County Kildare and were accompanied by Éamon de Valera, President of Ireland. Among them was Richard Heaslip, father of the future Ireland rugby captain Jamie Heaslip, and James Sreenan from Ballymote, County Sligo, who went on to become Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces.

At Kennedy’s funeral, the family requested that Philip Matthew Hannan (1913–2011), the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, deliver the homily at the recited Requiem Mass. (He was given permission by the then Archbishop of Washington, Patrick O’Boyle). Bishop Hannan’s father had immigrated to the USA aged 18. Hannan went on to become Archbishop of New Orleans from 1965 to 1988.

In 1960, Dr T. J. Kiernan, the Irish Ambassador to the United States, recited a poem by his friend Daniel Kelleher called ‘For CK at his Christening’ (here) to JFK and Jackie after the birth of their son John F. Kennedy, Jr. It was recited again by Senator Ted Kennedy to mark John Jr’s death. in 1999.

Among those implicated in the assassination was Richard Cain (1931–1973), aka Richard Scalzitti, a corrupt Chicago cop and close associate of Mafia boss Sam Giancana, who was the son of John Cain and his wife Irish-American wife Lydia (née Scully).

G. Robert Blakey, an American Catholic of Irish descent, was Chief Counsel and Staff Director to the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations from 1977 to 1979, which investigated the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. He also helped draft the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992.

 

Jackie Kennedy

 

Illustration: Derry Dillon

Jackie Kennedy’s ‘Irish’ pedigree was arguably as strong as her husbands. Janet Lee, her mother, was the granddaughter of Thomas Merritt and Maria Curry from County Clare, and also had connections to the Lees and Nortons of County Cork. One of Jackie’s closest confidantes was Father Joseph Leonard, a Dublin-born priest, who counselled her after JFK’s death. The role was played with gusto by Sir John Hurt in the movie ‘Jackie’, shortly before the actor’s death in 2017. Mrs Kennedy visited Ireland again, with her children, in 1967 and stayed at Woodstown House, County Waterford. During her six-week sojourn, she opened the John F. Kennedy Arboretum in New Ross, visited the Kennedy home at Dunganstown and Lismore Castle, toured the Waterford Crystal factory, attended the Irish Derby and joined her friend Sybil Connolly on a visit to Castletown House in County Kildare to show her support of the new Irish Georgian Society. Always keen on swimming alone, she was caught in a current in the seas by Woodstown House and would have drowned but for the keen eye of Jack Walsh, a muscular secret service agent. Mr Walsh, whose forbears came from Kerry, was a pall bearer at her funeral in 1994.

When Jackie designed the Rose Garden at the White House, she did so in consultation with Rachel Mellon, wife of the financier Paul, who was the grandson of Tyrone-born Thomas Mellon.

Kathy McKeon, the fourth of eight children from a dairy farm in Inniskeen, County Monaghan, was just 19 when she arrived in New York in 1964 and scored a dream job as Jackie Kennedy’s personal assistant. Rose FitzGerald,  JFK’s mother, dubbed her “Jackie’s Girl” to distinguish her from all the other Irish staff at the family compound in Cape Cod. Her story is told in  Jackie’s Girl: My Life With The Kennedy Family, published by Gallery Books, part of Simon & Schuster, in 2017.

JFK junior had an Irish nanny by name of Mary Ruane. (See here).

The Kennedys friendship with Grace Kelly’s family is explored here.

When the photographer Derry Moore, 12th Earl of Drogheda, married Eliza Winn Lloyd (a connection of American banker and art collector Paul Mellon) in 1968, Caroline Kennedy was a flower girl and JFK Jr. was a page.

 

36. Lyndon B Johnson (1963-1969)

 

In 1944, the actress Helen Gahagan Douglas (1900 –1980) became the first Democratic woman to be elected to Congress from California. Born in Boonton, New Jersey, she was the daughter of an engineer named Walter Hamer Gahagan whose forebears hailed from Ireland. According to Lyndon B Johnson’s biographer Robert Caro, Helen was LBJ’s lover in the 1940s, an affair described as ‘an open secret on Capitol Hill.’  She is said to have coined the phrase “Tricky Dick,” referring to Nixon.

In May 1964, President Éamon de Valera was given a formal welcome at the White House by LBJ, with full military honours. The speeches by LBJ and Dev can be read here.

John Steinbeck had Irish roots. In September 1964,  President Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Johnson also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Henry ‘Hank’ Ford II, whose grandfather was an immigrant from Cork.

Johnson seemingly told Gregory Peck revealed that had he sought re-election in 1968, he intended to offer the Hollywood giant the post of U.S. ambassador to Ireland.

Dublin-born actress Maureen O’Hara shook hands with President Johnson during a White House ceremony on 3 December 1968.

