Tracing the Iris Roots of 23 American Presidents

Tracing the Iris Roots of 23 American Presidents

Irish heritage is strong in the United States and even before the country was a nation, immigrants made their way to America. The first wave occurred between 1715 to 1845 but it wasn’t until the Great Famine in 1845 that saw the largest influx of Irish immigrants to the United States. According to the National Museum of Ireland, over six million people have made their way to the U.S. since 1820.

Today, there are 31.5 million residents who claim to be of Irish descent. Many of these have been our commander-in-chief. Since its inception as a country, the United States has seen 45 men elected president. Of these elected officials, more than half can trace some of their ancestry to Ireland. Irish heritage is among the top three ancestries in more than half of U.S. states, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day this year, 24/7 Tempo has compiled a list of those with Irish ancestry who have served as president by reviewing websites such as ulsterscotsagency.com, academica.edu, irishcentral.com, bbc.com, and whitehouse.gov. As many as 25 presidents supposedly claim Irish ancestry. However, three of them — William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, and Bill Clinton — do not have fully corroborated evidence of Irish heritage. Our list is composed of presidents with the most verifiable claims of Irish ancestry.

Most of the country’s chief executives with Irish lineage came from Ireland’s northern counties of Tyrone and Antrim, starting with Andrew Jackson, who became president in 1829. All were Protestant and identified as Scots-Irish to distinguish themselves from the Catholics living in the southern part of the island.

It wasn’t until John F. Kennedy, one of the youngest men elected President and the most Irish of all the American chief executives, became the first Catholic elected as president in 1960 that any president of Irish extraction made his ethnicity a point of pride. Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in June of 1963 prompted an enthusiastic reaction and he vowed to return to his ancestral home. (Here are the oldest men elected President).

Since Kennedy’s election, other presidents have used their Irish connections to mine the votes of Irish Americans. Some presidents with Irish ancestry have journeyed to the Emerald Isle while in office, among them Richard Nixon (1970), Ronald Reagan (1984), and Barack Obama (2011). Even though Bill Clinton’s Irish connection has not been fully verified, the 42nd president was a staunch proponent of the peace process in Northern Ireland. He visited the island three times as president.

Here are Presidents of the United States with Irish heritage

1. Andrew Jackson (1767-1845)

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  • Birthplace: Waxhaws region, South Carolina
  • Party: Democrat
  • Term: 1829-37 (7th president)

Andrew Jackson was born in the Waxhaws region of South Carolina, two years after his parents left the village of Boneybefore, in County Antrim in the northern part of Ireland. The seventh president was a hero during the War of 1812 and helped found the Democratic Party.

2. James Polk (1795-1849)

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  • Birthplace: Mecklenburg County, North Carolina
  • Party: Democrat
  • Term: 1845-49 (11th president)

The 11th president traced his Irish lineage to his great-grandfather Robert Bruce Polk, who was born in Scotland and lived in Lifford in County Donegal, in the province of Ulster, before coming to Maryland in 1680, and then moving to North Carolina. The United States expanded west and southwest during Polk’s presidency, eventually adding Texas and California as states, and territories in the Southwest that would become the states of New Mexico and Arizona. The country also fixed its current border with Canada through negotiations with Great Britain.

3. James Buchanan (1791-1868)

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  • Birthplace: Cove Gap, Pennsylvania
  • Party: Democrat
  • Term: 1857-61 (15th president)

James Buchanan, the last president to serve the United States before the Civil War, had grandparents who came from The Cairn, Ramelton, in County Donegal. Buchanan considered the issue of slavery a states’ rights issue. He also said that while states had no right to secede, the federal government did not have the right to intervene either.

4. Andrew Johnson (1808-1875)

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  • Birthplace: Raleigh, North Carolina
  • Party: Democrat
  • Term: 1865-69 (17th president)

Andrew Johnson, who became president after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, traced his Irish roots to the village of Mounthill in County Antrim. His grandfather left Mounthill in 1750 and came to North Carolina. Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, ran afoul of the Republicans in Congress who opposed his leniency toward the former Confederate states after the Civil War. He was the first president impeached by the House of Representatives but was acquitted.

5. Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885)

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  • Birthplace: Point Pleasant, Ohio
  • Party: Republican
  • Term: 1869-77 (18th president)

Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant became the first American president to visit Ireland in 1879 as part of his world trip after he left office. Grant’s Irish heritage came from his mother’s side. His maternal great-grandfather, John Simpson, came from Dergenagh, in County Tyrone in Ulster. As the nation’s 18th president, Grant ended Reconstruction, however, his administration was also marred by financial scandal.

6. Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886)

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  • Birthplace: Fairfield, Vermont
  • Party: Republican
  • Term: 1881-85 (21st president)

Chester A. Arthur, who became president following the assassination of James Garfield in 1881, had Irish lineage on his father’s side. His father, William Arthur, was born at the Draen, in County Antrim, in 1796. During Arthur’s term, his administration enacted the first immigration law that established categories of foreigners considered “undesirable” and was used to limit the immigration of Chinese laborers.

7. Grover Cleveland (1837-1908)

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  • Birthplace: Caldwell, New Jersey
  • Party: Democrat
  • Term: 1885-89 and 1893-97 (22nd and 24th president)

Grover Cleveland, the only president to serve non-consecutive terms, had two lines of Irish ancestry. His maternal grandfather Abner Neal left County Antrim in the late 18th century to come to the United States. Cleveland’s great-great-grandmother Ann Lamb was born in Dublin in the early 18th century. Cleveland, who had established himself as a man of rectitude, fought against wasteful federal spending, and during his tenure, the Interstate Commerce Commission, the nation’s first regulatory agency, was created.

8. Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901)

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  • Birthplace: North Bend, Ohio
  • Party: Republican
  • Term: 1889-93 (23rd president)

Benjamin Harrison, the nation’s 23rd president, had Irish lineage on his mother’s side. Harrison’s Irish descendants — James Irwin and William McDowell — were emigrants from the province of Ulster in Northern Ireland. His mother, Elizabeth Irwin Harrison, grew up in a Scotch-Irish community in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. During Harrison’s term, Montana, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota all joined the Union.

9. William McKinley (1843-1901)

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  • Birthplace: Niles, Ohio
  • Party: Republican
  • Term: 1897-1901 (25th president)

William McKinley, the nation’s 25th president, was the great-grandson of James McKinley, who emigrated to America from Conagher in County Antrim in the mid-18th century. McKinley, whose tenure included the Spanish-American War and the acquisition of territories such as the Philippines, became the third American president to be assassinated in 1901.

10. Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)

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  • Birthplace: New York City, New York
  • Party: Republican
  • Term: 1901-09 (26th president)

Besides his well-documented Dutch ancestry, Theodore Roosevelt also had Scotch-Irish lineage on his mother’s side. His maternal side, the Bulloch and Irvine families, came from Larne in County Antrim. The two-term president helped transform the United States into a world power, led regulatory efforts to curb corporate excesses, and championed conservation.

11. William Howard Taft (1857-1930)

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  • Birthplace: Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Party: Republican
  • Term: 1909-13 (27th president)

William Howard Taft’s Irish roots go back to Richard Robert Taft, who died in County Louth in 1700. His son, Robert, emigrated to Massachusetts in the 18th century. William Howard Taft, the 27th president, came from a prominent Republican family in Ohio. Taft succeeded Theodore Roosevelt as president and supported more liberal immigration laws as well as opposing a literacy test for unskilled workers.

12. Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)

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  • Birthplace: Staunton, Virginia
  • Party: Democrat
  • Term: 1913-21 (28th president)

Woodrow Wilson’s paternal grandparents emigrated to the United States from County Tyrone in the early 19th century. His grandfather, James Wilson, came from the town of Strabane. Wilson visited Ireland in 1899 while he was teaching at Princeton University. As president, Wilson helped forge the Treaty of Versailles that ended WWI and championed the League of Nations as the arbiter of international disputes.

13. Harry Truman (1884-1972)

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  • Birthplace: Lamar, Missouri
  • Party: Democrat
  • Term: 1945-53 (33rd president)

Harry Truman assumed the presidency following the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 and led America’s efforts to rebuild Europe after WWII and halt communism in South Korea. Truman’s Irish heritage came from his mother’s side. His maternal grandfather, Solomon Young, was of Scots-Irish extraction; he was from Kentucky and moved to Missouri in the 1840s.

14. John F. Kennedy (1917-1963)

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  • Birthplace: Brookline, Massachusetts
  • Party: Democrat
  • Term: 1961-63 (35th president)

John F. Kennedy was the first president on the list of Irish ancestry not from the north of Ireland and was the first Catholic president of the United States. JFK’s maternal and paternal great-grandparents came from counties Limerick, Cavan, and Cork. Kennedy made a memorable trip to Ireland in 1963 — the first sitting president to do so — five months before he was assassinated.

15. Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973)

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  • Birthplace: Stonewall, Texas
  • Party: Democrat
  • Term: 1963-69 (36th president)

Lyndon B. Johnson, who became the 36th president after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, had one Irish connection — his great-great-great-great-great grandfather John Jameson was born in Galway about 1680. Johnson, a very skilled political negotiator, helped shepherd through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but his presidency was overshadowed by the divisiveness of the Vietnam War.

16. Richard Nixon (1913-1994)

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  • Birthplace: Yorba Linda, California
  • Party: Republican
  • Term: 1969-74 (37th president)

Richard Nixon’s Irish forebears came from County Antrim and have been traced back to the late 17th century. Nixon, the only president to resign from office, traveled to Ireland in October 1970. He visited the homelands of his Quaker ancestors in Kildare and his wife’s forebears in Mayo. Unlike Kennedy seven years earlier, Nixon was met with protestors who opposed America’s war in Vietnam.

17. Gerald Ford (1913-2006)

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  • Birthplace: Omaha, Nebraska
  • Party: Republican
  • Term: 1974-77 (38th president)

Gerald Ford succeeded Richard Nixon as president following Nixon’s resignation in 1974. He traced his Irish ancestry to two sets of great-great-great-great grandparents who came from counties Armagh and Down. Ford restored faith in the government in the wake of the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon, but he lost the election to Jimmy Carter in 1976.

18. Jimmy Carter (1924-)

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  • Birthplace: Plains, Georgia
  • Party: Democrat
  • Term: 1977-81 (39th president)

Jimmy Carter, the 39th president, traces his Irish lineage to a great-great-great-great grandfather from County Antrim who was born in the mid-18th century. Carter’s term was noteworthy for his mediation of the conflict between Israel and Egypt, but his presidency was hampered by the Iranian hostage crisis and an economic downturn.

19. Ronald Reagan (1911-2004)

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  • Birthplace: Tampico, Illinois
  • Party: Republican
  • Term: 1981-89 (40th president)

Three of Ronald Reagan’s great-grandparents came from Ireland, among them Michael Regan, who was born in Ballyporeen in County Tipperary in 1829. Reagan visited Ballyporeen in 1984, the year he was re-elected as president, and he was met by protestors demonstrating against his administration’s policy on nuclear weapons, support of Israel, and apartheid in South Africa.

20. George H.W. Bush (1924-2018)

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  • Birthplace: Milton, Massachusetts
  • Party: Republican
  • Term: 1989-93 (41st president)

George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, has an Irish great-great-great-great grandfather who was born around 1755 in Rathfriland in County Down. Bush succeeded Reagan as president and led a coalition of nations that expelled Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. However, the U.S. economy tumbled into recession, and he lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton.

21. George W. Bush (1946-)

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  • Birthplace: New Haven, Connecticut
  • Party: Republican
  • Term: 2001-09 (43rd president)

Besides the aforementioned Irish connection to the Bush family, the younger Bush is descended from Dermot MacMurrough, the King of Leinster, which is a province on the east coast of Ireland. He is also distantly related to Erskine Hamilton Childers, a former president of Ireland, whose father was executed during the Irish Civil War in 1922. Bush visited Ireland in 2004 and advocated for the peace initiative in Northern Ireland. George W. Bush’s terms were dominated by the war on terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

22. Barack Obama (1961)

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  • Birthplace: Honolulu, Hawaii
  • Party: Democrat
  • Term: 2009-17 (44th president)

Obama traces his Irish roots through his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. One of the 44th president’s great-great-great grandfathers was from the village of Moneygall in County Offaly and emigrated to the United States in 1850. Obama traveled to Ireland in 2011 and famously joked that he came to find the apostrophe missing from his last name.

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