The Presidential Green Card

Posted on: 8th November, 2016

Category: Features

Contributor: West Cork People

UCC history graduate and modern Irish history buff Pauline Murphy investigates the ‘green credentials’ of past, present and possible future US leaders.

The presidential race across the Atlantic is heating up and by November 8 we will know who the next leader of the United States will be, but like many holders of the office, will he or she have roots in the old sod?

Republican candidate Donald Trump has Scottish/German heritage but the New York City tycoon has a connection to Ireland in the form of a golf course in Co. Clare. Trump International golf course and hotel in Doonbeg joins a long list of properties the presidential candidate owns across the globe.

While Trump’s connection to Ireland comes in the form of business, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s link can be traced through politics. The Democrat candidate has, like her Republican counterpart, no Irish roots, but it did not deter her from being inducted into the Irish American Hall of Fame last year. That accolade was for her work with her husband in the Irish peace process during the 90s.

The most notable US president to boast Irish roots was of course John Fitzgerald Kennedy but he was not the first or indeed the last American president to trace his roots back to the emerald isle.

The first US president to claim Irish roots was Andrew Jackson. The family roots of Jackson, who became the seventh president of the United States in 1829, can be traced to the small village of Boneybefore in County Antrim from where his parents emigrated in 1765. They settled in Waxhaws South Carolina where two years later the future president was born. Today in Boneybefore there is a heritage centre dedicated to Andrew Jackson.

President James Knox Polk descended from Presbyterian Scots-Irish who settled in North Carolina in the 1600s. The descendents of the 11th US president left Coleraine County Derry in 1680 and were among the first wave of Irish emigrants to American shores.

James Buchanan became president in 1857 and his family roots can be traced to Deroran in County Tyrone from where his father emigrated in 1783. Today on the gate of Buchanan’s ancestral home in Deroran there is a plaque indicating the Irish roots of the 15th American president.

More presidents with Irish roots were to take up residency in the White House throughout the 19th century. Andrew Johnson, who became president after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, had a grandfather who immigrated to North Carolina in 1750. He emigrated from Larne, County Antrim and, like so many others from his part of Ireland, Johnson’s grandfather settled in North Carolina.

Ulysses S. Grant’s great-grandfather was a farmer by the name of John Simpson from Dergenagh, County Tyrone. At the age of 22, he immigrated to Ohio. Grant made a trip to the land of his ancestors in 1878 after his stint as US president finished and the small cottage from where his great-grandfather left is still standing today as a heritage centre.

The 21st president of the United States, Chester A. Arthur, was the son of a Baptist minister from the village of Dreen near Cullybackey in County Antrim who, in 1815 left it for the new world. Today the ancestral home of president Arthur in Dreen hosts an interpretive centre in his honour.

The trend of US presidents claiming Irish roots continued with the likes of Grover Cleveland whose grandfather was a merchant who emigrated from Antrim in the 1790s while Benjamin Harrison also claimed family heritage from the same county through his mother Elizabeth Irwin.

William McKinley became the 25th US president towards the end of the 19th century and made his county Antrim roots well known when he addressed the national Scots-Irish congress in America. McKinley’s ancestors were farmers from Ballymoney and while serving out his second term, he was assassinated, but Teddy Roosevelt stepped in to continue the line of US presidents with Irish heritage.

Roosevelt’s roots can be traced on his mother’s side to Glencoe, County Antrim much like the man who followed him, William Howard Taft. As a nod to Taft’s Irish links, his grandson became ambassador to Ireland from 1953 to 1957.

From 1913 to 1921, Woodrow Wilson was American president and yet another one with Irish roots. Wilson’s grandfather was a printer from Strabane in County Tyrone and today his home stands as a visitor centre to acknowledge the Irish roots of the 28th US president.

Warren Harding played to the Irish American vote in the 1921 presidential election. As the War of Independence raged in Ireland he claimed family heritage in the north of the island, thus boosting his popularity with the Irish community in the United States.

In 1970, Richard Milhous Nixon paid a visit to Timahoe in County Kildare to unveil a small stone monument in a Quaker graveyard in memory of his maternal ancestors. The Milhous Quaker family left Kildare for America in the 18th century.

Jimmy Carter’s Irish roots can be traced on his mother’s side whose ancestors emigrated in the 19th century from County Derry, while another president, Ronald Reagan, had ancestors who immigrated to America around the same time.

Reagan’s great-grandfather left Ballyporeen County Tipperary during the Great Famine in the 1840s. In 1984, during his presidential re-election bid, Reagan paid a visit to Ballyporeen where he played the Green Card in order to win Irish-American votes back home.

George Bush Sr and George Bush Jr have links to County Down, while it has also been claimed that an ancestor of the Bush family called William Shannon emigrated from Cork to Pennsylvania in the 18th century.

A familiar face to grace Ireland during his presidency was Bill Clinton. The 42nd US president claims to have roots in County Fermanagh on his maternal side under the surname Cassidy.

The 44th president and current occupier of the White House also claims Irish heritage. Barack Obama’s links to Moneygall in County Offaly were well celebrated when he dropped by there in 2011 to meet the locals and have a sip of Guinness in one of the village pubs. Obama’s maternal ancestor Falmouth Kearney was a shoemaker who left Moneygall for America in the 18th century.

Of course the most Irish of American Presidents was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In the summer of 1963 when Air Force One touched down in Ireland during JFK’s presidential visit, it brought with it an Irish success story. It is a story of ancestors who left behind poverty for the land of opportunity and the result of that story can be mirrored in the other emigration stories that made their way across the Atlantic and into the White House.

On November 8, Americans will choose their new commander-in-chief and whether they choose Trump or Clinton, Ireland will continue to hold some sort of link to the Oval Office.

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