| 6.6°C Dublin

Reagan feared Irish roots would damage his career

FORMER US president Ronald Reagan hushed up his Irish roots and even asked the Irish Ambassador to Washington to keep his Celtic heritage secret because he was terrified it would ruin his political career.

Not only did Reagan play down his Irishness on his way to the White House, but he gave the impression that his ancestry was rooted in England and he was a pedigree WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant).

Reagan, who died in June aged 93, decided to bury his Irishness because of political expediency. During his election campaign in 1980 he instead insisted he had English ancestors to please Republican voters.

A fascinating new documentary reveals how Ireland's previously unquestioning attitudes to America's foreign policy ended two decades ago when Reagan stepped onto Irish soil as President in 1984. It also reveals that ex-Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald was vehemently opposed to Reagan receiving an honorary degree.

Dr FitzGerald also found it hard to comprehend that

Reagan depended on written notes during a conversation with him to explain his

policies.

Pictures of Reagan at his ancestor's home place in Ballyporeen during his visit here were beamed around the world and helped his re-election campaign.

But four years earlier, during his first presidential election, he wanted to keep his Irish links quiet. Former Irish Ambassador to America Sean Donlon recalled: "When Reagan was campaigning for the presidency back in 1979 and 1980 I met him in California. I commented to him, given

his name, 'You must be Irish, what part of Ireland do you come from?'

"He said, 'No, no I am not Irish, I have an English

background.' I said, 'With a name like Reagan, you have to be Irish.'

"When I told Reagan coming up to the election in 1980 that his roots were definitely Irish not English, he asked if that information could be kept quiet until after the election. He was a political package and presented as a WASP.

"He was appealing to the right-wing element in the Republican party for support. The Democrats traditionally played more to the Irish side," Donlon says.

"He didn't want to change his package at the last minute. We kept it quiet. When he became president he said, 'Now I will be happy to embrace my Irishness. I will come to the embassy on St Patrick's Day.'

"We presented him with a detailed family tree and he was genuinely interested and proud of it and said he had now found himself and knew who he was."

The documentary, Failte Mr President, catalogues the protests during the controversial 1984 visit as he successfully campaigned for another White House term.

In contrast to the rapturous reception for John F Kennedy 20 years earlier, Reagan faced protests. Bishop Eamon Casey, other members of the hierarchy and ordinary priests denounced heavy-handed American policies in Central America.

In Failte Mr President, to be shown on TG4, then Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald recalls: "My contacts with him were limited. I was surprised that he felt he had to have notes in front of him to talk to me about the subject of Central America which was so important. I didn't have the impression that he was on top of the detail of different subjects. I was not an enthusiast for him personally."

Dr FitzGerald said he believed the president did have some sentimental attachment to Ireland.

"I suppose politically it [the visit] had some advantage to him in it. He had become interested in his Irish roots which he hadn't been aware of before, and genuinely so because he regularly dined in the Irish embassy and he didn't dine in any other embassy in Washington. Perhaps some sentiment and some politics," summed up

Dr FitzGerald.

Priests all over the country spoke out against America's effective sponsorship of civil war in Central America.

Dr FitzGerald said he received a telegram of congratulations from Bishop Eamon Casey after he publicly criticised American policy at a State dinner in Dublin Castle.

Dr Fitzgerald also reveals that he didn't personally want to give President Reagan an honorary degree from University College Galway. Hundreds of people protested in Galway as he was being conferred with the honour.

Earlier this year, author Ted Schwarz claimed Joe Kennedy, father of assassinated US President John F Kennedy, sucked up to the American upper crust and did everything he could to disguise his "Irishness".

"He hated his heritage, yet always wanted the approval of the Irish people," Schwarz claims in his book Joseph P Kennedy: the Mogul, the Mob, the Statesman and the Making of an American Myth.