 

37. Richard Nixon (1969-1974)

 

Pat Nixon with her Irish Cousins in Thomastown, Hollymount, County Mayo, Ireland. It was taken during the Nixons’ trip to Europe in 1970.

Richard Nixon had Irish blood on both sides. One of his parental forebears was James Moore of Ballymoney, County Antrim, while his mother descended from a Quaker family from County Kildare. Having lost the 1960 election to Kennedy, Nixon completely understood the importance of winning the Irish-American vote. He also recognized that the combination of his Ulster Methodist and Quaker roots was unlikely to appeal to Irish Catholics. And so, just as his re-election campaign got underway in 1970, the attention was deftly switched to his First Lady, Patricia, whose ancestors were Irish Catholics. Patrick Sarsfield Ryan, her grandfather, was born near Ballinrobe, County Mayo, in about 1834 and emigrated to America in 1855.

The story of Mrs Nixon’s Irish roots was carefully fed to the press ahead of the president’s state visit to Ireland in 1970. Shortly after his arrival, Nixon became enwrapped in an urgent and unexpected meeting at Kilfrush House, County Limerick with Henry Kissinger and others about the ongoing Vietnam War. Meanwhile, Mrs Nixon was escorted by helicopter to Ballinrobe where she was greeted by a brass band, Irish dancers and cousins galore, some real, others drafted in to boost the sense of occasion. Photographs of her visit to her ancestral home were duly splashed across the world’s newspapers the following day. That same morning, she accompanied her husband when he discreetly visited the Quaker graveyard near Timahoe where some of his mother’s people were said to have been buried. Further details of this trip are here.

Nixon could play the piano and once played “My Wild Irish Rose” in honour of his wife at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, Tennessee.

Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s secretary, had Irish roots. (here)

In 1971, Jack Lynch, the then Taoiseach called in to see Nixon at the White House. Pathé News filmed the occasion.

A pic of Nixon and Kissinger with John Wayne on 10 July 1972 can be found here.

 

38. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)

 

Gerald Ford, Nixon’s vice president and eventual successor, was twenty-two-years-old when he had his name legally changed in 1935. He had been christened Leslie Lynch King after his biological father, a descendant of Robert Lynch and his Scots-Irish wife, Marcella Martin, of Fayette County, Pennsylvania.[12]

James Thomas Molloy (1936-2011), the last of thirty Doorkeepers of the House of Representatives, was the son of Matthew Molloy and Catherine Hayden Molloy. Elected during the 93rd Congress in 1974, he served through until the 103rd Congress in 1995.

 

40. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)

 

The Mulroneys and Reagans in Quebec, Canada, March 18, 1985, the second day of the summit, where the two leaders sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”.

Ronald Reagan was reputedly so anxious that his Irish Catholic roots would put people off voting for him that he commenced his bid for the presidency by pitching himself as a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. However, when his Irishness ‘came out’, he quickly began to appreciate how his genealogy might actually persuade some Catholic Irish Democrats to transfer their loyalty to a Republican.

By the time he arrived in Ireland during his re-election campaign in 1984, he was all up for a visit to his ancestral home at Ballyporeen, County Tipperary, from where he proudly declared: ‘Today I come back to you as a descendant of people who were buried here in pauper’s graves.’ (He had famously played the role of football star George Gipp, aka ‘The Gipper’, of the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, in the 1940 movie “Knute Rockne, All American.”)

As president, Reagan made no attempt to intervene with London on behalf of Bobby Sands and the other nine IRA members who died on hunger strike in 1981.

Among the best-known Irish-Americans of the Reagan era was Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1977 until his retirement in 1987, the longest continuous run in US history. He once sang ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ atop the Great Wall of China, ‘likely making it the likely first rendition of the song to be sung in the Middle Kingdom.’ (See here) O’Neill also once serenaded Betty Ford with the same song at Gerald R. Ford Museum’s Humor and the Presidency Symposium in Grand Rapids, although afterwards he was reputedly heard muttering, “Who talked me into doing that?” (here)

Ella FitzGerald performed for the Reagans at the White House in October 1981.

On Saint Patrick’s Day 1985, Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney held what became known as the Shamrock Summit. At the end of the event, the two men and their wives jointly sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”

 

41. and 43. George Bush, senior and junior

 

The Bush family are of Scots-Irish descent but George Bush and his son George W. Bush, 41st and 43rd presidents respectively, opted not to capitalise on their links to Counties Cork and Down.

In 1991, the author Maeve Binchy and her husband Gordon Snell had lunch with Barbara Bush. ‘We laughed our way through the meal,’ recalled Mrs Bush in ‘Barbara Bush: A Memoir’ (Simon and Schuster, 2010), p. 442.

 

42. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)

 

Bill Clinton meets JFK.

