Five Famous Irish-Americans Who Made Their Own Luck

To celebrate Irish-American Heritage Month and the eve of St. Patrick's Day, we're taking a look at at five famous Americans who trace their heritage to the Emerald Isle.
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Catherine McHugh
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To celebrate Irish-American Heritage Month and the eve of St. Patrick's Day, we're taking a look at at five famous Americans who trace their heritage to the Emerald Isle.

In the United States, March is officially dedicated to women’s history, the American Red Cross, reading, colon cancer awareness and consumer protection. And on February 27, President Barack Obama proclaimed March 2015 as Irish-American Heritage Month. “The Irish story is one of hope and resolve,” Obama said “In it, Americans see our own dreams and aspirations.”

Certainly tomorrow on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is a little bit Irish. But for the tens of millions of Americans who proudly trace their heritage to the Emerald Isle, it’s not all about shamrocks and shenanigans.

The following five famous Americans with Irish roots are fearless, funny, outspoken and hard workers. All are a credit to “the auld sod,” as they exemplify a particularly Irish skill: Instead of waiting around for fortune to find them, they made their own luck.

President Barack Obama

Barack Obama Photo

President Barack Obama traces his Irish roots to Moneygall in County Offaly, where his great-great-great-great grandfather, Joseph Kearney, was a shoemaker. (Photo: Pete Souza)

Barack Obama, the current president of the United States, was born on August 4, 1961, in Honolulu, Hawaii. He started his career as a civil rights lawyer and teacher before being elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996. He was elected to the U.S. presidency in 2008, and won re-election in 2012. 

“I’m Barack Obama, from the Moneygall Obamas. And I’ve come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way." - Barack Obama on a visit to Ireland in 2011.

Our 44th president traces his Irish roots to Moneygall in County Offaly, where his great-great-great-great grandfather, Joseph Kearney, was a shoemaker. Many in the Kearney family were prosperous Protestant artisans and, perhaps unsurprisingly, heavily involved in the politics of their times. In 1850, Flamouth Kearney, Joseph’s son, left for the U.S. and settled in Ohio.

On his 2011 visit to Ireland, surrounded by some distant relatives and many new friends, Obama enjoyed a pint of Guinness at Ollie Hayes’s Bar in Moneygall. Later that day, he gave a speech at Dublin’s Trinity College that showed off his ancestral gift of gab and wit: “I’m Barack Obama, from the Moneygall Obamas,” he said to a cheering crowd of 25,000. “And I’ve come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way.”

Maureen O’Hara

Maureen O'Hara

Classic Hollywood star Maureen O'Hara, who received an honorary Academy Award this year, became an American citizen in 1946, while also retaining her Irish citizenship. It was the first time in history that the United States government recognized an Irish citizen as Irish.

Actress Maureen O’Hara was born Maureen FitzSimons on August 17, 1920 in Dublin, Ireland's Ranelagh district. The second oldest of Marguerite’s and Charles’s six children, she displayed an early gift for dramatics and graduated from the famed Abbey Theatre in 1937. Her dream was to be an opera singer, but under actor Charles Laughton’s mentorship, she went on to become a renowned movie actress. She is best known for holding her own against her male co-stars in swashbucklers such as Sinbad the Sailor and The Black Swan, as well as for classic films including, The Quiet Man, How Green Was My Valley, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Parent Trap.

She became an American citizen on January 25, 1946, while also retaining her Irish citizenship. It was the first time in history that the United States government recognized an Irish citizen as Irish. O’Hara challenged the judge who had wanted her to swear her allegiance to England. This led to a change in process for all Irish immigrants.

Earlier this year, the 94-year-old O'Hara received an honorary Academy Award for her impressive body of work. Liam Neeson and Clint Eastwood introduced the red-haired beauty, and each confessed to having a crush on her. Neeson described her as "one of the true legends of cinema" and "one of the most adventurous women who ever lived," because she was a pioneer among actresses in doing her own stunts on screen.

Melissa McCarthy

Actress Melissa McCarthy's grandparents emigrated in the early 1900s from Cork to Chicago, and she feels a keen connection to her Irish heritage. “There’s a scrappiness to the Irish that I can very much relate to,” she says. (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)

Actress Melissa McCarthy's grandparents emigrated in the early 1900s from Cork to Chicago, and she feels a keen connection to her Irish heritage. “There’s a scrappiness to the Irish that I can very much relate to,” she says. (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)

Actress Melissa McCarthy was born on August 26, 1970 in Plainfield, Illinois. After working as a stand-up comedian in New York, she moved to Los Angeles, where she became a member of the legendary comedy theatre The Groundlings. She then made her breakthrough as Sookie on Gilmore Girls. In 2011, McCarthy won the Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy for her TV show Mike and Molly) and she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Bridesmaids. She co-starred with Sandra Bullock in 2013’s summer hit The Heat. And in 2014, she starred as the straight woman to Bill Murray in the film St. Vincent.

