St. Patrick's Day: Quick, which US president was most Irish?

American presidents often play up their Irish heritage – however distant that may be – to attract votes. But who is the 'most Irish' president? It may not be who you think.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File
On St. Patrick's Day last year, House Speaker John Boehner, President Obama, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, and Rep. Peter King depart the annual Friends of Ireland St. Patrick's Day luncheon at the US Capitol in Washington.

With St. Patrick’s Day upon us, this question comes to mind: Who’s the most Irish US president?

OK, “most Irish” isn’t exactly a scientific category. And lots of presidents claim ties to the Emerald Isle, including President Obama, who visited his ancestral home in Moneygall, County Offaly, last year.

But the answer is obvious. He’s a Democrat. He’s often included in historians’ lists of the Top 10 US chief executives. And he isn’t who you think.

Presidents play up Irish heritage for one big reason: votes. About 12 percent of the US population considers itself of Irish descent, according to census data. 

The days of Irish control of big cities are long past. But pockets of Irish political strength remain in Boston, Philadelphia, and other metro areas. Irish heritage is so widespread in the United States that in some ways a little wearing of the green emphasizes a politician’s American heritage.

That’s why Mr. Obama is hosting his Irish eighth cousin at the White House this year. It’s why Bill Clinton threw a St. Patrick’s party that ended with a line dance to “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” It’s why Richard Nixon once considered leading a St. Patrick’s Day parade – in Dublin.

Ten US presidents had fairly direct ties to Ireland, while more than 22 have Irish progenitors – however distant – on their family trees. Ronald Reagan loved to get together with House Speaker Tip O’Neill for a little Irish-themed humor. (Sample Reagan joke: “My father told me that the Irish built the jails in this country – then proceeded to fill them.”) However, Reagan was only moderately Irish; his great-grandparents on his father’s side had come to the US from County Tipperary.

Then there was John Kennedy. He’s the one you picked as “most Irish,” right? Wrong. You have to go back to Kennedy’s great-grandparents to find ancestors who were Irish-born.

Our pick? Andrew Jackson. Old Hickory was a founder of the modern Democratic Party and a fierce supporter of individual rights (except for native Americans). He is the only president whose parents were both born in Ireland. They left County Antrim for the New World in 1765, two years before Andrew was born.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to St. Patrick's Day: Quick, which US president was most Irish?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today