By contrast, Bill Clinton was very eager to establish his Irish roots despite the absence of any documentation. His mother was a Cassidy so, when he visited Dublin in 1995, he made sure to have a pint of stout in Cassidy’s pub on Camden Street. Clinton, who made three state visits to Ireland, traced his interest in Irish politics to Georgetown University where his roommate Tom Campbell, his first girlfriend Denise Hyland and his most charismatic lecturer Carroll Quigley were all members of the Irish Catholic community. He has also stated that his political dreams began the moment he shook JFK’s hand at the White House, when he was a member of Boys Nation, a High School civics club run by the American Legion.

Clinton is immensely proud of the vital role he played in the Irish Peace Process, not least when he agreed to Teddy Kennedy’s recommendation that Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of Teddy and JFK, be appointed US ambassador to Ireland in 1993.[13] Also important during these talks was Dick Riley, Clinton’s Secretary of Education, a man proud of his Cavan roots. One of the Clintons closest confidantes was Thurles-born, Drogheda-bred Niall O’Dowd, the then publisher of the Irish Voice newspaper and Irish America magazine. O’Dowd is credited with swinging much Irish-American support behind Clinton’s election campaign. In 2021, Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate, was inaugurated as Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, the first woman to hold the office. She was part of an all-star cast including Joe Biden, her husband Bill and George Mitchell (Clinton’s US special envoy to Northern Ireland from 1995-2000) at an event in Northern Ireland in April 2023 to pledge allegiance to the full implementation of the Belfast Agreement on its 25th anniversary.

Barack and Michelle Obama enjoying their pints of Guinness during their visit to Moneygall.

 

44. Barack Obama (2008-2016)

 

Barack Obama was perhaps the most surprising president to have Irish roots, given his connections to Hawaii, Indonesia and Kennya. When he came to Ireland in 2011, he enjoyed a famous pint of Guinness in Ollie Hayes pub in Moneygall on the Tipperary-Offaly border, the village where his ancestor Joseph Kearney once worked as a shoemaker.  ‘My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall Obamas,’ he told the assembled crowd. ‘And I’ve come home to find the apostrophe we lost somewhere along the way.’

While his visit would pave the way for the Barack Obama Plaza, a multi-million-euro fuel and food services station named in his honour, it is notable that the media homed in on his memorably named forbear Fulmoth Kearney. (See here for more) The impression generated was that Fulmoth was one of the million souls ‘driven from Ireland’ during the Great Hunger. There seemed to be little reporting on the fact that he actually sailed for American in order to inherit a sizeable farm in Ohio from his Irish-born uncle. Nor was there much mention of how the Kearneys earned a small fortune by making wigs for the landed gentry of Ireland during the Georgian age. Also missing from the tale was John Kearney, a cousin of the shoemaker, who became Bishop of Ossory and provost of Trinity College Dublin. That Bishop Kearney was professor of oratory at one of the world’s leading universities in the age of Edmund Burke was surely a missed opportunity for showcasing the provenance of Obama’s speechmaking prowess. And yet, Protestant bishops and Ohio landowners didn’t quite fit the narrative. Rightly or wrongly, somebody deemed it a better narrative to link Obama to the American dream of a poor, small town émigré who made good in the New World.  [14]

Nor, for that matter, was there any talk of Michelle Obama’s Irish roots. She descends from Henry Wells Shields, a Scots-Irish plantation owner in Georgia, whose teenage son Charles is believed to have impregnated a slave-girl by name of Melvina in 1859. Melvina’s son Dolphus was Michelle’s great-great-grandfather. Whether he was the product of teenage lust, genuine love or a sexual assault is unknown. Dolphus died in 1950, just fourteen years before Michelle was born.[15]

Such connections may explain why ‘Bodkin,’ a Netflix series produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, was filmed in West Cork in the summer of 2022.

Denis McDonough, Obama’s White House chief of staff, is the devoutly Catholic grandson of emigrants from the Connemara Gaeltacht. Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, has Connemara roots. Tim Kaine, Hilary Clinton’s vice-presidential running mate in 2016, had seven Irish great-grandparents.

Following in the footsteps of Tip O’Neill (1977-1987) and Tom Foley (1989-1995), two recent three Speakers of the House of Representatives have also been Irish-American. Paul Ryan (2015-2019) famously keeps a hurley stick in his office in honour of his ancestor James Ryan who emigrated from Graignuenamanagh, County Kilkenny, in 1851. Kevin McCarthy, who became Speaker in January 2023 after an unprecedented 15 rounds of voting, is the great-grandson of Jerry McCarthy from either Cork or Kenmare, County Kerry, who went to work on the railroads in California and married two Irish women in succession – Hattie Curry from County Sligo and Mary Davron of County Mayo. Kevin McCarthy was sensationally ousted as Speaker in October 2023.

