Ronald Reagan’s Irish ancestors found on historic Morpeth Roll

Signatures of 160,000 people on pre-famine document include late US President’s antecedents

The signatures of the great-great grandfather and great-uncle of former US President Ronald Reagan have been found on a pre-famine roll which is now open to the public.

Both men, called Thomas Reagan, from Ballyporeen, Co Tipperary, signed the Morpeth Roll in 1841, a thank you scroll for the departing Chief Secretary to Ireland Lord Morpeth which was signed by at least 160,000 Irish people and measures 412 metres end to end.

Curator Paul Hoary said he was “leaping all over the place” after finding the signatures three weeks ago.

The roll has been the subject of three years of research at NUI Maynooth since it was rediscovered in Castle Howard, Yorkshire, the family home of Lord Morpeth, also known as George Howard.

Reagan's great-grandfather and Thomas Reagan's son Michael Reagan emigrated to the United States via England where President Reagan's grandfather John Michael Reagan was born in Illinois.

A detailed study of all the names on the roll also uncovered the signatures of Arthur Guinness's son Arthur Jr and several signatures from the brewing families Beamish and Smithwick, along with Patrick Feeny, the grandfather of the film director John Ford who signed his name in English though he lived in a Gaeltacht area.

A feature of the roll is the fact that few names are signed in Irish though it was the language of the majority of the people at the time.

The roll has been touring Ireland and is currently in the John Paul II library in NUI Maynooth. All the names on it have been digitised and are available to view online at The index of this record is available for free for users to search and review online but a subscription to the website is needed to view images.*

The roll has been described as the “longest thank you in Irish history” and the signatures were gathered at a time in 1841 when relations between Ireland and Britain were relatively good before the horrors of the Great Famine.

Lord Morpheth was chief secretary from 1835 to 1841 and was regarded as a reforming politician who carried through legislation on Irish tithes, poor-law and municipal government.

Morpeth was evidently a popular figure and the roll includes signatories including Daniel O'Connell, Thomas Gavin and Charles Gavan Duffy who were in favour of the repeal of the Act of Union.

Speaking at the launch of a book earlier today entitled The Morpeth Roll: Ireland identified in 1841 by NUI Maynooth President Professor Philip Nolan drew an analogy with the impending state visit by President Michael D Higgins to Britain.

Professor Nolan said the roll showed that the history of the two islands was “much more complex that the history that we might have been taught in school. We were never told there was also a view of British rule which saw aspects of it and individuals involved in it as constructive and benign. It is something worth reflecting on as we re-evaluate the relationship between the two islands.”

*This article was amended on November 21st 2013