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An ambassador’s stop-off, Catholic equality and social media conspiracies: The strange and wonderful Irish links of American presidents

An ambassador’s stop-off, Catholic equality and social media conspiracies: The strange and wonderful Irish links of American presidents

Stuart Marley |

In the early summer of 2011, two momentous political occasions took place in the old city of Dublin. 

First, Queen Elizabeth II became the first British monarch to visit the Republic of Ireland since the end of British rule almost a century before. 

If that was a serious and cordial affair, heavy with political significance, when Barack Obama touched down on Air Force One a few days later, and was driven in the famous “Beast” armored car for an inadvertently longer “stop” than planned at the American embassy before a 24-hour whistle stop tour of the country, celebration was the order of the day.


Ireland’s ties with Britain are many and complex: at their closest point, just 12 miles separates the islands and relationships have evolved over at least 1000 years of political, geographical and economic ties, with the added unavoidable reality that Britain has always been the big dog powerhouse beside Ireland’s smaller, more upstart reputation.

In contrast, the Irish people’s relationship with the United States remains altogether more straightforward. Ireland still loves the US, and the US still seems to love Ireland, and that positive note never sounds more clear than when American presidents land on Irish shores.

Barack Obama might have been the first African-American to hold the highest office in the land, but that didn’t mean no Irish links could be found — cue the sight of America’s first black President holding aloft a pint of the black stuff in his ancestral home of Moneygall in the midlands county of Offaly. 

“My name is Barack Obama,” he said into a microphone, smiling for the punchline, “of the Moneygall Obamas, and I’ve come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way.”

Obama — or O’Bama as he was styled during that memorable visit — was neither the first nor the last American president to be warmly welcomed to “the auld sod” amid mass gatherings, raised glasses and frantic searches through old documents to find the written record of historical family ties.

And yet, as we go back over the generations and through the centuries to recall other American presidents with Irish links, we find some complexity amid the celebrations too. This is Ireland, after all.

Andrew Jackson’s Antrim links

Andrew Jackson was the seventh president of the United States, who served for eight years from 1829. 

These days he’s often labeled the “Indian Killer” for his policies which led to tens of thousands of deaths among Native Americans. Most notoriously, he signed into law the Indian Removal Act in May 1830, a piece of legislation which allowed the granting of land west of the Mississippi to Native Americans, who were thus forced to give up their ancestral homelands in the south-eastern United States.

Members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations were forcibly removed, and as many as 4000 Cherokees died on the “Trail of Tears” forced march in 1838.

Some of his most well-known accomplishments come from his time in the military before he reached the Oval Office: he fought in the War of Independence as a young teenager and a few decades later commanded forces that annexed Florida, then a Spanish enclave, from its colonizers, leading to the “Sunshine State” becoming a US territory in 1821, to the delight of retirees and holidaymakers centuries later.

Jackson had come within a whisker of the White House in 1824, and a four-year quiet campaign resulted in a landslide victory over sitting President John Quincy Adams in 1828. That campaign has been described as the first “modern election”, when the cult of personality — including the previously unknown skill set of being able to run down and slander the personality of one’s opponent — played a new role.

Whether Jackson’s land-grabbing family heritage — his ancestors had been part of the Ulster plantation, when British settlers were moved to Northern Ireland to take up the ancestral homelands of Irish clans in the 1600s, a piece of history which remains central to the partition of the island into the modern day Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland — played any part in his policies in the military or as President is a matter of opinion.

But it is true to say that he had to navigate some difficult situations that hit his immediate family. His parents, Andrew Snr and Elizabeth, both died young: Andrew in a logging accident before the birth of his third son, and Elizabeth of cholera in 1781 at around 40 years of age.

Indeed, Andrew Jnr would be the only one of the family NOT to die prematurely: brother Hugh was killed in battle in the War of Independence in 1779, and other brother Robert died of smallpox contracted during imprisonment — alongside the then young teenager Andrew — in 1781. 

It would be almost 40 more years before Andrew would take up the office of President, in 1829. It is claimed that he never forgot his strong Irish roots, connections which are still celebrated in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, in present day Northern Ireland, where both of Jackson’s parents were born.

James Buchanan’s Donegal trip en route to the Presidency

It is not known, for certain at least, whether any of the first 14 American presidents — including Jackson and Polk, who had those ancestral Irish links — ever visited the country of their heritage.

We do know, though, that James Buchanan, who would become the 15th President in 1857, did actually visit the homeland of his forefathers.

Image source: Wikipedia

In 1833, the story goes, during an ambassadorial assignment to Russia — Buchanan was the United States Minister to Russia under the Jackson administration — his return journey to America was marked by a stop-off to see some old relations in the County Donegal region of Ramelton.

Ramelton — present day population: 1288 — is a small enclave on the banks of Lough Foyle, not far from the city of Derry. 

Buchanan’s father James Snr had been raised on a parcel of land called “Stony Batter” in Ramelton before being called by a relative to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In 1781, James left the port of Derry destined for Philadelphia, a passenger on one of more than 100 ships that had left Northern Ireland bound for Philadelphia as part of the great Scots-Irish migration of the 18th century.

