Following in the footsteps of an American president

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If you live in Northern Ireland there is every chance you could be related to the men who shaped one of the world’s leading superpowers. Audrey Watson reports

It’s thought that 17 out of America’s 44 presidents have a connection with Northern Ireland, some more directly than others. However for one descendent of President Woodrow Wilson the link is slightly stronger – he shares the same name.

Retired confectionery wholesaler, Woodrow Wilson, 66, is one of the people featured in tonight’s BBC1 documentary, Are You Related to an American President?

“When I was a boy, my nickname was president,” laughs Woodrow. “Nowadays my friends just call me Woody. “The programme makers approached me more than a year ago and to be honest, I hadn’t really given my ancestry much thought before although I knew I had been named after the president and the house in Dergalt, Strabane where my grandparents had lived, was also where President Wilson’s grandfather was born and bred.

“My name is actually Thomas Ian Woodrow and my mum tried to call me Ian as she didn’t want the name Woodrow to be a burden on me. But I spent a lot of my childhood with my grandparents at Dergalt and they called me Woodrow, so when I came home and my mother called me Ian, I insisted my name was Woodrow.

“The whole family knew about the link and a book had been written about President Wilson’s links with Strabane, but as a child you don’t think too much about these things.”

In the 1960s, Woodrow’s grandparents left the house at Dergalt and it was restored by the National Trust, to the way it would have been when President Wilson’s grandparents lived there. It was opened it to the public in 1966.

“The then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Lord O’Neill and President Wilson’s grandson, who was the Dean of Washington (the late Dean Sayre) and his son came over from America for the opening,” says Woodrow.

“All of my family was there, but there’s not one photo of me as I was more intrigued by other things,” he laughs.

“Dean Sayre’s granddaughter actually came to Northern Ireland last August and we met up. She was travelling round Ireland and rang the Ulster American Folk Park who put her in touch with me.

“I took her up to Dergalt and showed her round and showed her pictures of the opening and she recognised her father.”

Born in 1856, at Staunton, Virginia, President Woodrow Wilson was the 28th president of the United States of America and one of the most highly-regarded occupants of the White House.

His grandfather, James Wilson, emigrated to North Carolina from Strabane in 1807. Woodrow was a professor at Princetown College, New Jersey and visited Northern Ireland in 1899.

As president, he played a leading role in negotiating peace at the end of World War One and helped form the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919.

“We actually studied President Wilson at school,” says Woodrow. “He was the first president to have a PhD and the only one for a while that managed to stay in office for two terms. He was very well-liked.

“Funny enough, my brother and one of my two sisters became teachers, but I’m the only member of the family that was ever told they looked a bit like the President.”

The programme also follows Rene Martin from Castlerock, Co Antrim, who has been researching her ancestry for 20 years.

Rene is related to President James Buchanan, the 15th President, who held office from 1857 – 61. She believes his presidency is not well-known and if known, has been much maligned.

Executive Producer Jane Kelly and her team had been working on the programme for three years.

“The story of the Ulster Scots in America is fascinating,” she says. “We got the best historians in the country to help us and it was amazing to follow two regular people from the province as they discover their famous ancestors.”

Woodrow, accompanied by his wife Marian, spent a week in America along with Rene and the film crew tracing the steps of his famous relative.

“I had been to Boston and New York before, but had never visited anything to do with President Wilson. I was surprised at the tributes and memorials. I knew he was well liked, but visiting places such as the Woodrow Wilson Centre and the Woodrow Wilson House, where he lived after retirement was very moving.

“There’s also a Woodrow Wilson Bridge and he is the only president to be buried in Washington Cathedral.

“I have to admit, I did feel very, very proud that someone whose family originated in Strabane achieved so much.”

Woodrow and Marian also managed to get into the White House and see the actual quarters where the two presidents had lived.

“That was really special as security is very strict – especially when we were there as there was a security threat. We were very lucky to get in,” recalls Woodrow.

“I’m a keen photographer and I got some great photographs and of course, I brought back some souvenirs – I’ve now got a Woodrow Wilson mug,” he laughs.

Tonight Woodrow and Marian will attend a special reception at the American Consulate in Belfast to mark the screening of the programme and he admits that taking part has encouraged him to find out even more about his famous ancestor and hopefully return to the States for another visit.

“There’s a lot still to be discovered and God willing, I’ll be able to go back. Even in America, they don’t seem to know an awful lot about family histories that stretch that far. I was quite surprised, but then again, it’s only recently that there’s been a huge increase in tracing family trees and record-keeping back then was quite poor.

“People nowadays are more interested in where they’ve come from.

“I would love to go back and research a bit more. And I’m going to get in touch with Dean Sayre’s granddaughter and hopefully visit her.

“I feel very proud that one of my ancestors was such a great president.”

Published by News Letter on 28 Febraury 2011. Read on opens link in new window

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