“There’s a scrappiness to the Irish that I can very much relate to. It’s a kind of working-class, not afraid to get your hands dirty, take care of a situation kind of thing. Being Irish means being self-sufficient and doing whatever is needed.” - Melissa McCarthy

McCarthy says she feels a keen connection to her Irish heritage. Her grandparents emigrated in the early 1900s from Cork to Chicago, where they had 10 children. Melissa grew up on a farm, living with her grandmother and parents and assorted aunts and uncles. There are three nuns in the family and she was educated at two Catholic convents.

“There’s a scrappiness to the Irish that I can very much relate to,” Melissa said. “It’s a kind of working-class, not afraid to get your hands dirty, take care of a situation kind of thing. Being Irish means being self-sufficient and doing whatever is needed.”

In that vein, she and her husband, Ben Falcone, wrote and starred in last year’s summer hit, Tammy, which co-starred Susan Sarandon, and they have written and sold a television pilot. She has also written and sold an as-yet-untitled movie (with Bridesmaids co-writer Annie Mumolo). A longtime fashion lover, McCarthy’s own clothing line (for women of all sizes) is set to launch in the fall of 2015.

Meanwhile, she continues to star in Mike and Molly and has joined the cast of highly anticipated, all-female remake of Ghostbusters. Clearly, her daughters, Vivian and Georgette, won’t have far to look for a strong, hard-working role model.

Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert Photo

A proud Irish-American, comedian Stephen Colbert takes part in New York’s Bloomsday festivities, which celebrates Irish author James Joyce's classic Ulysses.

Comedian, political satirist, writer, producer, singer, television host, and actor, Stephen Tyrone Colbert was born on May 13, 1964, in Washington, D.C. The youngest of 11 children, he was raised near Charleston, South Carolina.

After graduating from Northwestern University, he joined Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe in 1993. There, he met Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello and the trio created and starred in “Exit 57” and “Strangers with Candy.” In 1997, Colbert began appearing in episodes of The Daily Show and in 2005, he was given his own spinoff, The Colbert Report, which ended on December 18, 2014. CBS has announced that Colbert will replace David Letterman as host of The Late Show; he will make his debut on September 8.

A proud Irish-American, every June, Colbert takes part in New York’s Bloomsday festivities, which celebrates the James Joyce classic Ulysses. Stephen’s great-great-grandfather, Michael Garin, and many of his ancestors helped build the Erie Canal. Upon hearing that he had been selected to receive an Oscar Wilde Award in February, Colbert, ever the jokester, responded: “My great-great grandfather sailed from Limerick with but two goals: 1) get a job digging the Erie Canal, and 2) party in L.A. I am proud to fulfill his dream."

Jean Butler

Jean Butler Photo

Dancer Jean Butler, whose mother was originally from County Mayo in Ireland, brought her Irish heritage to the stage as one of the stars of the Irish dancing phenomenon "Riverdance." 

Jean Butler was born on March 14, 1971 in Mineola, New York. Her mother was originally from County Mayo in Ireland and she enrolled her daughter in Irish step dancing classes at the age of six. Butler spent her childhood on the competitive circuit, winning regional, national, and world awards. As a soloist, she has toured the world with many Irish recording artists, most notably the Chieftains for a period of six years—she made her professional debut with them at age 17.

But she truly leapt to fame in 1994 (alongside dancing partner and future “Lord of the Dance” Michael Flatley) at the Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin. Producers Moya Doherty and John McColgan hired her to perform in what was then a 10-minute stage production called Riverdance. The show, which is credited with bringing a sexy component to Irish dancing, subsequently exploded into a global phenomenon that ran for years.

Butler performed with the company for three years before leaving with colleague Colin Dunne to produce and choreograph Dancing on Dangerous Ground. In April 1999, she was awarded the prestigious Irish Post Award for her outstanding contribution to Irish Dance.

In 2007, Butler choreographed her first contemporary solo piece, does she take sugar? which ran at Dublin’s Project Arts Centre. In 2010, Butler worked with Tere O'Conner on DAY. Commissioned by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. In March 2013, Butler premiered her solo performance of hurry at New York City’s Danspace.

Butler will receive the prestigious Ambassador Award at the Holyoke, Massachusetts, St. Patrick’s parade on March 22.