Mitch McConnell, the senate leader for the Republican party who became so prominent in the last days of Donald Trump, is descended from James McConnell who left County Down for the US in the 1760s, settled in Alabama and fought for the Patriots.[16]

 

45. Donald Trump (2016-2020)

 

Donald Trump has no Irish blood although he owns the Trump International Golf Links & Hotel at Doonbeg, County Clare. By a remarkable coincidence, Doonbeg is the very same village from which two of Mike Pence’s great-grandparents emigrated in the 1890s. Mr Pence, Trump’s vice-president, is named for his grandfather, who emigrated from Tubbercurry, County Sligo, in 1923 and became a bus driver in Chicago.[17]

Many of Trump’s most divisive allies are Irish-American. Brett Kavanaugh, his nominee to the US Supreme Court, is the great-grandson of an immigrant from Roscommon. Steve Bannon, his former Chief Strategist, is the direct descendant of famine refugees.[18] Sean Spicer, his first press secretary, is the great-grandson of an immigrant from Kinsale, County Cork, who won a Medal of Honour for his service as a gunner’s mate in the US Navy during the Spanish-American war of 1898.[19]

Two of Trump’s four White House Chiefs of Staff were Irish American. General John Kelly is a kinsman of the Conneelys of Clifden, County Galway, while Mick Mulvaney is the grandson of a couple from Mayo. Mulvaney was latterly US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland but resigned after the Capitol riots in January 2021. Michael Flynn, Trump’s first National Security Advisor (NSA), is the descendant of emigrants from Offaly, Leitrim and Tyrone.[20] General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is also of Irish descent.

Much the loudest speaker at the 2020 Republican National Convention was the attorney and former Fox News presenter Kimberly Guilfoyle, the fiancée of Donald Trump junior, whose father emigrated from Ennis, County Clare, in 1957. (Guilfoyle was formerly married to Gavin Newsom, Governor of California since 2019, who also has Irish roots. His father, Judge William Newsom, chaired the Irish Forum, which brought speakers from Ireland to San Francisco to discuss the Northern Irish conflict in the 1980s.) During President Trump’s battle with coronavirus in October 2020, he was treated by White House physician Sean Conley, an Irish-American from Doylestown, Pennsylvania. When Biden moved to the White House, he brought his primary care physician with him: another Irish-American, Dr Kevin O’Connor.

The 25th Amendment to the US Constitution, which ensures a smooth transfer of power from an incapacitated president to his vice-president in times of crisis, was predominantly put together by Fordham Law Professor John Feerick, the son of immigrants from County Mayo.

Patrick Blewitt, ancestor of Joe Biden.

 

46. Joe Biden

 

When President Joe Biden met Pope Francis in the Vatican in October 2021, he joked that he was ‘the only Irishman you’ve ever met who’s never had a drink.’ Biden took office as 46th president on 20 January 2021, sixty years to the day after JFK’s inauguration, having won more votes in a presidential election than anyone else in history. Ten of Biden’s sixteen great-great-grandparents were Irish, including Edward Blewitt, a brick-maker and civil engineer who oversaw numerous public relief schemes in and around Ballina, County Mayo, at the height of the Great Hunger, building roads and installing vital drainage systems. Edward, who lived on Patrick Street, Ballina, also appears to have been one of the civil engineers who helped map Ireland for the Ordnance Survey, as well as Griffith’s Valuation, during the 1830s and 1840s. By some accounts, he was general overseer in Ballina Workhouse from 1848 to 1850. In 1851, having helped complete the new Catholic cathedral in Killala, Edward took his family to Pennsylvania, where he helped lay out the streets of Scranton, now twinned with Ballina. Edward’s grandson, Edward Francis Blewitt, was also an engineer and oversaw the construction of the drainage system and water works at Guadalajara in Mexico.

A president of the formidable Pennsylvanian branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians for a decade, the younger Blewitt stood for the Democrats in 1907 and became only the second Irish Catholic senator in Pennsylvanian history. Two years later, his daughter Geraldine married Ambrose Joseph Finnegan, the son of a blind fiddler and grandson of a shoemaker the Cooley Peninsula of County Louth.[21] Geraldine and Ambrose’s daughter Jean was Joe Biden’s mother. As he later recalled, ‘I was a Catholic schoolboy, Irish Catholic, Jean Finnegan’s son, going to an all-boys Catholic school … I know this sounds strange, that Irish Catholics in the ’60s would think somehow they were second class, but that’s how it was. There was that sense of exclusion from certain areas of social and public life.’ When JFK was elected, Joe Biden says his first reaction was: ‘My God, this may be the final validation of us Irish Catholics, that we’re totally accepted.’ [22]

In March 1990, with Ted Kennedy’s support, Senator Biden proposed a resolution calling for the case of the Birmingham Six to be examined, and urged the then president George Bush to raise the issue with the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. At the time, Biden was the second-ranking Democrat on the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. The convictions of the Birmingham Six were quashed 12 months later.

