It’s great. With our international reputation as warm, friendly people who write great literature and make wonderful music and never riot at sporting events, having some Irish blood is a boast.
We are all Irish, to some degree — for every Irish person that lives in Ireland, there are apparently 15 of us elsewhere — the Irish diaspora is estimated at 100m people. Over centuries, we fly away, land somewhere else, and spread our Irishness around — my personal contribution to the diaspora is two children whose ethnic heritage is British-born Irish South African Indian. Or, on application forms, ‘other’.
St Patrick’s Day brings out the Paddy in everyone, even in people who may be physically the opposite of red hair and freckles. Like singer Rihanna, from Barbados, who scandalised a Northern Irish farmer by getting her kit off in his field. But that’s not Rihanna’s only Irish connection. Her father, Ronald Fenty, is of Irish descent — when Cromwell invaded Ireland 400 years ago, he banished up to 50,000 Irish people to Barbados, where they were worked as slaves and had families with local people. In amongst Rihanna’s Afro-Guyanese and Caribbean blood, there is also a drop of green stuff.
The same is true of US President Barack Obama, whom we were delighted to discover ‘originally’ — well, a long time ago — hailed from Moneygall, on the border of Offaly and Tipperary. Moneygall is the Anglicised version of Muine Gall, which apparently means ‘foreigner’s thicket’ (thanks, Wikipedia), although Obama’s great great great grandfather was not a foreigner at all, but the son of the village shoe-maker. Falmouth Kearney, despite his un-Irish first name, was a local who left Moneygall for the US in 1850.
In 19th century America, Irish and African Americans were the ethnic groups most likely to intermarry — 111 years later, Obama was born.
A surprising number of Obama’s predecessors also had Irish roots. The Republican US president, Ronald Reagan, famously visited Ballyporeen (population 304), also in Tipperary, in 1984; this was the birthplace of his great grandfather, Michael Regan, who later changed the spelling of his surname, and left the village for London around 1850, before travelling on to America in 1857.
11 US presidents, or one quarter of them, have had Irish ancestry, including, perhaps most famously, John F Kennedy, but also Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Woodrow Wilson, William McKinley, Ulysses S Grant, James Buchanan, James K Polk and Andrew Jackson.
Most of them are dead, and therefore not terribly interesting. Obviously, we have some famous Hollywood stars who are Irish-born — Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Gabriel Byrne, the fabulous Daniel Day Lewis — but what about famous, living people with Irish connections? If you interpret ancestry loosely, half of America has Irish roots, from Johnny Depp to the Jonas Brothers, their Irishness mixed up in a Heinz 57 genealogy of German, English, Jewish, French, Cherokee, Icelandic, whatever. It can all get a bit vague.
Many celebrities have straightforward Irish roots. Kenneth Branagh was born in Belfast, Peter O’Toole in Connemara. Denis Leary, Sean Penn, Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton, Alec Baldwin, Kathy Bates, and Kevin Costner all claim Irish ancestry. Stars with Irish grandfathers include Mariah Carey, Grace Kelly and Eddie Murphy.
Olivia Wilde was born Olivia Cockburn and has dual Irish and American citizenship, and the mother of Hollywood’s favourite car crash, Lindsay Lohan, is named Dina Sullivan. Ashton Kutcher is formerly Mr Demi Moore and currently ‘Mr Mila Kunis’, but his mother is named Diane Finnegan. Michael Fassbender, recently the star of Turner Prize artist Steve McQueen’s emotionally gripping film, Shame, about sex addiction, used to be an altar boy in Killarney.
Ben Stiller is half-Jewish half-Irish, as is Alyson Hannigan, of American Pie and Buffy fame, and television presenter Conan O’Brien, who looks like a leprechaun in human form, has Kerry heritage.
George Clooney, all smouldering Italian eyes and fondness for Nespresso, is the great great grandson of Nicholas and Bridget Clooney, from Co Kilkenny. Macaulay Culkin, whose brothers are called Rory and Kieran, also has Irish connections, as do John and Joan Cusack, Matt Dillon, and Charlie Sheen, whose great grandmother was from Co Tipperary.
To list them all would use up the rest of this newspaper — there are hundreds of American movie stars of Irish descent, from the obvious (John C Reilly, Lara Flynn Boyle) to the less so (Steve Buscemi, Mark Wahlberg, Robert de Niro).
Just as America is full of Irish blood, so, too, is Britain. Piers Morgan, a mega-star in the US while loathed in the UK, has a father from Offaly. While some famous Brits are clearly of Irish descent — Noel and Liam Gallagher from Oasis, Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney, professional alcoholic Shane McGowan, professional addict Pete Doherty — some Irish roots are less in-your-face.
Like Boy George, the glamorous son of an Irish builder. Or David Bowie, the man who changed the world in the early 1970s with his unforgettable Top of the Pops appearances as Ziggy Stardust, and the focus of a major V&A retrospective next month — Bowie was from Brixton and his mother was named Mary Margaret Burns. The two main Beatles, like Oasis decades later, had Irish roots — John Lennon and Paul McCartney each had an Irish grandparent and supported Irish political independence; McCartney wrote ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’.
The seminal ’80s band, The Smiths, from rainy Manchester, were known to be ‘more Irish than U2’; the four band members’ surnames were Morrissey, Marr (changed from Maher), Joyce and Rourke. The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten was born John Lydon to Irish working-class parents in Finsbury Park, as he vividly describes in his autobiography No Blacks No Irish No Dogs.
Siobhan Fahey, from the pop band, Bananrama, and later Shakespeare’s Sister, was born in Dublin, and Elvis Costello’s real name is Declan Aloysius Patrick McManus. Sonic terrorist Aphex Twin was born in Limerick, and Suede’s Bernard Butler comes from an Irish family.
The ethereal, other-worldly Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons, has family in Donegal and spent childhood holidays there. Even Kylie, the pocket-sized pop icon from Melbourne, is the daughter of an accountant of Irish ancestry. We are everywhere.
All that talent, spreading out from a small island on the edge of Western Europe.
It’s enough to make you feel insufferably smug when you think about it. Happy St Patrick’s Day.