Presidential Visits to Ireland
President Obama’s visit brought the number of U.S. Presidents who have visited Ireland to seven. Tom Deignan looks back at some memorable visits and some that barely registered.
Ollie Hayes runs a cozy pub in Moneygall, County Offaly. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It was at Ollie Hayes Pub, after all, that President Barack Obama tossed back a pint when he visited Ireland back in May.
“My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall Obamas, and I’ve come home to find the apostrophe we lost somewhere along the way,” the president later quipped.
Now that the pomp and circumstance of Obama’s visit is over, a question remains: Will Ollie Hayes follow the precedent set by Ballyporeen publican John O’Farrell? Twenty-seven years earlier, O’Farrell poured a pint for a visiting U.S. president. Ronald Reagan paid a visit to his ancestral village in Tipperary in June of 1984. The visit made such an impression on O’Farrell that he famously changed the name of his pub to The Ronald Reagan. Will Moneygall locals some day drop by The Barack Obama for a pint? Time will tell. What we do know is that Obama’s visit in May was not the first time a U.S. president electrified an audience in Ireland. Seven presidents have paid a visit to the Emerald Isle, each with a story as unique – and at times, as controversial – as the presidents themselves.
Ulysses S. Grant in Ireland
The first president to visit Ireland was no longer president when he arrived in Dublin in 1879. Ulysses S. Grant had dominated the American political scene for well over a decade. By the end of the U.S. Civil War he was Commanding General of the Union Army. Such a prominent role in the military made him a strong candidate for president in 1868, when he defeated Democrat Horatio Seymour, New York’s governor.
Following his two tumultuous terms as president, Grant announced he would be taking a trip around the world. Stops included Germany, China, Russia, Britain – and Ireland.
Grant arrived in Dublin on January 3, 1879 and over the next few days, visited Trinity College, the Royal Irish Academy and the Bank of Ireland. Speaking to a crowd outside of City Hall, Grant said: “I am by birth a citizen of a country where there are more Irishmen, either native born or the descendants of Irishmen, than there are in all of Ireland.”
But Grant’s public embrace of the Irish concealed some disturbing facts. For example, he had sympathized with the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know Nothing movement back in the 1850s. The anti-Catholic label stuck to Grant in Ireland. Catholic members of the Cork City Town Council objected to Grant’s visit, so Grant went to Ulster instead. Historians have speculated that Grant felt more comfortable in the heavily Protestant North.
Nevertheless, as President Grant had voiced support for the Irish Fenians movement, and did visit Pope Leo XIII during his world tour. Grant visited (what he called) Londonderry as well as Belfast, speaking warmly of Ulster’s deep connections to the U.S. Grant’s own roots are in Dungannon, Tyrone, where his great-grandfather left in the 1730s.
Grant, ultimately, was embraced by the Irish, even if the tour he was given tended to conceal the nation’s political and social problems. (Grant later wrote that he saw “no distress and no poverty in Ireland.”) Not long after Grant visited Ireland, a stevedore on the Boston docks was on his way to buying a saloon and becoming an influential ward boss. Little did P.J. Kennedy know that his grandson John would make a famous visit to the Irish village P.J.’s own parents had fled at the height of the Famine.
When John F. Kennedy finally decided to visit his ancestral home in Dunganstown, Co. Wexford in June of 1963, most Irish Americans were thrilled. Not all, however.
“You’ve got all the Irish votes in this country that you’ll ever get,” Kennedy aide Kenny O’Donnell objected. “If you go to Ireland, people will say it’s just a pleasure trip.”
To which Kennedy responded: “That’s exactly what I want!”
Between civil rights and the Cold War, these were tense times for JFK. Right before he visited Ireland, Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech at the Berlin Wall.
JFK’s trip to Ireland in June 1963 is now the stuff of legend. He met with de Valera and was greeted like a rock star. In the weeks leading up to the trip, the humble cottage owned by Mary Kennedy Ryan – a distant relative – had to endure several modest improvements. Concrete was poured in the muck-filled front of the barn and indoor plumbing was installed. (As Kennedy family historian Thomas Maier has noted, though Mrs. Ryan seemed like a quaint rural matriarch, she actually had an active past with the IRA.)
JFK told his distant relatives: “When my great-grandfather came to America and my grandfather was growing up, the Irish Americans had a song about the familiar sign which went: ‘No Irish Need Apply.’” He then said: “In 1960, the American people took the sign down from the last place it was still hanging – the door of the White House.”
In Galway, he added: “If the day was clear enough, and if you went down to the bay and you looked west, and your sight was good enough, you would see Boston, Massachusetts. And if you did, you would see down working on the docks there some Doughertys and Flahertys and Ryans and cousins of yours who have gone to Boston and made good.”
The fact that JFK was assassinated months later only lends a more sentimental glow to this trip. As the Cork Examiner noted at the time: “When John Fitzgerald Kennedy set foot on Irish soil he made a mark on the history of this country that can never be effaced.”
Nixon’s “Forgotten” Visit
Richard Nixon’s trip to Ireland? Not quite so memorable. In fact, a recent documentary about the trip dubbed it “forgotten.”
Nixon went to Ireland to visit the Mayo home of his wife’s ancestors. Nixon also paid respects at the site of his own Irish Quaker ancestors in Kildare. He then stayed in Dublin for three days in October of 1970.
