In 2020, the American Community Survey found that nearly 10% of the country’s population identified as Irish. That means there are around 32 million Irish Americans living in the US, over six times the number of people living in Ireland!
An Irish-American is a person of Irish descent who holds American citizenship. It’s a unique demographic group that combines aspects of both American and Irish traditions and beliefs.
The first Irish arrived in the US in the 1560s, but it wasn’t until the great potato famine of the 1840s that they descended in their droves.
Since then, the Irish-American community has flourished, especially in areas like Boston, where nearly 20% of the population is Irish-American.
Over the years, Irish Americans have made significant contributions to the country’s development, politically, culturally, and economically.
Key points for this article:
Irish Americans have made significant contributions to American culture.
They have overcome discrimination and hardship to achieve success and influence.
Their story is intertwined with that of the United States.
Celebrating their achievements can foster a greater understanding of American cultural heritage.
Why are There so Many Irish people in America?
People first left Ireland for the US when the British took over in the 16th and 17th centuries. Immigration increased even further in the 1800s when poverty and famine drove an estimated two million Irish people to seek a better life in the US.
In the early days, the Irish settled in places like Boston, Chicago, and New York, establishing Irish-American communities that enabled them to retain some of their cultural traditions.
Even today, people continue to leave Ireland to settle in the US. According to Ireland’s Central Statistics Office, around “20,000 people moved from Ireland to the US between April 2010 and March 2013.”
As this Irish-American community continues to thrive, it influences many aspects of life in the US, from entertainment to science and politics to sports.
In every conceivable sector, Irish Americans are making a name for themselves, which is why identifying the most famous Irish person in the US is so very challenging.
Who is the Most Famous Irish Person in America?
There are so many famous Irish people in the US that it’s difficult to select one individual who’s more famous than the rest.
Who is the most famous Irish person in America? You’ve got the lead singer of one of the most popular bands of all time, Bono, hanging out side-by-side with one of America’s most famous presidents – John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy wasn’t the only Irish-American to take the top job either, with Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan also having some Irish roots in their ancestries.
Besides the politicians, you also have the likes of Martin Scorcese and Liam Neeson, whose names have been up in lights more times than I can remember.
Let’s not forget the Irish-American women, either. Did you know that Drew Barrymore’s father was born in Ireland or that the singer Alicia Keyes had an Irish-Italian mother?
Although Bono is one of the most famous Irish Americans, he is not on our list of best Irish drinking songs of all time.
8 Famous Irish Men in the USA
Irish-American men make their presence known in almost every sector of American life, from entertainment to politics. Some have made a name for themselves fighting crime, while others have excelled in the underground world.
Let’s look at some of the most famous Irish-American men in the US today and some of those we remember from years gone-by.
Famous Irish American Actors
Tom Cruise is one of the “highest-grossing box office movie stars of all time.” He’s appeared in over 50 movies, starting with Risky Business in 1983. He most recently starred in the action sequel Top Gun: Maverick, and will be reprising his role as Ethan Hunt in the upcoming movie Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning later this year.
While most of us know all about Cruise’s involvement with Scientology and his three turbulent marriages, not everyone is familiar with his Irish ancestry.
The Cruise family “first appeared in Ireland in the twelfth century,” when one of his ancestors was involved in the Anglo-Norman invasion. The family was granted lands near Dublin as a reward for his efforts but subsequently had that land revoked when they rebelled against Oliver Cromwell.
The Cruises were among the many Irish immigrants that left for the US in the 1800s, with Cruise’s great-great-great grandfather arriving in 1826.
The Hollywood heartthrob, George Clooney, had no idea he had Irish ancestry until an American genealogist uncovered his Irish roots in 2005.
Clooney’s great-great-grandfather Nicholas emigrated from Co Kilkenny during the Great Famine in 1847 and settled in Kentucky. He was from a small village called Windgap on the border between the counties of Kilkenny and Tipperary.
Since discovering his connection to the Emerald Isle, Clooney has been over to meet his Irish relatives who now live in Abbeyleix, Co Laois.
Clooney said that the experience “was so memorable,” adding, “Being able to feel your real roots is a really cool thing.”
Famous Irish-American Comedians
George Carlin is considered one of the most influential comedians of all time. Known for his subversive attitude and willingness to tackle taboo topics, Carlin made a name for himself as a stand-up comedian, actor, and social critic.