Joe Biden came into the international spotlight when he served two terms as vice president to Obama, the descendant of an Irish shoemaker. Given that Biden is also the descendant of an Irish shoemaker, it was surely a golden hour for the Guild of Irish Shoemakers when he emerged as the eventual winner of the 2020 presidential election.[23]

Marty Walsh, Joe Biden’s Irish-speaking Secretary of Labour (2021-2023) and former Mayor of Boston from 2014-2021, is the son of emigrants from Connemara. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Samantha Power, who leads the US Agency for International Development (USAID), served as Obama’s US Ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 to 2017. She grew up in the Dublin suburb of Castleknock before emigrating with her family to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her cousins include Nicksie Boran (1904-1971) of Castlecomer, County Kilkenny, a communist and leading light of the Irish Mine and Quarry Union.

Joe Biden, Barack Obama and Bill Casey, Reagan’s Director of the CIA, all descend from Irish shoemakers!

Claire Cronin, Biden’s US Ambassador to Ireland, is the granddaughter of an immigrant from the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal and all four of her mother’s grandparents were Irish.

Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s Deputy Chief of Staff (and the first woman to manage a successful Democratic election campaign in 2020), is the great-granddaughter of Catholic immigrants from Gorumna Island off the coast of County Galway.

Mike Donilon, Biden’s Senior Advisor and long-time confidante, is the son of Edward T. Donilon (1921-1999), the grandson of Irish immigrants, and Theresa A. Conway (1926-1998), whose parents John Francis Conway and Mary Agnes Devine both immigrated from Ireland. His brother Thomas Donilon, former National Security Advisor, played a key role in Obama’s plan to capture Bin Laden.

In the impending 2024 showdown, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon and Mike Donilon will reprise their roles as the Biden campaign chief and chief strategist respectively.

The former astronaut Mark Kelly, senator of Arizona (Democrats), and Susan Collins, senator of Maine (Republicans), are among [?] several Irish Americans in the senate.

Kathy Hochul, who took over as Governor of New York following the resignation of Andrew Cuomo in 2021, is the granddaughter of immigrants from Kerry. As well as being the first Irish-American Governor of the state since Hugh Carey, she is the first woman to lead the state in its history. Laura Kavanagh, another Irish American, was sworn in as New York City’s first female Fire Commissioner on 27 October 2022.

Maura Healey, who became Governor of Massachusetts in November 2022, is the granddaughter of emigrants from Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry, and Macroom, Co. Cork, while her great-grandmother immigrated to America from Ballinalsoe, Co. Galway, as a teenager and lived to the age of 96.  She is the state’s first elected woman governor and the first openly lesbian governor in U.S. history.

Biden’s team also includes Jake Sullivan (National Security Advisor), John McCarthy (Senior Advisor to the Counsellor for the President, and deputy national political director of the Biden-Harris 2020 election campaign), Jake Sullivan (incoming National Security Advisor), Gina McCarthy (National Climate Advisor, from Boston, with County Clare roots),  Jen Psaki (White House press secretary, part Irish), Kevin O’Malley (the former US Ambassador to Ireland), Chris Dodd (the longest-serving senator in Connecticut’s history, who owns a cottage in Roundstone, County Galway), Carmel Martin (Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council for Economic Mobility, the daughter of Irish-born parents) and the philanthropist Elizabeth Frawley Bagley.

Another key supporter is Congressman Brendan Boyle, the Philadelphia Representative, whose father is from Glencolmcille, County Donegal. Boyle was one of seventeen speakers to jointly deliver the keynote address at the 2020 Democratic National Convention.

Joe Biden’s hometown of Scranton was also the hometown of Major General William Francis Burns, an Irish-American who served as Head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency from 1988-1989. General Burns’ son William Joseph Burns was appointed Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by Biden in January 2021. John Brennan, Director of the CIA from 2013-2017, is the son of a blacksmith from County Roscommon, while Bill Casey, Reagan’s Director of the CIA, descended from a shoemaker from Daingean, County Offaly.[24] William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, the founding father of the CIA, was also the grandson of Irish immigrants, one from Skibbereen, the other from Galway.

 

NB: See ‘A short history of taoisigh visiting the White House on St Patrick’s Day’, The Irish Times, 11 March 2017, here.

