President Reagan Remembered
From Ballyporeen to the White House, Niall O’Dowd looks at President Reagan’s Irish background and recalls an interview with the President’s brother, Neil.
“Today I come back to you as a descendant of people who were buried here in pauper’s graves.”
Thus did President Ronald Wilson Reagan announce himself when he visited the Irish village of Ballyporeen Co. Tipperary. It was in June of 1984, and it was, perhaps, the President’s most explicit statement on his pride in his ethnicity.
It’s a long way from Ballyporeen to Dixon, Illinois (population 15,700) where Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States, spent his formative years from 1920 to 1929. Though he was born in nearby Tampico in 1911, the years Reagan spent in Dixon shaped the man more thoroughly than any others, he claimed in many interviews throughout his life.
Dixon is a typical Mom and Pop town, deep in the heartland of the Midwest — dusky hot summers, wrenching cold winters, and conservative values that change little with the seasons. During those hot summer nights Ronald Reagan and his brother Neil would often cross the street to O’Malleys’, the home of their best friends, Edward and George O’Malley.
Back in 1984, on the eve of Reagan’s historic trip to Ireland, Ed O’Malley, then 73, and a lawyer in his hometown, recalled his boyhood friend. He was the same age as Ron and Ed’s older brother, George, was the same age as Neil. They had been an inseparable foursome for 10-odd years.
“No, I never thought he’d make President,” he told me. “He was just one of us, an Irish kid growing up on our block.” Actually, Ed remembered Neil as the outgoing one, while Ron would hold back, often staying in to read books in his bedroom.
Over at the O’Malleys’ though, Ron seemed happy. Oftentimes he and Neil would stay over, sleeping together in wicker chairs on the outside porch as the hot Midwestern nights rolled by.
Mrs. O’Malley was Mary MacIntyre, originally from Co. Leitrim. Mr. O’Malley, a first-generation Irish-American, was, in the words of a neighbor, “a great Irish storyteller.”
On the day we spoke Ed recited the tale of Granuaile O’Malley, the pirate queen, who once stood alone against the British Queen Elizabeth. These were the kinds of stories Mr. O’Malley told his children and the neighbors’ kids.
On St. Patrick’s Day the kids would talk about whose parents were the most Irish. Jack Reagan, Ron’s father, would sing Irish ballads and seemed acutely aware of his Irish heritage. “Jack Reagan was certainly the most Irish thing in that household,” O’Malley remembered. “No one could say a bad word about the Irish when he was around, no sir.”
Jack Reagan was remembered as a “black Irishman,” tempestuous, given to drinking bouts, and often out of work in the Depression. But O’Malley confirms that Ron took far more after his mother, a Scotch Presbyterian of strict morality.
Though he may have taken after his mother, President Reagan had more than a passing interest in his Irish roots. On his 73rd birthday, he stopped by to say hello to the neighbors and his childhood friends in Dixon and discovered another Irish family of Reagans living there. “He mentioned to his brother Neil that that they were direct from the old country,” remembered Ed, who unfortunately, was too ill to greet his old chum on that occasion. “He was very interested in finding out more about them.”
The 40th President of the United States also regularly perused articles about his Irish ancestry, often clipping them and sending them to selected friends and relatives around the country. His brother, Neil, who gave me an exclusive interview in 1984, confirmed this habit. He revealed that the President had sent him a photo clipped from an Irish newspaper of a bar in Ballyporeen, which has changed its name to The Ronald Reagan Lounge. “How about that?” an accompanying note ran. “I thought the Irish only honored people when they were dead.”
Neil, by then a retired advertising executive living in San Diego, had long conversations with the President about the family’s Irish roots. He remembered that after his brother’s visit to the “old sod” in the late 1960’s when he was Governor of California, he came back more enthused than ever about the genealogy of the family.
“We had just completed research of our family tree and Ronald and Nancy visited all the places in Tipperary that were the family stomping grounds. He had a whole fund of stories about the people he met,” Neil remembered. On the eve of Reagan’s second visit there, the President told him he “would look on it as one of the highlights of his travels as president.”
Despite his enthusiasm for his Irish roots President Reagan had often gotten them wrong. For years he proudly displayed a coat of arms given to him in his California governor days by an amateur genealogist. Once he discovered it was bogus, a furious Reagan ordered a new coat of arms, this one bearing no references at all to his Irish ancestry.
For years, Reagan proudly referred to his ancestral clan, The O’Regans, as the branch who defended the pass through the Slieve Bloom Mountains in Ireland for 11 centuries. The clan’s motto, “The Hills Forever,” was one often quoted by Reagan. Unfortunately, he had the wrong branch of the family. However, another claim that he was related to the High Kings was true. The O’Regans were once one of the four original tribes of Tara, seat of the high kings.
Unlike John F. Kennedy, the only other President of identifiable Irish Catholic roots, Reagan’s knowledge of Ireland, its history and culture was patchy at best. Though Reagan made reference to “the very rich heritage my father has left me,” the late Charles McCabe an influential San Francisco columnist, once went so far as to speculate that Reagan had deliberately obscured his Irish Catholic roots, deeming them unhelpful in his rise to political power, particularly among his wealthy WASP friends. Reagan took the time to deny the charge, a clear indication that the allegation stung.
