Despite his role as the titular “Irishman” from the 2019 movie, Robert De Niro is best known for his classic Italian-American roles. You might be surprised to learn about the iconic actor’s Irish roots.
Robert De Niro has dual US-Italian citizenship, however, his ancestry is largely Irish. His father, Robert Sr, was half-Irish on his mother’s side and Robert’s mother also had some Irish ancestry. De Niro even hitchhiked around Ireland in his teens in an attempt to find any relations but he was unsuccessful.
For more about De Niro’s quest to learn more about his Irish ancestry and how he finally received some answers, keep reading.
De Niro has spoken on multiple occasions about his Irish ancestry and his goal of finding out more about his family’s history and possibly connecting with his extended Irish family.
While he has long been aware of his father’s Irish parentage, he was unsure about his family history beyond his paternal grandmother’s Irish grandparents.
His father’s mother, Helen O’Reilly, had completely Irish origins, with her grandparents all having traveled to the US from Ireland during the country’s terrible famines of the mid-1800s. Helen’s grandparents were Edward O’Reilly and his wife Margaret, and John Burns and his wife Mary.
So, despite De Niro’s family having been based in Ireland for at least a couple of generations when he was born, we can say confidently that he is at least a quarter Irish, from his father’s side.
Searching For Family
While De Niro has always been aware of at least some of his family’s history, that knowledge only extends back a few generations.
In 1962, in his late teens, De Niro traveled to Ireland and hitchhiked around the country in an attempt to find out more about his ancestry and hopefully find some living relatives.
Unfortunately, his search provided no answers, due to inconsistent record-keeping in the country during the time of his Irish ancestors. A similar trip to Italy was, according to De Niro, far more straightforward and helped him discover his father’s Italian lineage but he remained in the dark about his Irish side.
During the 1986 shoot of “The Mission” in England, De Niro bonded with Northern Irish actor Liam Neeson.
While there was a break in shooting, Neeson took De Niro across the water to his beloved Glens of Antrim, where the pair of actors could be found enjoying the beauty and culture of Northern Island, as well as its pubs.
This sparked rumors that De Niro was looking to buy a holiday home in the coastal village of Cushendall but there little evidence of him attempting to do so.
De Niro finally received some more concrete news recently, after speaking to the media about his search for his family’s Irish past. A couple from New Hampshire, Kate and Mike Lancor, are Irish genealogy experts and took it upon themselves to do some research into Robert’s ancestry.
They used Robert Sr as a starting point and looked back through his mother, Helen O’Reilly’s family. The Lancors discovered that Helen’s family originated in County Tipperary, Ireland, and emigrated to America in 1840 during the Great Famine. Helen O’Reilly married Henry De Niro when she was 21 and had a child, Robert De Niro Sr.
As such, De Niro’s role as Irish-American Mafia hitman Frank Sheeran in “The Irishman” was not an unusual fit for the actor. He also played a criminal with Irish ancestry before when he starred in the 1990 mob classic “Goodfellas”, where he played Jimmy Conway, who was based on Irish-American gangster James Burke.
The Lancors reached out to De Niro in the hope of presenting him with their findings and De Niro has acknowledged that he received new information from a company, presumably theirs. He shared that he was “happy to hear that” and that he likes the countryside around Tipperary.