Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, so the saying goes.
The leaves of presidential family trees certainly prove this, especially when the definition is widened to include those popularly known as “Scotch-Irish,” a general term which usually (but not exclusively) defines those of Protestant faiths from Scotland who settled in northern Ireland before immigrating to the United States. Among First Ladies, the likes of Bess Truman, Nellie Taft, Angelica Van Buren, Betty Ford and others have some connection back to Ireland.
One finds far more First Ladies, however, being just a generation or two away from the old sod than one does among the Presidents. And among these women are some of the most legendary of the lot.
Dolley Payne Madison
Dolley Madison is perceived as, first, a Philadelphia Quaker and then, as a southern plantation mistress from the Old Dominion of Virginia. Both are true, but her background is more varied than one might expect.
Her maternal grandfather, William Coles, was born in 1703 in Enniscarthy, Ireland, and immigrated to Virginia in about 1730 with his brother John. Among the grandchildren of his brother John was Patrick Henry. He died in Virginia in 1781.
The Coles family’s Irish origins are actually not far from those of President Kennedy, in Wexford County, on the west side of the Slaney River.
Although the family were well-known Quakers, judging by the region of Ireland it may be that his ancestors were originally Catholic. Certainly Dolley Madison had a strong affinity for those in Washington who were Catholic, making frequent visits to the student body of the prestigious Georgetown Visitation Academy, an elite girls’ school run by Catholic nuns.
Mrs. Madison’s only known remark about this part of her heritage came in passing reference, when she wrote about the French Minister to the U.S., and the physical abuse he inflicted upon his wife.
Mrs. Madison concluded that were she to be so treated that her Irish ancestry “would overcome” her religious training to always be a peaceful Quaker – and she would have socked the guy right back, a play on the stereotype of the “fighting Irish.”
One wonders if her especially sharp resentment of England at the time when British troops converged on Washington may have been more than just her anger at them for burning the White House during the War of 1812.
Might it have been rooted perhaps in a bit of green? There’s a suggestion this might be true.
A full decade before the “redcoats” invaded Washington, D.C. and destroyed the buildings, during the administration of her husband’s predecessor Thomas Jefferson, Dolley Madison conveyed a marked antipathy towards the British Ambassador Anthony Merry and his wife, uncharacteristic of the geniality and diplomatic instincts which made her so famous. She made it her business to be on the front steps of the White House in 1802 with President Jefferson when he reviewed a parade of Irish-American social organizations on St. Patrick’s Day and hosted a reception for the “Friendly Sons of Ireland.”
Jane Means Appleton Pierce
If there’s any truth to there being a dark brooding inherent in the culture of an island nation where generations of the Irish had their native language, poetry and music suppressed by England, then Jane Pierce was certainly socialized with that dubious inheritance.
Like Jacqueline Kennedy and Pat Nixon, Jane Pierce was half Irish-American in heritage. Her father’s father was Robert Maynes, born about 1742 in Ireland, in Stewartstown, County Tyrone.
A weaver by trade, he landed in Boston in 1766, transporting his loom across the ocean. Upon registering in the new land, the family name was somehow changed to Means.
With his friend from Ireland Jacob McGaw, a fellow weaver, Robert Means established a successful business producing Irish cloth.
Eventually settling in Amherst, New Hampshire, Means opened his own thriving business and constructed a prominent home in the growing town. It was in that house, recently restored, where his granddaughter Jane would marry the future President, Franklin Pierce.
Her grandmother Mary McGregor was born in Amherst in 1752, the daughter of Irish immigrant parents David and Mary Boyd, who came to the colonies in about 1718.
The First Lady’s McGregor roots were in County Derry, Ireland but her grandmother’s family was Scottish in origin, of the Presbyterian faith.
The daughter of a minister, Mary McGregor Means was severe in her moral code and insisted that every member of her family adhere to it.
When one of Mrs. Pierce’s uncles ended up fathering a child out of wedlock, her grandmother never forgave or ever again acknowledged him, showing no grief when she learned of his death.