Ronald Reagan was very much the product of an emigrant Catholic ethos. He was the great-grandson of Michael Reagan, a poor County Tipperary emigrant who settled in Illinois in 1858. The 1860 census of the town of Fair Haven, Carroll County, Illinois lists Michael Reagan, then 25, and his wife Catherine Mulcahy, five years older and their four children. Michael, a soapmaker in England after leaving the scrub town of Ballyporeen, turned to farming in the Midwest, helped by generous government allowances to settle. His income is reckoned at $1,200 in the same census, a handsome living for the time, especially for an emigrant so lately come to the U.S.
Michael Reagan’s daughter Margaret, married to Iowa shopkeeper Orson Baldwin, was the person who brought up her orphaned nephew, Jack Reagan, Ronald’s father. It was from her that Jack got his conviction and pride in his Irish heritage. The Reagans, in fact, were all raised Catholic until Ron’s generation, when he took his mother’s religion, while his brother Neil kept his father’s Catholic faith.
Jack and Nelle had been married in Fulton, Illinois in 1904 and Ron was born in nearby Tampico in 1911. His brother Neil had been born two years earlier.
The early Irish influences of family and friends were to leave a mark on the young Reagans. Neil became a committed Catholic and the family historian, whose knowledge of his Irish roots and history was far more extensive than the President’s. Ron on the other hand often gravitated towards people of like backgrounds, most notably in his Hollywood days when he became part of the “Irish Mafia” of film stars, counting Pat O’Brien, William Holden, and other Irish-Americans among his closest friends.
Indeed, his Irish-born building contractor who lived in Southern California at the time remembered meeting Reagan at St. Patrick’s Day functions during the 1950’s. “Like a lot of Irish-Americans in Los Angeles at the time, he had not met any native Irish people,” he remembered. “We were sort of exotic creatures then because travel to Ireland was still difficult, not like today.”
Reagan was very curious about Ireland, he recalled, and subsequently several Irish-born people were invited out to the Reagan residence for “Irish” parties. “We would sit around the pool and shoot the breeze,” he remembered, “Ireland would often come up in conversation. Reagan was keen to know all about it.”
Reagan, of course, visited Ireland during a diplomatic mission to Europe he undertook for President Nixon when he was Governor of California. His son Ron remembers Reagan Sr. telling him excitedly about his experiences. At the time it was still not clear where the family roots went back to. (When he was elected President, a branch of the family in Co. Cork tried to claim the roots.) Accompanied by his wife Nancy, Reagan spent considerable time on that trip speaking with genealogists about the background to his family name and where the Reagans might have come from.
When he assumed the Presidency, Reagan, apart from St. Patrick’s Day platitudes, made only one major statement on his interest in things Irish. That was his statement to the New York based American Irish History Society in November of 1981.
There was some controversy before the dinner when Irish Northern Aid, (Noraid), claimed that they had successfully prevailed upon Teddy Gleason, an honoree at the dinner and head of the powerful Longshoreman’s Union to convince Reagan not to launch an all out attack on IRA supporters in the United States as originally planned. Noraid claimed that British and U.S. network TV crews had asked them in advance to prepare responses to the anticipated Reagan assault.
But Reagan’s speech was awash with shillelagh schmaltz, full of dripping anti-quated sentiment about the “Colleen of Ballisodare,” the “wee people,” “top o’ the morning” references, and closing with the hackneyed Irish blessing which begins “May the road rise up to meet you.”
Privately, dinner organizers afterwards admitted they had been hoping for something far better researched and documented but perhaps Reagan steered a clever path through opposing forces, the British and Irish-Americans, and the platitudes covered up a multitude.
The White House denied there was any deviation from the set speech.
Before his trip to Ireland, Reagan’s Irish connections came out publicly when he and then House Speaker Tip O’Neill engaged in periodical Irish joke-telling orgies. Cartoonists, most notably Oliphant in The Washington Post, regularly portrayed them as two Irish fishwives haggling over budgets. O’Neill, interviewed by Irish America in 1986, said “I get along with him all right. We never talk about Ireland. To be perfectly truthful, I see him as someone who forgot his roots, forgot where he came from…”
Less publicly, Reagan continued correspondence with the Irish genealogists who finally set him right on his family background. According to Neil Reagan, the President regularly called him when new information was revealed.
Irrespective of what Ronald Reagan’s real opinions on his Irish roots were, and there is little evidence really to work on, there is no doubt that a visit to the land from whence 40.7 million Irish-Americans had sprung was a good election year ploy.
The 40th President always had an exquisite sense of timing and a trip to Ireland in June, with the election in November, can only have helped his prospects.
The President of the United States, returning, a century and a quarter later, to the land his ancestor Michael Reagan had left in abject poverty in 1858 was a great moment for the millions of Irish-Americans who shared his heritage. Reagan was acutely aware of that.
After the unsuccessful assassination attempt on his life, President Reagan called in the secret service guard Timothy McCarthy who had saved his life by stopping a bullet intended for the President. He read the list of names of those injured on that fateful day, Delahanty, Brady, Reagan, McCarthy. “Do you think he (the shooter, John Hinckley) had something against the Irish?” he asked McCarthy smiling. President Ronald Reagan with his extraordinary gift of the gab, and his humor could certainly count himself among that tribe. ♦
Read Tom Deignan’s article Reagan Democrats, Biden Time, and the Irish Swing Votes from August 2020.