A few years after his arrival, James Snr would buy a trading post in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, naming the place “Stony Batter” after his own homeplace in County Donegal, and it was here that  James Jnr would be born to James Snr and his new wife, Elizabeth Spear, in 1791.

More than 40 years later, James Jnr would stop off at the original Stony Batter in Donegal to visit his relations, and another 25 years after that, James Buchanan would become the 15th American president.

His time in office was beset by troubles, however, dominated by the growing debate over slavery, which would result in the Civil War just a few years later. The “Panic of 1857” brought widespread business failures and economic hardship to many — coming just a decade or so after the invention of the telegraph, it was widely hailed as the first economic crisis fast-tracked by communications technology. 

Buchanan had declared in his inaugural address in ‘57 that he would serve just one term, and he was succeeded by Abraham Lincoln in 1861.

Ulysses S Grant’s controversial Irish visit 

In almost all historical records, Ulysses S Grant is widely acclaimed as a war hero: he was the general in command on the winning side of the Civil War.

Image source:  

Just three years after the end of the war, he was unanimously selected as the Republic presidential nominee and won the 1868 election in a landslide. (One present day Senator celebrates Grant as a “great defender of America [who] won our bloodiest war, trampled the dark forces of disunion, and bandaged our deepest national wounds”.)

However, despite the fact that he served two terms until 1877, historical record and opinion are less kind on his performance as President. 

Several rankings have placed Grant in the bottom quartile of all American presidents, although this has begun to change — the 2024 Presidential Greatness Project Expert Survey, run by researchers from the University of Houston and Coastal Carolina University in late 2023, placed Grant at 17th, respectably above mid-table.

While his popularity as President still fluctuates almost a century and a half later, what does not appear to be up for discussion is the duplicity of the “welcome” he received in Ireland on his visit to the country of his forefathers in 1879, two years after the end of his Presidency.

Grant had embarked on a two-year world tour after his time in office came to an end, traveling extensively through Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

He and wife Julia arrived in Dublin in early January 1879 for a five-day stay.

John Barrington, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, was effusive in his praise of the visiting President. In his welcome address, he said: 

“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.”

Elsewhere in Ireland, however, Grant received a more lukewarm reception.

Through the 19th century the cause of Irish independence had been growing in force, and many in Ireland believed that Grant — perhaps the man with the most political clout to put pressure on the British to listen to Irish voices — had actively blunted that campaign.

One leader of the Fenian Brotherhood, an organization dedicated to achieving independence from Britain and a forerunner of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in later decades, had visited America during Grant’s presidency but had been denied a meeting with the Commander-in-Chief. Perhaps even more important than that, the administration also passed laws designed to limit raids by US-based “Fenians” into the then British-controlled Canada, as part of policies designed to improve international relations between the USA and Britain. In these negotiations between global political powerhouses, if Ireland’s political cause received collateral damage, then that was unavoidable.

Compounding all this were accusations that Grant had pushed through anti-Catholic policies during his time in the White House.

The upshot of it all was that he had something of a reputation as an anti-Irish President, which — as he and his wife touched down in Dublin during his world tour — led to debate in Cork (long known as Ireland’s “Rebel County”) about whether the first American president to have visited Ireland during or after his time in office would be welcomed in the city at all.

Whether Grant and his traveling companions knew much of this debate, who really knows, but what we do know is that in the final event Cork did not appear on Grant’s Irish itinerary.

Like his predecessors as President, Andrew Jackson, James Knox Polk and James Buchanan, Grant also had Ulster Presbyterian links, although his were a bit further back in the mists of time: Grant’s ancestors had left Ulster for America in around 1630, well over two centuries before he took the highest office in the land.

JFK and the first Catholic Irish-American President

So much has been spoken and written about President John F. Kennedy that the chances of us giving you some nugget of new information or insight here might be slim to zero. 

So let’s leave aside the Space Race, the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Peace in Our Time” and the tragedy of Dallas and focus for a moment on one of the most momentous events in the first half century of Ireland’s independence: JFK’s visit in the summer of 1963.

As we have seen above, James Buchanan had visited his ancestral home decades before taking up office, and Ulysses S. Grant had come to Ireland in the years after he left the White House, but when the aircraft carrying JFK landed at Dublin Airport on June 26th, 1963 — amazingly, the same day he had earlier delivered one of the most impactful speeches in history, his “Ich bin ein Berliner” address in the East German capital — he became the first sitting US President ever to visit Ireland. 

If the “Panic of 1857” spread in large part because of the onset of the telegraph, JFK was in many ways the first true Television President. His skills as an orator were lapped up by audiences that often numbered in the tens of thousands in person, but it was through television that his personality, charisma and good looks reached tens of millions around the world.

Ireland was no different. While technology in the US was much more advanced in 1963, Ireland had launched its own national television broadcasting service, RTÉ, in 1961, and so all over the country people either made the journey to see JFK in person or huddled in the sitting rooms of whoever in the neighborhood had one of the new-fangled boxes sitting in the corner.