With the same aristocratic surname as that of the distant cousin she married, Eleanor Roosevelt was always perceived as the descendant in a long line reaching back to the first Dutch settlers in the New Amsterdam colony or by her counting the distinguished chancellor of New York, Robert Livingston as an ancestor.
Yet Eleanor Roosevelt took pride in the fact that her maternal grandfather Valentine Hall was the son of immigrants from Ireland.
Some sources suggest that he was born there in 1834, but brought to the United States as a small child. It is known that his father and mother Valentine Gill Hall, Sr. and Susan Tonnelle were born there, in 1797 and 1812, respectively, but it is unknown what county they hailed from. Upon arriving in New York, they settled in Brooklyn.
In her memoirs, she cheekily recalled how, despite the great wealth the family managed to accumulate, they persisted in a custom of the “old country,” of stuffing cash into bed mattresses and clothing bureau drawers.
Orphaned at an early age, Eleanor Roosevelt was initially raised by her grandmother at her family estate on the Hudson River, Tivoli. It was this grandmother’s Livingston ancestry which was always emphasized to her as a child. What little is known about her Irish grandfather, however, comes as family lore directly from the First Lady herself.
After her husband had won his second and what at the time was presumed to be his last, term in office, Eleanor Roosevelt felt freer to reflect on her personal life in a public way. She wrote and had published in 1937 the first of what proved to be a three-volume autobiography, entitled This Is My Story.
As she told it, when her grandfather needed more money to finish building his mansion in Tivoli, he approached his mother. She went to a wardrobe and rummaged around, returning with “a few thousand dollars” in cash. Mrs. Roosevelt attributed it to the woman’s immigrant story:
“Because in Ireland it would be perfectly normal to keep your belongs in whatever was the most secret place in your little house. You would not deposit them in a bank, and this was what…my great-grandmother evidently had carried into the new world and proceeded to do.”
She added that since her own grandfather Hall and his brother “never added to the fortune but both of them seemed well provided for, I think, it is safe to say that the original immigrant great-grandfather must have made a considerable fortune.”
During World War II, when she became the first First Lady to travel overseas during her incumbency, to visit U.S. troops stationed in the British Isles, the small aircraft of this recognizable world figure first touched ground after crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a farm field in Ireland.
Emerging from the plane, she was greeted in rural brogues with what was, by then, familiar astonishment at her unexpected appearance in the most unlikely of places, “For gosh sakes, it’s Mrs. Roosevelt!”
Apart from her Irish heritage, St. Patrick’s Day had a greater emotional significance for Eleanor Roosevelt. It was on that day in 1906, when her uncle President Theodore Roosevelt (who, being her parental uncle was not of Irish ancestry) came to New York to both review the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and to give away his niece in marriage to her distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In his 1937 St. Patrick’s Day remarks, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recalled his wedding day and the Irish holiday:
I have a particular tenderness for St. Patrick’s Day for, as some of you know, it was on the seventeenth of March, 1905, that a Roosevelt wedding took place in New York City with the accompaniment of bands playing their way up Fifth Avenue to the tune of “The Wearin’ of the Green.” On that occasion New York had two great attractions—the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and President Theodore Roosevelt, who had come from Washington to give the bride away. I might add that it was wholly natural and logical that in the spotlight of these two simultaneous attractions the bride and the bridegroom were almost entirely overlooked and left in the background.
Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis
With her Bouvier maiden name, Mediterranean complexion, and faculty with the French language and France’s history, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was untroubled by media reports during her husband’s 1960 presidential campaign suggesting she was but a few generations from the exquisite salons of Paris.
Only one of her great-grandparents had French ancestors, but four were actually born in Ireland.
Jacqueline Kennedy’s mother, born as Janet Norton Lee, was entirely Irish-American. Her father James “Jim” Thomas Lee and mother Margaret Merritt were the children of impoverished immigrants who had all come from Cork, Ireland during the 1840s potato famine.
