Irish American Political Leaders

For centuries, the Irish lived as a conquered people in their own nation. Britain controlled the politics, economics and religious life of Ireland. Subjugation and strife gave rise to an unmistakable Irish identity: a sense of cohesion and an ability to organize to accomplish goals.

Their organizational ability coupled with the large number of Irish living in U.S. cities, made the Irish a powerful political force. They literally transformed politics in American cities by putting local power in the hands of men of working-class origin. Building on principles of loyalty to the individual and the organization, they built powerful political machines capable of getting the vote. Though some were remembered most for their perceived corruption, these political machines created social services long before they were politically mandated by national political movements.

Irish American political clout led to increased opportunities for Irish Americans. Looking out for their own, the political machines made it possible for the Irish to get jobs, to deal with naturalization issues, even to get food or heating fuel in emergencies. The political machines also rewarded their own through political appointments.

Despite the competition for jobs, many Irish immigrants supported and became leaders of union efforts. New Deal appointments a decade later enabled Irish politicians to gain the national spotlight through judgeships and other federal positions. These appointments served as precursors to the future success of Irish American elected leaders, the most impactful being President John F. Kennedy. In fact, 37 percent (17 of 45) of all the presidents of the United States have had some ancestral or direct tie to Irish heritage.

(Adapted from https://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/irish7.html)

Legacy Stories from the Americans All Heritage Honor Roll

We are pleased to host and share these legacy stories created by honorees’ family, friends and associates. They, like us, appreciate that heritage and culture are an integral part of our nation's social fabric and want to help students participate effectively in our nation's economy, workforce and democracy.

Language
State
Last Name of Individual
First Name of Individual
Group name

Honorable Brendan Francis Boyle Pennsylvania (February 6, 1977 - ?) Irish, Ireland, Catholic, AOH, Politician, US Congressman

Brendan Francis Boyle, born February 6, 1977 in the Olney neighborhood of Philadelphia, PA, is a Democratic member of the U.S House of Representatives. representing, since 2019, Pennsylvania's 2nd Congressional District. This district includes most of the northeastern fourth of Philadelphia. From 2015-19, he represented the 13th district. Prior to that, he was a member of the PA House of Representatives . . . 

Honorable Richard Joseph Daley Illinois (May 15, 1902 - December 20, 1976) Irish, Catholic, Illinois State Senator, Mayor of Chicago, Politician

Richard Joseph Daley was a six-term mayor of the city of Chicago (1955-1976) and the influential chair of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee from 1953 until his death in 1976. Described by one writer as “the most powerful local politician America has ever produced,” Daley also wielded state and national political influence during his terms in office.

Honorable Jefferson Finis Davis Mississippi (June 3, 1808 - December 6, 1889) Scottish-Irish, Veteran, Politician, U.S. Congress, Mexican War, U.S. Secretary of War,  President of the Confederate States of America

Jefferson Davis’ life includes being a West Point graduate, a U.S. Representative and Senator, a Mexican War hero and a U.S. Secretary of War.  He also served as the only President of the Confederate States of America for which he was indicted for treason—but never tried—and imprisoned for two years. On October 17, 1978, a joint resolution passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Jimmy Carter restored Davis' citizenship, effective December 25, 1868.

James Duane New York (February 6, 1773 - February 1, 1797) Irish, Ireland, Lawyer, Jurist, Revolutionary War

During the American Revolution, New York was totally destroyed and was rebuilt by the son of an immigrant from Co. Galway, Ireland. He was the first post-colonial person to wear the title ‘Mayor of New York’ and his name was James Duane. He was born in New York, then called the Province of New York, to Irish immigrant parents on February 6, 1733; a time when the Central Park was considered ‘upstate’ and a wilderness.  

Sam Houston Texas (March 2, 1793 - July 26, 1863) Irish, Ireland, Catholic, Houston, Veteran, Politician

Sam Houston was born on March 2, 1793, the fifth child of Samuel and Elizabeth (Paxton) Houston, Rockbridge County, Virginia. He was of Scots-Irish ancestry and reared Presbyterian. His father died when he was thirteen, and in the spring of 1807, he emigrated with his mother, five brothers, and three sisters to Blount County in Eastern Tennessee, establishing a farm near Maryville.

Honorable John Fitzgerald "Jack" Kennedy Massachusetts (May 29, 1917 - November 22, 1963) Irish, Catholic, Ireland, Politician, Author, War Hero, President of the U.S.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was named in honor of his mother Rose’s father, John Francis Fitzgerald, the Boston Mayor popularly known as Honey Fitz. Before long, family and friends called this small blue-eyed baby, Jack. He was not a very healthy baby, and Rose recorded on his notecard [which she kept for each child] the childhood diseases from which he suffered, such as: "whooping cough, measles, chicken pox."

Honorable Robert Francis "Bobby" Kennedy Massachusetts (November 20, 1925 - June 6, 1968) Irish, Catholic, Ireland, Politician, U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Senator

Robert Francis Kennedy was born on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts, the seventh child in the closely knit and competitive family of Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy. "I was the seventh of nine children," he later recalled, "and when you come from that far down you have to struggle to survive."