His speech to Dáil Eireann, the Irish parliament, fostered a new-found pride in Irish leaders and citizenry alike: JFK’s address highlighted the prominent role played by Irish immigrants in the history and advancement of the US, including James Hoban, architect of the White House, John Boyle O’Reilly, a poet and journalist who had advanced the Fenian cause in the US, and Thomas Francis Meagher, the Union Army’s Irish Brigade leader in the Civil War.

JFK’s four days in Ireland saw him visit Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick — each city seeing large crowds gather to welcome this icon of Irish-Americanness and the first ever Roman Catholic to be elected to the Presidency (one must remember that Ireland was in large part a religious state, with more than 99% of the population at the time devout and regular Mass-goers) — as well as a visit to the small town of New Ross in County Wexford in the south-east, where his mother’s relations had lived before emigrating to the US in the 1800s.

Indeed, almost all arms of JFK’s family had deep-seated roots in ordinary rank-and-file Irish families. The Fitzgeralds had left Bruff, County Limerick during the Potato Famine of the 1840s bound for Massachusetts, while the Kennedys had come from Dunganstown near New Ross. Other strands of the JFK lineage extend to the Hannons, also of Bruff in Limerick, and the Hickeys of Cork.

In this there is a deep distinction between previous Presidents with Irish links. As we have seen above, these were almost exclusively via Scots-Irish lineage in Northern Ireland, many of whom were Presbyterian and beneficiaries of the Penal Laws system whereby Protestants were elevated in society and Catholics were at the bottom of the pile.

The journey of Catholicism to a more equal footing in society and politics had started in the 1820s with the leadership of Daniel O’Connell, known forever afterwards as The Liberator and the father of “Catholic Emancipation”.

In many ways, the true emancipation of Irish Catholics came with the election of JFK to the Presidency in 1960, copper-fastened by his visit to Ireland in ‘63 and his assassination a few months later, which made him forever young and forever inspirational in the eyes of millions of Irish people all over the world.

Ronald Reagan’s trip to Tipp

Just over two decades on from JFK’s visit to Ireland came another American President in search of his Irish roots: Ronald Reagan, the 40th President, who had been familiar to film-lovers for many years.

While Irish people seem to lean towards the Democrat aisle of American politics, Reagan’s status as a Republican did little to diminish the appeal of his own visit in 1984 — most notably when the President and his entourage stopped off in the tiny village of Ballyporeen, County Tipperary, where President Reagan’s ancestor Michael Regan had been born in 1829 before successive emigrations took him first to London and then on to the US.

An RTÉ live broadcast from the day is well worth watching to witness not just the esteem for President Reagan as he visits the patch of ground where his ancestor had been born a century and a half before, but the appeal that American power in general always holds for Irish people everywhere.


How Joe Biden’s Gaelic football chant satisfied some conspiracy theorists

One of the biggest cheers of Joe Biden’s visit to Ireland in 2023 came at the end of his speech to the gathered crowds in the town of Ballina in County Mayo.

Ballina was the place where one of Biden’s many Irish ancestors, Edward Blewitt, had lived and worked before fleeing the Famine of the 1840s.

And the one thing almost every Irish person knows about Mayo is that the county’s football team has been stricken by a long famine of its own — this time for success in the All-Ireland football championship.

The Mayo football team has consistently been one of the top six or eight teams in the country for decades, but it has been unable to get over the line and lift the trophy, called the Sam Maguire Cup, since 1951. 

That long wait has brought heartbreaking defeat for Mayo in 11 All-Ireland finals since 1989, including six between 2012 and 2021, and led to speculation that a curse had been placed on the county in September 1951 by a vengeful priest when the truck carrying the victorious team failed to stop for a funeral in the small Mayo town of Foxford. “For as long as you all live, Mayo won’t win another All-Ireland,” the priest was held to have said.

Whether it’s urban legend — or, more accurately in this case, rural legend — is a matter for speculation, but one thing that is absolutely undeniable is the fervor with which Mayo people everywhere support the county’s football team. 

Therefore, the chant “Mayo for Sam” — an abbreviation of “Mayo to win the Sam Maguire Cup” — is a well-known one throughout Ireland, so when President Biden finished his Ballina speech with that little cheer, everyone in Ballina and Mayo supporters all over the world (a relatively poor west of Ireland county, it has long had one of the highest rates of emigration of any county in Ireland) went wild.


But conspiracy-minded viewers elsewhere, unfamiliar with this aspect of Irish sporting history, started to wonder: Is Biden sending coded messages now?

One social media user posted:

“So Joe Biden says Mayo for SAM and the crowd in Ireland goes wild because they know it’s code for 'Fighting The Brits' meanwhile he’s trying to disarm USA patriots. So weird, no?”

Others suggested “SAM” was the abbreviation of “surface-to-air missiles” and that Biden was issuing some coded message for warmongers everywhere.

Another went even further, speculating that numerology and devil-worshiping were at play, as the phrase “Mayo for Sam” could be given a value corresponding to the world “devil” in Gematria, a numerological system where words, names or phrases can be given a numerical value.

But no … President Joe Biden was just playing to the crowd: thousands of Mayo people — his fellow Mayo people — who have been starved of success for generations and now hear the world’s most powerful head of state talk their language!

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