While working as a New York City public school superintendent, Jim Lee put himself through City College of New York, and then Columbia University. He went into banking and worked intensely hard, rising quickly to become a Chase Manhattan Bank president.
The reality of early 20th century American life, however, was that even great wealth could not trump bigotry if those seeking the social status of the elite class were deemed to be from “undesirable” background. Despite their great strides in politics and business by the 1920s, most Irish-Americans were still perceived by the Anglo-Protestant majority through the prism of ugly stereotypes about them, in place for nearly a century.
Early on, the story goes, a cooperative board refused to approve Jim Lee’s application to purchase a luxury apartment for his family’s residency. The reason for doing so was left unstated, but he apparently presumed it was because of his Irish parentage.
Undaunted, the young millionaire decided to build his own, at 740 Park Avenue. He went on to become one of the city’s most legendary developers of high-end residential apartment buildings.
When he first leased a summer house in the exclusive summer colony of East Hampton, however, Lee determined to, at all costs, protect his three daughters from the trauma of racial bigotry. Having a surname which could be considered as much British as it was Irish allowed the family to “pass” for Anglo, a suggestion he encouraged by leaving questions about his background unanswered.
Janet Lee went further than her father. She did not merely deny being Irish, she forged a new identity.
During her brief residency in Virginia while enrolled at Sweetbriar College, she began using the technical truth that she was “a Lee of Virginia,”referencing the state’s most prestigious clan in coded phrase familiar to the elite class.
Beyond a desire to distance herself from stereotypes, however, Janet Lee had what one relative termed a “repulsion” for the “wearing o’ the green” by working-class Irish-Americans on St. Patrick’s Day. If striving to avoid social ostracization was understandable, Janet’s denial of her Irish heritage led her to make a demand which reflected a sad, but not uncommon sense of shame.
Whenever Janet Lee’s upper-class friends entered the family households in East Hampton or on Park Avenue, the stout, elderly maid who still spoke with the brogue of her native Ireland, was immediately sent upstairs and ordered to remain out of sight until the visitors had left. Maria Curry, however, was not a maid.
She was Janet’s grandmother.
Despite her mother’s distortions, Jackie Kennedy’s natural curiosity soon enough compelled her to explore Ireland. At what point she learned the truth about her heritage is unclear but in the summer of 1950, just after her year of study in Paris ended, she went with her stepbrother Yusha to explore his paternal heritage in Scotland and her own in Ireland.
In Dublin, she forged an intensely close friendship with a priest, Father Joseph Leonard. A friend of Yusha’s uncle, the priest retrieved them at the airport and guided them to sights in the small country. The trip provoked a lifelong passion in her for Irish history. The itinerary included kissing the Blarney stone, as well as a a stop in Cork, where her great-grandparents had come.
If her 1950 trip gave Jackie Bouvier an initial intellectual connection to Ireland, it was under the guise of being a wife devoted to the same interests as her husband John Fitzgerald Kennedy that she was able to more emotionally relate to it. She seemed to have felt the need to do so in an essentially subversive manner, avoiding any overt confrontation about the matter with her mother and grandfather.
Unlike the Lees, the Kennedys fully embraced their Irish heritage with pride. John F. Kennedy’s love of Ireland and pride in his heritage was a trait Jackie found especially endearing about her husband following their only trip there together, in 1955.
Biographers have always presumed that Jim Lee’s overt dislike of the Kennedys was rooted in his disapproval of Joe Kennedy’s business practices. While Jackie’s grandfather dutifully appeared at important family functions, like her wedding and the christening of her first child, it was noted that he didn’t directly interact with the Kennedys. One can certainly imagine that their Irish pride and his disavowal of the same heritage may have made his uncomfortable in their presence.
Pregnant and unable to join President Kennedy during his famous trip to Ireland in June of 1963, Jackie treated the gifts he returned with from there with especial reverence, like a silver goblet which she kept filled with flowers in the Oval Office.
Her absence from JFK’s trip to Ireland was something Jacqueline Kennedy long lamented “Tell Jackie about Ireland,” he repeatedly instructed his aide Dave Powers, trying to give her as full a sense of how much it had meant to him.
