Reagan and the about-turn in Irish diplomatic circles

Exploiting the US president’s Irish ancestry helped Ireland retain its influence on Capitol Hill, writes Ryle Dwyer

When Ronald Reagan was elected president of the US in Nov 1980, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin realised it was going to have to adjust its approach to American affairs, because there would be “a distinct reduction in the influence of many of our traditional Democratic Party friends in Congress”. The challenge was met by exploiting Reagan’s Irish ancestry.

There was a certain amount of unrest in the diplomatic arena during 1980 when Haughey tried to replace Seán Donlon as Irish Ambassador in Washington by transferring him to the United Nations. Donlon, who had sought to isolate Irish-American militants, had run foul of organisations like Noraid, the Irish National Caucus, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

Although he had only been appointed to the Washington post in 1978, Donlon had greatly impressed influential Irish-American political figures like the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, senators Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, and Hugh Carey, governor of New York. He had also impressed the former governor of California, Ronald Reagan, who was engaged in his successful bid for the presidency. Faced with such influential opposition, Haughey backed down, and Donlon was left in situ.

Reagan paid a great tribute to Donlon on St Patrick’s Day, 1981, by visiting the Irish Embassy, where Donlon presented him with a unique gift — a detailed scroll of his Irish background. The president was obviously moved and impressed.

The following November, he admitted to the Irish American Historical Society he had been troubled by his lack of knowledge about the background of his father, who had been orphaned at the age of six. Hence, his father knew very little about the family.

“I grew up knowing nothing more beyond him than an old photograph — a single photo that he had of his mother and father, and no knowledge of that family history,” Reagan said. “But, somehow, a funny thing happened to me on the way to Washington. When I changed my line of work about a year ago, it seemed that I became of a certain interest to people in Ireland who very kindly began to fill me in and so I have learned that my great grandfather took off from the village of Ballyporeen in Co Tipperary to come to America, and that isn’t the limit to all that I have learned about that.”

Reagan’s first real break as a movie actor was when he was invited to play one of the leading roles in a biopic of the Notre Dame footballer Knute Rockney. Pat O’Brien played the title role of Rockney.

“I found out in learning about my own heritage going back to Ballyporeen, that, believe it or not, Pat O’Brien’s family came from Ballyporeen.” Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, liked to joke that Reagan’s Irish ancestors “came from Ballyporeen — the valley of the small potato”.

In July 1972 Reagan had visited Ireland as part of a European tour. His last day in the country included a tour of the Rock of Cashel. “I didn’t know at that time it was only 25 miles from Ballyporeen,” he told the Irish American Historical Society.

He was particularly taken by the epitaph on one grave stone in a nearby cemetery:

“Remember me as you pass by,

For as you are, so once was I,

But as I am, you too will be,

So be content to follow me.”

But what really attracted him most were the lines that somebody scribbled beneath:

“To follow you I am content I wish I knew which way you went.”

The president had a distinct memory of his father telling him and his brother with great pride that the Irish built the jails in America and then filled them. “I was a little perturbed even then at that tender age because of the sound of pride in his voice and from the way I had been raised I couldn’t quite understand why that was something to be proud of until I then later learned, which he had never explained to me, that he was referring to the fact that the overwhelming majority of the men wearing the blue of the Police Department in America were of Irish descent.”

Reagan often joked about the White House being public housing. “I am just so grateful that, among the other things that happened when I was allowed to move into public housing, I had a chance finally to learn of the rich heritage that my father had left me.”

During the ensuing months, he survived an assassination attempt after being shot outside a Washington Hotel. “So many of our citizens have family trees with roots in the Emerald Isle,” he told the White House gathering on his second St Patrick’s Day as president.

“This was brought home to me during an unfortunate incident which took place shortly after St Patrick’s Day last year. Outside the Washington Hilton Hotel, some shots rang out and four of us were hit — Thomas Delahunty, a fine police officer who’s with us today and Timothy McCarthy, a member of the Secret Service detail who deliberately placed himself between me and the gunman; and Jim Brady, a friend and trusted adviser. Now, it doesn’t take a genealogist to figure out the ethnic origin of all of us who were wounded.”

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