 

Further Reading

 

  • Boyd Roberts, Gary, ‘Ancestors of American Presidents (MA., New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2009 Edition),
  • Cheathem, Mark R. ‘Andrew Jackson, Southerner’ (Louisiana State University Press, 2015)
  • Clinton, Bill, ‘My Life’ (Random House, 2010)
  • Fitzsimons, Fiona, and Moss, Helen (Eneclann researchers), ‘Report on President Barack Obama’s Irish Ancestry’ (2008), via irishfamilyhistorycentre.com
  • Graff, Henry F., ‘Grover Cleveland: The American Presidents Series: The 22nd and 24th President, 1885-1889 and 1893-1897’ (Macmillan, 2002)
  • Hanna, Charles A, ‘The Scotch-Irish; or, The Scot in North Britain, North Ireland, and North America: Volume II’ (Dalcassian Publishing Company, 1902)
  • Hood, Susan, ‘Royal Roots, Republican Inheritance – The Survival of the Office of Arms’ (Woodfield Press: Dublin, 2002)
  • Jordan, John W. (ed), with James Hadden, ‘Genealogical and Personal History of Fayette County, Pennsylvania, Vol. 2’ (Heritage Books, 2007)
  • Kilroy, David P., “From The White House to the Thatched Cottage: American President Visits to Ireland and the Immigrant Narrative” (2017). CAHSS Faculty Presentations, Proceedings, Lectures, and Symposia. 2445.
  • McCaffrey, Lawrence J. The Irish Diaspora in America. (London; Indiana University Press,1976)
  • Meacham, Jon, ‘American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House’ (Random House Publishing Group, 11 Nov 2008)
  • Murphy, Celestine (Wexford County senior librarian, historian and genealogist), Kennedy family research; see Maria Pepper, ‘Celestine Shines New Light on JFK Ancestor’, New Ross Standard, 15 September 2018
  • Murphy, Sean, MA, ‘American Presidents with Irish Ancestors’, Directory of Irish Genealogy (2018), Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies
  • O’Donnell, Helen, with Kenneth O’Donnell Sr, ‘The Irish Brotherhood – John F. Kennedy, His Inner Circle, and the Improbable Rise to the Presidency’ (CounterPoint Press, 2016)
  • O’Dowd, Niall, ‘Lincoln and the Irish: The Untold Story of How the Irish Helped Abraham Lincoln Save the Union’ (Skyhorse, 2018)
  • O’Dowd, Niall, ‘George Washington and the Irish: Incredible Stories of the Irish Spies, Soldiers, and Workers Who Helped Free America.’
  •  Schmuhl, Robert, ‘Ireland’s Exiled Children: America and the Easter Rising’ (Oxford University Press, 2016)
  • Scott Berg, A, ‘Wilson’ (‎Putnam Publishing Group, 2013)
  • Swarns, Rachel L, ‘American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama’ (2012)
  • Whelan, Bernadette, ‘United States foreign policy and Ireland. From empire to independence, 1913-29’ (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2006)
  • Wycoff, Kathie, “Ireland to America, The Last Generation’ (AuthorHouse, 2009)

 

List of ambassadors of the United States to Ireland

Acknowledgments

With special thanks to  Belinda Evangelista for her immense research, as well as Maria O’Brien, Denis Bergin and Stewart D. McLaurin (White House Historical Association).

 

End-Notes

 

[1] Mr Anderson first submitted his Capitol designs for a competition in 1852, in which he was an unsuccessful contestant. However, it emerged that the winning architect then borrowed heavily from Anderson’s plans to complete the wings, which doubled the length of the Capitol. It took Anderson fourteen years to win recognition for his work but the Senate finally agreed to compensate him with $7500 in 1866. He retired soon afterwards and died at his farm in St George’s County, Maryland, on 9 July 1867.

[2] The line-up of presidents with Irish roots is as follows (not including Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon B Johnson or Bill Clinton who all, by some accounts, have Irish roots): Andrew Jackson; William H. Harrison; James Knox Polk; James Buchanan; Andrew Johnson; Ulysses S. Grant; Chester Arthur; Grover Cleveland; Benjamin Harrison; William McKinley; Theodore Roosevelt; Woodrow Wilson; Franklin D. Roosevelt; John F. Kennedy; Richard Nixon; Gerald Ford; Jimmy Carter; Ronald Reagan; George Bush; George W. Bush; Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

[3] George W Bush’s state visit in 2004 was especially fleeting and he never got much further than Dromoland Castle where he was staying. Trump’s 2019 visit was private.

[4] “Pollock…entered the abbreviation ‘ps’ by the figures for ‘peso.’ Because Pollock recorded these Spanish “dollars” or “pesos” as ‘ps” and because he tended to run both letters together, the resulting symbol resembled a ‘$,’” says Jim Woodrick, the Historic Preservation Division Director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. From Dan Hess, ‘The Bankrupt Irishman Who Created the Dollar Sign by Accident’, Atlas Obscura, 23 November 2015, via https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-bankrupt-irishman-who-created-the-dollar-sign-by-accident

[5] See here. With thanks to Belinda Evangelista.