Officially, Jackie later stated, it was to give a sense of their father’s connection to Ireland that she took them on a trip there in June of 1967. While there, they visited with his second cousins at the original family homestead, rode horses in the green countryside and went swimming in the Irish Channel.
She returned from Ireland, she said, with the fullest sense ever of what it “meant to be Irish.” Said seemingly as an intensely sentimental reference to the husband who’s absence she still grieved deeply, it also seemed to provide her with enough courage to finally confront Janet about the truth of her heritage.
By sarcastically pointing out the fact that right through the city of Cork there runs the Lee River, however, Jackie provoked her mother into an especially enraged denial that she was Irish and even to attempt to slap her daughter’s face, a move Jackie thwarted.
The escalation stopped only when Jackie’s stepfather quipped that he’d always assumed his wife was “a Lee of Shanghai.”
Here is a news clip of Jacqueline Kennedy’s June 15, 1967 return arrival in Ireland, including some rare public remarks she made at Shannon Airport about the “land my husband loved so much,” and her hope that she and her children would return many times:
Pat Ryan Nixon
To date, Pat Nixon has been the only incumbent First Lady who visited Ireland as a sentimental return to the land of her ancestors.
And none have embraced their Irish heritage as publicly as she did.
In October of 1970, she helicoptered into County Mayo’s Ballinrobe parish, a town on Ireland’s west coast, north of Galway.
It was from there that her parental grandparents Patrick Sarsfield Ryan and Catherine McHugh left to immigrate and eventually settle in Connecticut.
Born in 1834, Patrick Ryan was nineteen years old when he arrived through Savannah, Georgia, becoming a naturalized citizen a year later.
He migrated to Danbury, Connecticut, where others from his county parish, like Catherine McHigh, had also settled, finding work there in a hat factory.
They married four years after he came to America.
One of their sons, William Ryan, born in Connecticut in 1866, was Pat Nixon’s father.
Will Ryan’s daughter was born as Thelma Catherine on March 16, 1912 just a few hours before St. Patrick’s Day, so he proudly dubbed her his “St. Patrick’s babe in the morning,” and nicknamed her Pat.
Especially close to her father, his death in 1930 not only left her without any parents but the one person who unconditionally had loved, supported and believed in her.
After that, she was truly on her own, at age 18 years old in the midst of the Great Depression.
She would never forget him, and to honor his love for her, she dropped her given name and began calling herself Patricia, or more often just Pat.
In 1970, as the West Wing scheduled the President’s tour of several European nations for that autumn, they included a stop in Ireland from which some of his ancestors had immigrated to the American colonies. Without first seeking her permission, they also devised a side trip itinerary for the First Lady.
When she learned that they’d arranged a “family reunion” between her and her father’s relatives who’d never left County Mayo, she felt “discomfort,” fearing that expectations of her having to embrace strangers, despite their blood relation, would suggest “artificiality.”
As her helicopter alighted in a bright green field, Pat Nixon was greeted with a Galway boys brass band, an Irish crystal vase, a traditional Irish dancing demonstration and, as always, armloads of flowers.
During her Sunday morning and afternoon in Mayo, Pat met about two dozen of her father’s first cousins and their children, who’d never left Ireland, with surnames of Naughton, Fahey, Cusack, McTigue, Cunningham, and Walsh.
A reception was held for her in the Robeen church where her great-grandparents had married and she stopped to see their cemetery gravestones, followed by an excursion to their Kilvindoney sod homestead and her grandfather’s Hollymount childhood home.
The visit concluded with a stop at nearby Ashford Castle, where a luncheon was served to the extended Ryan and McHugh clans.
With a link to Ireland of only two generations, her visit swelled an emotional pride among the crowds that made the effort to see her in the sparse, rural parishes of the county, many referring to her as “Queen of America.”
The crowds were openly affectionate towards her, reaching out to clasp her hand, offering especially heartfelt words in affectionate support of her as a “daughter of Ireland.”