Being Irish is a vital part of Carlin’s legacy, and he was brought up as an Irish Catholic in New York. His mother was also born in New York but to Irish immigrants, while his father was born in the village Cloghan in County Donegal.
Despite his Irish roots and considerable success in the US, Carlin was not well-known in Ireland where, some say, “his subject matter may have been too raw for many people’s taste.”
Talking about comedy, make sure not to miss our list of funny and typical Irish sayings and phrases.
Famous American Singers with Irish Roots
As you can see from the title of this article, Bono is often assumed to be Irish-American because he spends so much time in the US.
The truth is, Bono has never secured citizenship in the US and technically remains an Irish citizen.
The singer added to the confusion in 2011 when he announced that he would be “a very proud American on 9/11,” while adding, “Even if you’re not American, everyone became an American that day.”
Bono may be a little bit American in his heart, but according to his passport, he’s still 100% Irish.
Bruce Springsteen wasn’t lying when he penned the lyrics to his rock anthem, Born in the USA. He was indeed born in the USA, but his ancestry can be traced back to County Kildare.
Springsteen’s great-great-great-grandfather, Christy Gerrity, left Ireland in 1849 and briefly settled in Canada before slipping across the border into the US sometime during 1850.
His daughter and the Boss’s great-great-grandmother, Ann Garrity, followed a few years later, after which the family settled in New Jersey.
Springsteen’s Irish Catholic upbringing had a lasting effect on him and heavily influenced his music.
According to the author Moira Sharkey, who co-wrote the book Land of Hope and Dreams: Springsteen in Ireland, Bruce’s paternal lineage is so full of Irish men and women that “he could call any corner of Ireland his home.”
Famous Irish-American Boxers
There are few boxers as famous as Muhammed Ali. Nicknamed “The Greatest,” Ali was one of the most significant and influential sportsmen of all time.
In 1972, Ali captured the hearts of the Irish when, on arriving in Ireland for a fight against Alvin Blue Lewis, he announced, “Yes, I am an Irishman, and that is what makes me The Greatest.”
Ali’s Irish roots can be traced back to Ennis in County Clare, where his great-grandfather Abe Grady was born. Grady left Ireland in the 1860s to settle in Kentucky.
Ali greatly admired the people of Ireland and, in an interview with Cathal O’Shannon in 1972, said, “In America, I stand up for black people regardless of what it costs me. I speak out for what I believe. You have got people in Ireland fighting and speaking out for what they believe.”
Famous Politicians with Irish Ancestry
John F Kennedy
John F Kennedy will always be remembered for his charm, optimism, and dynamic leadership. Not only was he the youngest man elected to the position of president of the United States, but he was also the first with a Roman Catholic upbringing.
That religious faith came from his great-grandparents, all of whom left Ireland during the Great Famine of the 1840s, taking with them little more than “a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty.”
Patrick Kennedy, JFK’s great-grandfather, left Dunganstown in County Wexford in 1848. He went on to become a cooper in East Boston, where he subsequently with his wife Bridget, who had also emigrated from Wexford.
President Kennedy appreciated his Irish heritage and, during a trip to the Emerald Isle in 1963 announced, “This is not the land of my birth, but it is the land for which I hold the greatest affection.”
Well-known Irish-American Gangsters
James Joseph ‘Whitey’ Bulger, Jr.
Not everyone who immigrated to the US from Ireland pursued the American dream like the Kennedys. Some, like James Joseph ‘Whitey’ Bulger, Jr. embraced a very different part of American life, immersing themselves in the underground world of gangs and mobs.
Bulger is best known as an organized crime boss and leader of the Winter Hill Gang. He became a fugitive in 1994 and was added to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list five years later. When he was finally captured in 2011, he was tried on 32 counts of extortion, money laundering, racketeering, and weapons charges.
Although Bulger was born in the US, his mother was a first-generation Irish immigrant, and his father was an Irish Canadian.
Bulger had “a deep love of Ireland” and was an enthusiastic supporter of the IRA during the 1970s and ’80s.
5 Famous Irish Women in the USA
Famous Irish-American Actresses
Drew Barrymore was catapulted into the media spotlight when she starred in the box office hit ET the Extra-Terrestrial at the tender age of seven.
By the time she was 13, she was doing her first stint in rehab and, after her release, applied for emancipation from her parents.
Barrymore has gone on to star in over 60 movies and is now a director, producer, and talk show host.