[6] Pakenham’s statue stands at St Paul Cathedral, London, alongside other heroic British generals, all of whom have their victorious battles listed on their plinths but no mention of the critical battles they lost against the revolting Colonies between 1775 and 1783.

[7]  “Calhoun was a brilliant, much admired intellectual political figure in the USA, both in the North and the future Confederacy South, except obviously with anti-slavery folk. Yale University named one of its residential colleges for Calhoun, a prominent alumnus (1804, Doc. Of Law, 1822 Doc of Law).’ (DC). The college changed its name to Grace Murray Hopper (an American computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral) in 2017.

[8] Born, the son of a janitor, in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1808, Johnson married a shoemaker’s daughter who taught him to write.

[9] John Whitcomb, Claire Whitcomb, ‘Real Life at the White House: Two Hundred Years of Daily Life at America’s Most Famous Residence’ (Psychology Press, 2002), p. 87.

[9a] For Barney, see also:

[10] The Irish connection was rekindled when Courtney Kennedy, daughter of JFK’s brother Bobby, married to Paul Hill, one of the Guildford Four, who were wrongfully convicted of pub bombings in England in 1974. In 2020, Ireland longest bridge was opened across the River Barrow, near the Kennedy’s ancestral homestead at Dunganstown, County Wexford, and controversially named for Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, the mother of the former president.

[11] Daniel J Donahue, Dick’s grandfather, was an infant when he moved to Lowell MA in 1861, from a small village outside of Killarney, County Kerry. Daniel attended BU Law school and was admitted to the bar in MA 1887. His son Joseph P Donahue, Dick’s father, attended Dartmouth College and then Harvard Law School. He was admitted in 1916. He married Dorothy F. Riordan.  The Donahues were friendly in Lowelll with the Gargan’s – Rose Kennedy’s mother’s side family. Dick’s older brother Joe (father of Matt)was living in Dallas when  Kennedy was assassinated. Joe was at the event Kennedy was traveling to on that day.  His son Matt Donahue, who told me this, was born in Dallas. Joe left Dallas soon after to join Dick and their father  (RKD) in Lowell where they set up a joint practice.  Dick also worked on Teddy Kennedy’s presidential race in 1980 winning New York for him – great Jimmy Breslin article after the victory about RKD. Joe represented Joe Gargan in the Chappaquiddick mess, https://www.biography.com/political-figure/joe-gargan

[12] Lynch suggests a Galway connection. Ford’s Irish roots trace back to Robert Lynch and Marcella Martin of Perry Township, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Marcella’s father Michael Martin was a Scots-Irish pioneer, as per John W. Jordan (ed), with James Hadden, ‘Genealogical and Personal History of Fayette County, Pennsylvania, Vol. 2’ (Heritage Books, 2007), p. 788.

[13] In 1999, george Clinton nearly blew it when he gave a speech in Ottawa, Canada, during which he said: “I spent an enormous amount of time trying to help the people in the land of my forebears in Northern Ireland get over 600 years of religious fights, and every time they make an agreement to do it, they’re like a couple of drunks walking out of the bar for the last time. When they get to the swinging door, they turn around and go back in and say, ‘I just can’t quite get there.'” Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, slammed the remarks, after which Clinton apologised for his inappropriate metaphor.

[14] Loreta Lynch, who served as Obama’s Attorney General, is thought to have descended from Lynches of Galway that settled in the Caribbean. She became especially famous for her unhelpful encounter with Bill Clinton in the lead up to Trump’s election. I was in Chicago at the time and it was a front-page blunder.

Colin Powell, Secretary of State under George W. Bush, likewise descends from the Caribbean Irish.

[15] Melvina lived until 1939 and her great grand-daughter, Michelle’s mother, was born in 1937; Dolphus Shields died in 1950 aged 91, his son in 1918 (aged 32) and his grandson Purnell in 1983 aged 72 (29 when Melvina died) when Michelle was 19, so there is, as Denis Bergin observes, there is ‘a lot of contemporary memory of Melvina floating around there.’

[16] Mitch McConnell, ‘The Long Game: A Memoir’ (Penguin, 2016)

[17] Aside from Clinton, only two of the forty-eight vice-presidents have well-documented Irish ancestry.

