Many Irish people came to America during the years of the Irish Potato Famine, or the Great Famine, as it was called. A disease destroyed Ireland’s potato crop, ruining the main source of food for many people, and leading to a prolonged famine. Between 1845 and 1852, approximately 1 million Irish died of starvation, and a million more emigrated. Many Americans today maintain a sense of pride in their Irish heritage. Here’s a look at five famous individuals who have roots in the Irish potato famine.
Though he’s known as the first African American president, Barack Obama‘s ancestry reflects the American melting pot. His mother, Ann Dunham, was the descendent of Irish immigrants from Moneygall, Ireland, a tiny village near County Offaly. Obama’s great-great-great-grandfather, Fulmuth Kearney, immigrated to America during the potato famine in 1850, when he was just 19 years old. In May 2011, Obama made a trip to Moneygall, where he was greeted by distant cousins and a jubilant celebration. “My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall O’bamas,” the president said. “I’ve come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way.”
Comedian Stephen Colbert is the youngest of 11 children in an Irish Catholic family. His ancestors were tenant farmers in Ireland, prohibited by British law from buying land or holding public office. When the potato famine struck the population of Limerick, an English merchant in the area sent many local peasants to America. Among the emigrants was one of Colbert’s ancestors, Michael Garin. A 2011 PBS special, Faces of America, uncovered Colbert’s potato famine heritage. Some of his other ancestors immigrated even before the famine, including one who found work building the Eerie Canal (completed in 1825).
Boxing champion Micky Ward’s ancestors came to America from Ireland during the years of the Great Famine. Like many of their fellow Irish Catholics, Ward’s family settled in the working class town of Lowell, Massachusetts. His nickname in the ring is “Irish,” and he’s one of nine children—something he has in common with actor Mark Wahlberg, who portrayed Ward in 2010′s The Fighter.
John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy was the nation’s first Irish Catholic president. A maternal ancestor, Thomas Fitzgerald, fled the rural County Limerick village of Bruff in western Ireland some time between 1846 and 1855, at the height of the potato famine. Around the same time, Patrick Kennedy, a cooper (a craftsman who makes and repairs wooden casks or tubs) in Dunganstown, County Wexford, fled the potato famine and set sail for America. He was JFK‘s great-grandfather, on his father’s side. Both sides of Kennedy’s family ended up in Boston, Massachusetts, where a large Irish immigrant community already existed. Like many other immigrants facing discrimination at the time, they toiled as laborers and peddlers. In June 1963, President Kennedy and two of his sisters made a trip to Ireland, where they visited their ancestral home in County Wexford, and met their Irish relatives. “When my great-grandfather left here to become a cooper in East Boston he carried nothing with him except two things — a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty,” he said. “I am glad to say that all of his grandchildren have valued that inheritance.”
Late-night TV host and comedian Conan O’Brien is another funnyman who can trace his ancestry back to the Irish potato famine. During the potato famine, his ancestors immigrated to Massachusetts from County Kerry in Ireland. In an episode of Late Night With Conan O’Brien, he paid a visit to County Kerry. O’Brien attributes his success largely to his background. “When you’re Irish Catholic, you learn to do comedy at the foot of your brothers’ beds. It’s all about trying to make your family laugh. And I employ the same muscle today. It’s just that now I make a living out of it.” After his last Late Night episode, O’Brien threw a traditional Irish wake.