Of course, this was at the height of the Vietnam War, and so protesters greeted Nixon while his motorcade cruised through Dublin. Several even pelted the president’s limo with eggs. But other crowds for Nixon were much more enthusiastic. Journalist Donncha O Dúalaing covered the Nixon visit for RTÉ and heard the speech the president gave in Timahoe, Kildare.
“I remember President Nixon and the speech and being very moved and touched by it and the crowds that were here. I think that what comes back to me today is that Ireland has changed in many ways but in other ways it hasn’t changed at all,” O Dúalaing recently told the Irish Examiner. “I think of the wonder of an American president here talking about Ireland. It was unbelievable.”
Reagan’s Tipperary Roots
If JFK’s visit was about finally taking down the “No Irish Need Apply” signs, the Reagan era allowed Irish Americans to grant themselves a little hard-earned nostalgia.
Reagan himself acknowledged this when he visited Ireland for four days in June, 1984: “I feel like I’m about to drown everyone in a bath of nostalgia.” While in Ireland, Reagan visited the small Tipperary village of Ballyporeen and the church at which his great-grandfather Michael, who left Ireland in the 1850s, was baptized. Though some protesters voiced displeasure at Reagan’s Central American policy and the president’s tight relationship with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher irked some, there was a festive feeling in the air as crowds cheered and a band played the theme from Rocky. Reagan famously visited John O’Farrell’s pub, which later changed its name to The Ronald Reagan.
The facade of that building was later transported to The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, where it still stands. “Of all the honors and gifts that have been afforded me as President, this visit is the one that I will cherish dearly,” Reagan told the crowd in Ballyporeen. “I didn’t know much about my family background – not because of a lack of interest, but because my father was orphaned before he was six years old. And now thanks to you and the efforts of good people who have dug into the history of a poor immigrant family, I know at last whence I came. And this has given my soul a new contentment. And it is a joyous feeling. It is like coming home after a long journey.”
Clinton Makes History
Arguably the most historically significant presidential trip to Ireland was Bill Clinton’s.
The first sitting president to visit the North, Clinton had already made his mark on the Northern Irish peace process by the time he visited in November of 1995. Clinton had angered British diplomats as well as Unionists by granting Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams a visa in 1994. That same year, George Mitchell was tapped as the lead negotiator in the ongoing peace process. The 1990s had already seen nearly 400 deaths as a result of the ongoing Troubles, so President Clinton was by no means intervening in a stable or easy situation. People from both sides of the divide, however, greeted him with wild cheers when he visited both the Shankill and Falls roads.
Perhaps most poignantly, 9-year-old Catherine Hamill told Clinton and his wife, Hillary, how her father’s shooting at the hands of Ulster Freedom Fighters had shattered her life.
After the Clinton visit, the IRA broke its cease-fire with the February 1996 Docklands bombing in London. But the slow, steady march to peace had been set in motion.
Clinton later returned and visited Omagh, the site of a horrific bombing in 1998.
“President Bill Clinton’s domestic legacy, belittled by opponents and tainted by impeachment, will be picked over for years to come,” the BBC has noted. “But few doubt the importance of the role that he played in helping to get Northern Ireland’s divided community to sit down together with the common goal of consigning violence and inequality to the past.”
If there are parallels to JFK’s and Clinton’s historic visits, so, too, are there similarities between Nixon’s and George W. Bush’s.
Wartime tensions were high once again when Bush paid a brief visit to Ireland in June, 2004. Thousands of protesters hit the streets from Cork to Dublin. Then there was Bush’s infamous interview with RTÉ broadcaster Carole Coleman. Bush supporters felt the dogged Irish reporter refused to allow the president to answer her tough questions.
“The interview, broadcast from the White House on Thursday, 24 hours before the president’s visit to Ireland, so displeased President Bush and his advisers that it led to the cancellation of another RTE exclusive… an interview with the president’s wife Laura,” the Irish Independent noted in the wake of the incident.
Given this inauspicious start, it’s not surprising the trip itself was rather banal. Bush arrived in County Clare for the annual EU-US summit, which took place in Dromoland Castle. It is estimated that 7,000 security personnel were on hand guarding Bush and other top officials during the visit, which lasted just 16 hours. Not enough personnel to keep a photographer from snapping a photo of Bush in undershirt, peering out the window of his bedroom at Dromoland that was published in the Irish tabloid newspaper The Star on Sunday despite a government ban.
Bush, however, maintained an interest in Irish affairs. In 2010, he broke his post-presidency diplomatic silence and phoned David Cameron, the leader of the Conservatives in Britain. He made a plea for Cameron to press allies in Northern Ireland to support the ongoing peace process.
Obama’s “Blood Link”
And finally, there is Barack, er, O’Bama. As with JFK, there was something of a “pleasure trip” feel about the president’s May 2011 jaunt. But that does not make Obama’s trip any less historical. As 21st -century Ireland transforms, with its own assimilation of immigrants, it makes perfect sense that Obama would proudly assert his Irish roots – and transform our own conception of what the Irish diaspora looks like.
At the same time, Obama – America’s first black president – firmly reasserted Ireland’s long historic ties to the U.S.
“For the United States,” he said, “Ireland carries a blood link.”