John Calhoun of South Carolina, the controversial defender of slavery and promoter of states’ rights, was the son of a Donegal-born Scots-Irish immigrant. He served as second-in-command to Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, having also been appointed Secretary of War and State and elected as a U.S. Congressman and Senator at various stages of a fifty-year career in public life.
Henry Agard Wallace was the great-grandson of a Derry-born farmer who had settled in western Pennsylvania. Wallace became FDR’s nominee to the vice presidency in 1941, having served him earlier as Secretary of Agriculture, as his father had in the Coolidge and Harding eras (father and son were members of a small farm media dynasty the operated out of Iowa, to where a son of the settler had moved for health reasons).
Fourteen U.S. vice-presidents, the office famously characterised by ‘Cactus Jack’ Garner as ‘not worth a bucket of warm spit’ and left vacant on seventeen different occasions for a total of almost forty years, have gone on to become President. Only five of these were elected to the position; the others succeeded following the death or resignation of the President. Lyndon Johnson was one of four who succeeded and was then elected; he is also unique in being part of the only succession of Presidents who had served as vice-presidents. Johnson, vice-president in the Kennedy administration from 1961 to 1963, was succeeded in 1968 by Richard Nixon, vice-president during the Eisenhower presidency from 1953 to 1961.

‘Irish America’ can also claim four Secretaries of State (including Colin Powell), one Secretary of Commerce, 23 Senators, 30 State Governors (including Henry Ellis, second Governor of Georgia), 73 Congressmen and 75 Mayors.

[18] Kellyanne Conway (née Fitzpatrick), who, with Bannon, spearheaded Trump’s successful campaign in 2016, is of Irish stock. Her father John Fitzpatrick was born in Philadelphia in November 1940, while she grew up in Atco, Waterford County, New Jersey. Boston is the home city of the Irish-American family of her husband, George T. Conway III, the conservative attorney who co-founded the anti-Trump political action group, The Lincoln Project.

[19] Spicer’s siblings are named Shannon and Ryan.

The Fox News presenters Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Megyn Kelly are all of Irish-American stock.

[20] Although Robert C. O’Brien Jr, Trump’s fourth NSA, also sounds like an Irish-American, it transpires that his father, also Robert Charles O’Brien, aka Bob O’Brien, was not the biological son of the Minnesota-based engineer Allan Daniel O’Brien as per his death record and every Family Tree on Ancestry, although Allen possibly/probably adopted him following his marriage to Magdalen/Magdalene Anna Johns on Monday 3 June 1940.  Bob O’Brien was most likely born to Saul Cecil Belman and Magdalen Anna Johns in Chicago, Illinois, on 7 May 1938. By 1940 Magdalen and her son Bob were residing together under her maiden name of Johns. She was head cook in a restaurant. Did she marry Saul C Belman? Perhaps but there is, as yet, no available record. However, when Saul Belman married in 1942 he recorded this as his first marriage (though this doesn’t mean it is true), so it is possible that Bob was born out of wedlock. In any event, Robert Charles O’Brien, born 1966, is not the biological grandson of Allan Daniel O’Brien and thus has no blood claim to Irish roots

On the 1942 marriage record of Saul Cecil Belman (Robert C O’Brien’s biological grandfather) he records that his father was Max Belman who was born in Russia and his mother as Emily Kokis?, also born in Russia. According to the 1940 US WWII Draft Card Register, Saul C Belman was born on 4th April 1912 in St. Louis, Missouri.

Allan Daniel O’Brien, Bob  non-biological father of Robert Charles (Belman) O’Brien was a very interesting man so I can understand folk clinging onto his roots and claiming them as his own. I have attached an article about him that provides a photograph of him with Magdalen.

Magdalen’s paternal grandfather was Jacob Johns II who is reported to have been born in Muelhausen, Germany, on 5 August 1840 https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/50997325/jacob-johns

Magdalen’s paternal grandmother, wife of Jacob Johns II, Theresa Kryzer, is reported to have been born in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) on 28 September 1848.

Magdalen’s maternal grandfather, Nicholas Kilian, was reportedly born in Lorsch, Bergstraße district, Hesse, Germany, on 28 July 1841.

Magdalen’s maternal grandmother, Anna M Hammering, wife of Nicholas, was born in Missouri circa 1850 and in the 1900 US Census she records that both her parents were born in Germany.

[21] ‘Niall O’Dowd’, Joe Biden would be the fourth US President descended from Irish Famine migrants’, Irish Voice, 9 September 2020. https://www.irishcentral.com/opinion/niallodowd/joe-biden-president-famine-migrants

[22] In December 2021, Caroline Kennedy, the only surviving child of President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, was nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as the Ambassador to Australia.

[23] On 7th November 2015, Brian McGlinchey ordered a tree to be planted (through Ever Irish Gifts in the US) in memory of Joseph R. Biden, III (Beau Biden). He was Projects Director for Joe Biden in Wilmington, Delaware.

[24] Bill Casey’s grandfather George Lawrence Casey was born in Philipstown (Daingean), County Offaly, in 1847, the eldest son of shoemaker Laurence Casey and Ann Morrin. Another shoemaker! The family emigrated to the US in 1849 and George Casey went on to become Chief Engineer of the Long Island City Fire Department. Se https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/95072281/george-lawrence-casey