The First Lady, who had felt the need to keep buried so much about her early life when hardship fell upon her following her beloved father’s death, found the simplicity of the visit and the warmth of the townspeople refreshing and affecting.
Two years later, during her husband’s campaign for a second term, she told reporter Helen Thomas that the trip was among her most poignant moments of her tenure as First Lady to that point.
“It lingers with me still,” she observed.
Americans first learned of Mrs. Nixon’s heritage, however, nearly two decades before her trip to Ireland.
During Richard Nixon’s 1952 televised speech as Republican Vice Presidential candidate defending himself against charges of using campaign funds for personal use, he referenced his wife’s heritage as a political attribute.
Here is a clip of his remark:
Some later accused Nixon of lying, since Pat Nixon was born in the final hours of March sixteenth, not the seventeenth. He may not have known this for, In fact, just after her father’s death, his daughter not only changed her name to Pat but began celebrating her birthday on the annual holiday which had meant so much to the Irish.
Among the six St. Patrick’s Day birthdays Pat Nixon celebrated in the White House, the most publicly notable one took place on the day before, on March 16, 1971.
That night, the Nixons hosted the first White House state dinner ever to honor a Prime Minister of Ireland.
Following the dinner, she scheduled one of her “Evenings at the White House,” a series of special entertainments she initiated.
The performances that night was “Mise Eire,” (“I am Ireland”), the story of Ireland as told through traditional Irish drama, music and dance by the Shannon Castle Entertainers, who performed for the Nixons five months earlier in Ireland. And too, there was cake and song for Pat Nixon’s birthday.
That night also turned out to have special meaning for the First Family.
That night it was officially announced that First Daughter Tricia Nixon was engaged to marry Edward F. Cox; their White House Rose Garden wedding took place three months later.
Within this film made about Tricia Nixon’s White House wedding in June of 1971, is a clip of the Irish performers and then the announcement of the Nixon daughter’s engagement. It comes on at 1:36 and lasts for two minutes:
Michelle Robinson Obama
Recent documentation into the ancestry of the current First Lady Michelle Obama shows she counts forebearers from both Africa and Ireland.
Cast upon this family tree, however, is a truth mitigating any surprised delight that many Black Americans may experience in discovering a dual heritage: one of her white ancestors held one of her back ancestors as an enslaved person.
Among the First Lady’s known Irish ancestors is her great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Andrew Shields. He fought in the American Revolution against the tyranny of Great Britain, but it is unknown what county in Ireland from which he immigrated to the American colonies. Many have guessed that he came from one of the northern Ireland counties and was a Protestant since this demographic composed the great majority of those Irish immigrants who settled where he did, in South Carolina.
Andrew’s grandson, Henry Shields owned a cotton, corn and sweet potato farm in Clayton County, Georgia. After inheriting a young South Carolina woman who was an enslaved African-American by the name of Melvinia, he had her transported to work on his Georgia farm. She and Henry’s son, Charles Shields went on to have several children together, including a son Dolphus. Of half-African and half-Irish ancestry, Dolphus Shields is the First Lady’s great-great grandfather.
What remains unclear, and may never be fully answered, is whether Melvinia Shields became pregnant by consent or by rape.
To what degree of detail Mrs. Obama knew about this at the time she became First Lady, is not known, but the new, in-depth research by genealogist Megan Smolenyak was first publicly disseminated in the 2012 book American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, authored by New York Times reporter Rachel L. Swarms.
The First Lady has not publicly spoken about the findings, but may well do so in the context of her post-White House memoir, a venue offering an opportunity for a more sensitive and nuanced context for her reaction to it.
In that spirit adopted by so many White House residents, among the many different American heritages celebrated with White House social events which Michelle Obama has hosted, her first such event was a large St. Patrick’s Day party, in 2009.
And while her own family’s Irish heritage carries the horrific truth of slavery, the First Lady has taken an exuberant interest in the Irish ancestry of her husband, through her mother-in-law’s Kansas family.