Honorable Edward Moore "Teddy" Kennedy Massachusetts (February 22, 1932 - August 25, 2009) Irish, Catholic. Ireland, Politician, U.S. Senator

Edward M. Kennedy, born February 22, 1932, to Joseph Patrick and Rose (Fitzgerald) Kennedy in Boston, MA., was, at his death, the third longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate in American history, having been elected to the Senate nine times. He called health care “the cause of my life,” and succeeded in bringing quality and affordable health care for countless Americans, including children, seniors and Americans with disabilities.

Honorable John Fitzgerald "Jack" Kennedy: Presidential Years Massachusetts (May 29, 1917 - November 22, 1963) Irish, Catholic, Ireland, Politician, War Hero, Author, Member of Congress, President of the U.S.

John Fitzgerald "Jack" Kennedy, often referred to by his initials JFK was an American War hero, served as a Democratic member of the U.S. House and Senate and then elected as the 35th president of the United States, serving from January 1961 until his assassination in November 1963. He was the author of three books, A Nation of Immigrants, Profiles in Courage and Why England Slept.

Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy Wisconsin (November 14, 1908 - May 2, 1957) Irish, Catholic, Ireland, Politician, U.S. Senator

Early summer, 1954, was a heady time in Washington D.C. In the weeks following the historic Supreme Court ruling against segregation in public schools, the anti-communism crusade of Irish American Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy began to unravel. Ten days after the dramatic humiliation of McCarthy on national television, U.S. Senator Lester C. Hunt shot himself—one victim of McCarthy’s witch-hunt.

Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy: Appleton's Hometown (Anti) Hero Wisconsin (November 14, 1908 - May 2, 1957) U.S. Senator

Jerald Podair, professor of history and the Robert S. French Professor of American Studies at Lawrence University, became interested in Joseph McCarthy in 1998 when he moved to McCarthy’s hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin. His views McCarthy’s story as a paradoxical mix of American triumph and tragedy began at that point. This presentation, titled  Joseph McCarthy: Appleton's Hometown (Anti) Hero, was made to the Appleton Historical Society, September 12, 2018.

Robert S. McNamara District of Columbia (June 9, 1916 - July 6, 2009) Irish, Ireland, Businessman, U.S. Secretary of Defense

Defense issues, including the missile gap, played a prominent role in the campaign of 1960. President-elect John F. Kennedy, very much concerned with defense matters although lacking former President Dwight D. Eisenhower's mastery of the issues, first offered the post of secretary of defense to former secretary Robert A. Lovett. When Lovett declined, Kennedy chose Robert S. McNamara on Lovett's recommendation.

Honorable Sandra Day Day O'Connor Arizona (March 26, 1930 - ?) Episcopalian, Attorney, Author, U.S. Supreme Court Justice

From Triumph To Tragedy, 'First' Tells Story Of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Late last year, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor issued a statement announcing that she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. It was a poignant moment, a reminder that for decades O'Connor was seen as the most powerful woman in America. Now comes an important book about her . . .

Honorable Sandra Day O'Connor Arizona (March 26, 1930 - ?) Episcopalian, Attorney, Author, U.S. Supreme Court Justice

At a party at her Arizona home in 1981, a middle-aged Sandra Day O’Connor, ever the consummate hostess, served enchiladas poolside with good cheer. But when she greeted a friend of her son who was soon to begin a clerkship for Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, her mood shifted. As Evan Thomas describes the scene in “First,” his illuminating and eminently readable biography of the Supreme Court’s first female justice . . .

Honorable Ronald Wilson Reagan: Life Before Politics California (February 6, 1911 - June 5, 2004) Irish Catholic, Ireland, Scotland, Veteran, Actor, Politician, Governor of California, President of the U.S.

On February 6, 1911, Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois in a five-room apartment on the main street. Like most homes in town, it did not have running water or an indoor toilet. In addition to the main street, the town had a population of 820, a railroad station, two or three churches and a couple of stores.

Honorable Ronald Wilson Reagan: Political Career California (February 6, 1911 - June 5, 2004) Irish Catholic, Ireland, Scotland, Veteran, Actor, Politician, Governor of California, President of the U.S.

As a result of his travels on behalf of General Electric (who had hired him as a home office goodwill ambassador), he became convinced that big business was not the problem in the economy, it was big government. As a result, more Republican groups began to extend him speaking invitations. In the fall of 1962, he officially joined the Republican party. In 1964, he acted in his final film, playing a villain for the first and only time in “The Killers.”

Charles Thomson Pennsylvania (November 29, 1729 - August 16, 1824) Irish, Ireland, Politician, Revolutionary War, Designer

The name of Charles Thomson is not as familiar today as it was in the early days of America when it was widely known and respected. Born in County Derry, Ireland, Thomson was one of the most influential men of the entire American Revolution. He served as Secretary of the Continental Congress for over 15 years and was the Chief Executive of the American Government several times between 1776 and 1789. He also designed both sides of the Great Seal of the United States