Barrymore’s connection to the Emerald Isle stems from her great-great-grandfather, who was born in Ireland.
Although Barrymore rarely mentions her Irish ancestry, she did travel to the country in 2001 while on honeymoon with her then-husband Tom Green. She describes it as “one of her favorite trips of her life.”
Well-Known Female Politicians of Irish Descent
Last year, Kathy Hochul became the first female governor of New York, making her the “highest-ranking Irish American elected official in the state.”
Hochul was born in Buffalo in 1954 and subsequently “raised in a blue-collar Irish Catholic family.” Her grandparents were both born in County Kerry but only met after emigrating to the US.
They were active members of the Buffalo Irish Center and instilled in Hochul “a deep passion for public service and activism.”
Hochul’s Irish ancestry has also given her her fighting spirit, and “like all good Irishmen and Irishwomen,” she loves a good fight.
For Hochul, the Irish American spirit is one of “toughness, perseverance, resiliency, but always with a twinkle in the eye in search of the brighter days and greener pastures that surely lie ahead.”
Famous Female Irish-American Singers
When the award-winning singer-songwriter was growing up in New York, her family would celebrate St Patrick’s Day by decorating their home with shamrocks and leprechauns.
Although Aguilera has seemed more interested in her Latin ancestry, she says she’s “Proud of my Irish roots.”
Aguilera’s mother, Shelly Kearns, was Irish and raised Aguilera in predominantly Irish-American communities, where Irish customs were a part of everyday life.
Famous Female Irish-American Comedians
Kathleen Madigan is an Irish-American comedian and TV personality. She grew up in a large Irish Catholic family and uses her childhood experiences to fuel her stand-up routines. She has six siblings, one of whom is called Kate.
According to her father, the two names “are entirely different in Gaelic.”
Well-Known Female Gangsters of Irish Descent
Annie Walsh was an Irish-American gangster and a member of the Gopher Gang, which controlled much of Manhattan during the late 1800s. Under her pseudonym, Battle Annie, she founded and led the Lady Gophers, who “were used as reserve members in gang fights.”
She was also known as “The Queen of Hell’s Kitchen” and was well known for her violent behavior, which earned her the title of “the most feared brick hurler of her time.”
How many US Presidents were Irish?
Twenty-three of the men who’ve held the post of President of the United States were of Irish descent, including:
- Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), whose maternal ancestors hailed from Larne in County Antrim
- Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), whose grandfather was from County Tyrone
- John F. Kennedy (1961-63), whose grandparents were from Cork, Clare, Limerick, Wexford, and Fermanagh
- Richard Nixon (1969-74), whose mother was descended from Irish Quakers
- Jimmy Carter (1977-81), whose great-grandfather emigrated from County Antrim in the 18th century
- Ronald Reagan (1981-89), whose great-grandparents were from Antrim and Tipperary
- Barack Obama (2009-2017), whose great-great-great grandfather was from County Offaly
- Joe Biden (2021-Present), who can trace his Irish ancestry back to the counties of Louth and Mayo.
Who are Some Irish American Heroes?
Some of the most famous and popular Irish-American heroes include:
- Kurt Cobain
- Bruce Springsteen
- Barack Obama
- Walt Disney
- Billy the Kid
- Gene Kelly
What is the Most Irish State in America?
New Hampshire is probably the most Irish state in America, with the Irish population making up 20.2% of the state’s residents.
Irish Americans have made a significant contribution to life in the US. Of the 46 people who’ve been President of the United States, 50% have been of Irish descent.
The Irish-American community continues to thrive in the US, and people continue to journey across the Atlantic Ocean to seek new opportunities there.
Irish Americans have changed the face of modern-day America by introducing elements of their Irish ancestry and culture. They have enriched America with their talents and established themselves as acclaimed actors, award-winning musicians, and influential politicians.
There are many famous Irish-American heroes, from JFK to Bruce Springsteen, and their contributions are celebrated in March each year.
Which Irish-American hero will you be honoring when Irish-American Heritage month rolls around again in March?
Before you go, check out some or our other articles:
- Where can you see the Northern Lights in Ireland?
- Familiarize yourself with these 18 Irish Blessings
- If you love whisky, You can’t miss these Northern Ireland Distilleries.
"Like many so-called Brits, I have a bit of Irish and a bit of Scottish in my blood, which is possibly where the red hair comes from. I’ve been fascinated by the history of Ireland for years, since I discovered the story of the Irish Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley.