Belfast Telegraph

Reagan ancestor signed Morpeth Roll

US president Ronald Reagan's political zeal has been traced through the family ancestry as far back as pre-famine Ireland.

Historians have discovered his great-great grandfather Thomas was among the 250,000 signatories to a petition showing appreciation for an English lord who fought religious discrimination and fair tax.

The labourer signed the Morpeth Roll in 1841 in the village of Ballyporeen, Co Tipperary, where decades later his great-great grandson sparked chaotic scenes on a famous walkabout.

Thomas Reagan is among a long list of aristocrats, merchants, clergy and ordinary people who put pen to paper in honour of George Howard, Lord Morpeth, a supporter of the repeal laws while chief secretary for Ireland.

Dr Terence Dooley, National University of Ireland, Maynooth history department, said the Reagan connection to support for Morpeth and grassroots political activism was only discovered in the last fortnight.

"This is the beauty of the roll. It's the questions it's beginning to ask of pre-famine rural Ireland," he said.

"You have so many people involved in the political movement, the repeal movement, but when they emigrated they were politicised and by the time they get to the US they have accumulated this experience at home and they transfer it to their new life in America."

The Reagan connection is the latest in a long line of high-profile links identified in a mammoth research project by historians at NUI Maynooth.

Among other names to turn up recently are Patrick Feeny, grandfather of John Ford, director of The Quiet Man, and the second Arthur Guinness in the stout dynasty, who lived from 1768-1855 and ran the brewery and the Bank of Ireland in the 1820s and 1830s.

Members of other famous brewing houses have also been found including Francis B Beamish, from the Cork stout makers and Daniel, Edward and John Smithwick, from the ale producers in Kilkenny.

The Reagan link begins with the president's great-great grandfather Thomas, and also includes one of his sons Thomas, a great grand uncle of Ronald Reagan's.

Both men signed the roll, although it is not clear exactly where this would have taken place in the parish.

Reagan's great grandfather Michael - the man who took the family name to the US - was also a son of Thomas senior.

Dr Dooley said: "The next stage in the process is to elucidate on this connection and to try to establish from the minute he leaves Ireland and arrives in the US how is he received.

"There must have been on arrival a case of finding their feet, settling, and then they disappeared into the ether but in three or four generations they rose to the top of political domination.

"It's a gradual process but one we can trace from Ireland."

The Morpeth Roll is regarded as one of history's longest records and its huge significance is growing as a political document as much as a genealogical resource and family heirloom.

Dating from 1841, it is one of the few surviving primary resources containing detail of the people alive at the time.

The Reagans put their names down in the civil parish of Templetenny, which includes Ballyporeen. Other nearby townlands of Doolis, Knocknagapple and Skeheenaranky are represented on the roll.

Ronald Reagan, who served two terms as US president between 1981 and 1989, visited the village in 1984 when he was in Ireland and due to the unprecedented security it was the only time Irish people could see the most powerful man in the world face to face. He died in 2004.

His great grandfather Michael married Catherine Mulcahey, also from Ballyporeen, in St Georges Catholic Church, Southwark, London, after they left Ireland for England in 1852. The wedding was witnessed by Nicholas Reagan, believed to be one of Michael's older brothers. Thomas was dead by that year.

On November 28 1857, they arrived in New York on the Joseph Gilchrist from Liverpool with children Thomas, John and Margaret. They settled in Carroll County, Illinois, according to the 1860 census.

The scroll itself is made up of 652 individual sheets of paper glued on to linen to make a 412m long petition - three times the length of Croke Park.

It was rolled on to a mahogany spool and held privately by Lord Morpeth's family in a basement in Castle Howard, Yorkshire for more than a century.

Lord Morpeth, the eldest son of the 6th Earl of Carlisle, was well regarded for his work getting important legislation through parliament including the 1823 Tithe Act which allowed tax to be paid on income and not agricultural yield, and the poor laws. As a Whig supporter, he opposed religious discrimination.

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