Directory of Irish Genealogy

American Presidents with Irish Ancestors

By Sean Murphy MA


In his authoritative study, Ancestors of American Presidents (2009 Edition), Gary Boyd Roberts has drawn together the work of a large number of individuals and groups, and the research of his co-workers in the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston is particularly in evidence. The core of the book is a series of ancestor tables of the 44 Presidents from Washington to Obama, which tables number each incumbent 1, his parents 2 and 3, his grandparents 4-7, his great-grandparents 8-15, and so on. Also included are lists of printed sources by President, sections on royal and Mayflower descents and kinships among Presidents, as well as exhaustive indexes by place and name. Roberts's work is impressive, and it supersedes and sometimes corrects a previous standard work, Burke's Presidential Families of the United States of America (1976 and 1981 Editions).

Roberts's book also of course provides much grist to the mill of one of our national obsessions - spotting Presidents of the United States of America who possessed Irish ancestry. These Irish-American chief executives of the great republic are rightly seen as a barometer of the growing success and rising influence of their ethnic group, and their visits to the old country are always important, not to say triumphal occasions. Yet despite America's reputation as the great melting pot, it is salutary to be reminded of the fact that most Presidents have been of primarily White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ancestry, and there is a predominance of what Roberts calls the 'New England family'. Nevertheless, the rise of Irish-Americans is underscored by the progressive increase in the number of Presidents with Irish ancestry, latterly including even those of Catholic stock. Thus while only11 out of 28 Presidents from the institution of the office in 1789 until 1921 possessed elements of Irish ancestry, since Kennedy took office in 1961 every President bar one, Gerald Ford, has had some Irish blood. Of course, ongoing research may yet identify additional Presidents with Irish ancestors, and work on this side of the Atlantic would need to be more thorough and better organised.

Although President Bill Clinton's term of office is now long over, the file on his Irish ancestry remains open, in that claims that his maternal Cassidy ancestors came from Roslea, County Fermanagh, have been shown to have been based merely on wishful thinking. As a matter of fact, there is little or no competent published work on the Irish ancestry of American Presidents from Irish genealogists, a glaring and indeed symptomatic omission. When I approached the Office of the Chief Herald for information on Clinton, it was unwilling to give assistance, and insisted that certain of its files were not open to public inspection (as it has done in the case of its entanglement with the bogus Gaelic chief Terence MacCarthy 'Mór'). Reflecting the confusion first sown by an infamous June 1984 Magill article and having no authoritative Irish source to guide him, Roberts cites the surname in the 1829 Ballyporeen baptism entry for President Reagan's great-grandfather Michael as possibly being Ryan, whereas we are satisfied that it is in fact Regan. It has been pointed out that as Catholic baptism registers do not survive for all Tipperary parishes, Reagan's connection with Ballyporeen is not established beyond doubt. Y ot is ironic that the reasonably competent research into Reagan's Irish ancestry has been widely disbelieved, whereas the less than competent research into Clinton's ancestry was widely accepted. Furthermore, it had hitherto been accepted that President Kennedy's ancestors had definitely been traced to Dunganstown, Co Wexford, but a recent official history of the Office of the Chief Herald, citing closed 'uncatalogued' records, has revealed that the connection with Dunganstown remains speculative (Susan Hood, Royal Roots, Republican Inheritance, Dublin 2002, page 224).

The 2000 election to select a successor to Clinton was particularly close, and indeed for some time after the poll the result was in some doubt due to controversial recounts in Florida. However, Vice-President Al Gore eventually conceded defeat and George W Bush was declared the winner. We are reasonably well informed concerning the Irish elements of President Bush's ancestry as a result of the research performed in relation to his father, President George Bush Senior. One of President George W Bush's five times great-grandfathers, William Holliday, was born in Rathfriland, Co Down, about 1755, and died in Kentucky about 1811-12. One of the President's seven times great-grandfathers, William Shannon, was born somewhere in Co Cork about 1730, and died in Pennsylvania in 1784. It has also recently been claimed that on his mother's side, another of the President's ancestors, one William Gault, resident in Tennessee in 1796, may have been born in Co Antrim, but evidence for this is not yet to hand.

President Bush's Irish connections do not end there, for US genealogist William Addams Reitwiesner has discovered that President Bush is distantly related to an Irish President, Erskine Hamilton Childers, who died in office in 1974, and whose father Erskine Childers Senior was executed during the Civil War in 1922. President Bush's eleven times great-grandparents, William Hutchinson and Anne Marbury, both born in Lincolnshire in the sixteenth century, are also ancestors of President Childers's mother, Mary Alden 'Molly' Osgood, who was born in Boston (see While not initially perceived to be as personally interested in the Irish Peace Process as his predecessor Bill Clinton, George W Bush did continue his predecessor's supportive role and visited Ireland north and south during his term of office. Alas, the exigencies of the 'war against terror' meant that there were no Clinton-style walkabouts to meet the people, and indeed one of President Bush's 'only known Irish relatives', Nessa Childers, a Green Party politican and daughter of the late President Childers, was quoted as opposing her twelfth(?) cousin's visit to Ireland (Evening Herald, 23 March 2004).

The 2008 election campaign was remarkable for the fact that the Democratic and Republican presidential and vice-presidential candidates possessed elements of Irish ancestry. Much more remarkable of course was the fact that the victor was Barack Obama, the United States's first African-American President. Obama is Kenyan in his paternal ancestry, but his forebears on his maternal side include a great-great-great grandfather Falmouth or Fulmuth Kearney or Carney, born in Ireland about 1832 and emigrated to the US in 1850, whose father is stated to be Joseph Kearney, a shoemaker of Moneygall, County Offaly ( US genealogist Megan Smolenyak first established Obama's Moneygall connection, and for further information on her researches see In his memoir Dreams From My Father (page 394), Obama records that his African grandmother recited to him the following long pedigree, which it would be interesting to see if it could be documented:

First there was Miwiru. It’s not known who came before. Miwiru sired Sigoma, Sigoma sired Owiny, Owiny sired Kisodhi, Kisodhi sired Ogelo, Ogelo sired Otondi, Otondi sired Obongo, Obongo sired Okoth, and Okoth sired Opiyo.

To conclude, here is a listing of the 20 US Presidents with Irish ancestry.

1 Andrew Jackson, 7th President 1829-37

2 William Henry Harrison, 9th President 1841

3 James Knox Polk, 11th President 1845-49

4 James Buchanan, 15th President 1857-61

5 Abraham Lincoln, 16th President 1861-65

6 Ulysses S Grant, 18th President 1869-77

7 Chester Alan Arthur, 21st President 1881-85

8 Grover Cleveland, 22nd and 24th President 1885-89, 1893-97

9 Benjamin Harrison, 23rd President 1889-93

10 William McKinley, 25th President 1897-1901

11 Woodrow Wilson, 28th President 1913-21

12 John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President 1961-63

13 Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President 1963-69

14 Richard Milhous Nixon, 37th President 1969-74

15 James Earl Carter, 39th President 1977-81

16 Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th President 1981-89

17 George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st President 1989-93

18 William Jefferson Clinton, 42nd President 1993-2001

19 George Walker Bush, 43rd President 2001-09

20 Barack Hussein Obama, 44th President 2009-