Am I a Donkey or an Elephant? A question that must be on the minds of USA citizens as they head into the election period in November. Is this of local historical interest and worthy of an article for our website?

Well, it turns out that while researching the origin of these symbols I discovered that the donkey appellation originated with our own Irish-rooted 7th President and founder of the Democratic Party, Andrew Jackson, dubbed a 'Jackass' by his 1828 campaign opponents.

His Boneybefore parents joined around 250,000 Irish emigrants in the first three-quarters of the 18th century and sailed from Larne in 1765. Andrew was born in a North Carolina log cabin two years later. My great grandparents, the Daltons, also lived in Boneybefore but unfortunately got no further, travel from Scotland being enough for them.

The Elephant became a Republican symbol during Lincoln‘s Presidential campaign. Apparently "seeing the elephant" was a phrase used during the Civil War when you saw action, and also on the Frontier when pioneers ran into difficulties, so it came to represent challenges or tribulations of one type or another. Later, both the pachyderm and equine were popularised by the political cartoonist Thomas Nast, working for Harper's Weekly in 1874 when the Senate elections were fought with as much ferocity as they are today. Insults, fake news and scurrilous reports abounded in those days too.

Will Joe Biden be the 23rd President of the USA to claim Irish roots? When a commentator reported that “the Irish had come out in Joe Biden”, referring to a vigorous rebuttal to something President Trump had said, I looked into Biden‘s background and found that his ancestors include a family called Finnegan from County Louth. So, if successful, he will join the other 22 former Presidents with connections to our little island.

Further reading shows a difference of opinion as to how many were from the Province of Ulster, but, if we include Donegal, I have calculated a possible 19, mostly from County Antrim, some bearing Ulster-Scots blood through one or both parents. Some First Ladies also have families with Irish connections including Rachael Jackson.

Three presidents with Ulster born fathers were first generation Americans, i.e., Andrew Jackson (Antrim), James Knox Polk (Donegal), and Chester Alan Arthur (Antrim). Others from Antrim are Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter. From Tyrone, Ulysses S Grant, and Woodrow Wilson. Gerald Ford and the two Bush ancestors hailed from Down. James Buchanan was from Donegal. Bill Clinton reputedly has Fermanagh connections, while Benjamin Harrison is listed as Ulster and Harry Truman as having "some Scots Irish".

Four Presidential ancestral homes can be visited, those of Andrew Jackson at Boneybefore, Chester Alan Arthur at Cullybackey, Woodrow Wilson at Dergat near Strabane and Ulysses S Grant at Ballygawley.

The Andrew Jackson Ancestral Home at Boneybefore, near Carrickfergus.

Coming closer to home I looked hopefully at President Eisenhower but his roots are thoroughly European; however included in the outer branches of his family tree are the names Fegan and Thompson, so you never know …

As far as parties are concerned, the home-grown Presidents mentioned above are almost even between Democratic Donkeys (8) and Republican Elephants (11). Let‘s see if on November 3rd Joe Biden can make it 9 for the Donkeys.

The US Rangers Museum is housed at the Andrew Jackson Ancestral Home

More information:

  • Billy Kennedy‘s series of books on the Scotch-Irish Chronicles (10 volumes), 1995-2009.
  • American Presidents with Irish Ancestors, Sean Murphy MA