President Obama's Irish roots
Published Friday, May 29, 2009, 4:11 PM
Updated Thursday, June 27, 2013, 11:02 PM
U.S. President Barack Obama with Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen
Barack Hussein Obama is the descendant of Ohio and Indiana immigrants who came from the borders of Counties Offaly and Tipperary, and is a member of an exclusive club of twenty Presidents who claim Irish ancestry.
President Obama’s single Irish great-great-great-grandparent puts him at thirteenth position in an informal ranking, alongside James Polk and just ahead of Richard Nixon, whose Quaker immigrant ancestors also came from Ireland to Ohio and Indiana.
But the new president’s foreign-born father admits him to a smaller and more distinguished group of four that up to now has been exclusively Irish (the parents of Andrew Jackson and James Buchanan, and the father of Chester Arthur were all born on the island of Ireland).
And unlike many of his Irish-descended presidential predecessors, Barack Obama has a relatively close link to his forebear Fulmoth Kearney, who left Moneygall in County Offaly (then known as King’s County) in 1850.
Barack was nine years of age when his great-grandfather Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham (Fulmoth’s grandson) died in 1970 at the age of 76. The former Kansas cafe owner and auto mechanic, who had retired from Boeing as an aircraft fitter was well into middle age by the time his Irish mother died in 1936, on the same day as her husband Jacob.
Born in 1869, Mary Anne Kearney Dunham, Ralph’s mother, was Fulmoth Kearney’s youngest daughter, and she too was nine years of age when her father died, almost three decades after he had arrived in America on the good ship Marmion.
Although most of the media attention has focused on Fulmoth, the unusually named mid-19th-century immigrant, members of the family were in America from the early 1780s, when the Protestant Kearneys were still prominent in Shinrone, a more extensive King’s County community eight miles north of Moneygall.
There the family patriarch, 85-year-old Joseph, was presiding over the decline of a small textile and property empire he had set up with his enterprising brother Michael, a successful Dublin wigmaker and father of Trinity College Provost and later Protestant Bishop of Ossory, John Kearney.
Joseph’s grandson Thomas (c. 1765-1846) was the first to leave Ireland, settling in Baltimore and offering his services as a master carpenter (it is tempting to speculate that he might even have been engaged in building The President’s House).
By 1791 Thomas had married 17-year-old Sarah Baxley of Fairfax County at Baltimore Methodist Church, and within a decade they had taken up a land grant in Ohio, where they settled in Ross County near the site of the future county seat of Chillicothe. There Thomas was joined by his 23-year-old tailor brother John (1782-1870).
Their brother William, a Moneygall shoemaker and small-scale tenant farmer, then watched as virtually all his children – Sarah, Thomas, William, Margaret and Francis – emigrated and settled near their uncles in the American Midwest.
In Ohio, Francis Kearney’s early efforts at farming were relatively successful so that by the time he died in 1848, he had a sizable holding along the line between Pickaway and Ross Counties. The Ross County lands, located on the North Fork of Paint Creek, he willed to his 54-year-old brother Joseph, the only one of his generation left in Moneygall.
Joseph had inherited his father William’s shoe-making business on the latter’s death in 1828, and he and his wife Phoebe were well settled in the small King’s County village. They had four children, ranging in ages from twenty-two downwards. Margaret, the eldest, was already married to William Cleary, who was more than twice her age. Her brother Fulmoth, named for his maternal grandfather Fulmoth Donovan of Ballygurteen, was eighteen, and the two younger siblings, William and Mary Anne, were fifteen and eleven respectively.
Within a year, Joseph, his wife and family had made the decision to leave Ireland and by 1851 the two parcels of land that made up the smallholding near Moneygall (still known today as ‘Kearney’s Fields’) were put up for public auction by the then landlord, Rev. William Minchin, who lived at nearby Greenhills. The 63-year-old Protestant rector of Dunkerrin parish was selling his debt-laden estates and moving his family (which numbered nineteen in total) lock, stock and barrel to Australia and New Zealand.
In an interesting sidelight, Fulmoth’s Uncle Thomas, who died in 1845 in Wayne Township, Ohio, at the age of 45, has no recorded spouse, but his will refers to a son, Thomas, then living in Ireland, and to a favorite niece with the fateful name of Anna Minchin, indicating a connection with the landlord family.
Meanwhile Fulmoth Kearney married a local girl named Charlotte Holloway. The family (which would eventually include nine children) later moved to Tipton County in Indiana, just south of the present day city of Kokomo, and north of Indianapolis.
Sadly, the story was not all one of hope and joy: Fulmoth’s siblings, William and Mary Anne, who had come from Ireland as teenagers, died in their twenties in 1855 and 1866 respectively, and his sister Margaret’s husband William Cleary died in 1862.
By the early 1870s, Fulmoth and Charlotte Kearney’s eldest daughter Phoebe was attracting the attention of a young man whose family had moved from West Virginia to the Tipton community some years before.
He was David Dunham, one of the seven children of Jacob and Louisa Dunham. When he married Phoebe in 1873, they were both nineteen. Three years later David Dunham’s brother Jeptha married Martha Kearney.
Within two years of Martha’s wedding, the Kearney family lost both parents (Charlotte died in 1877 and Fulmoth in 1878, while still only in their forties). Mary Anne was nine and was raised by her older married sisters. This situation resulted in the sealing of the Dunham connection twelve years later with her marriage to a third brother, 29-year-old Jacob, who had already established himself as a druggist.
Jacob and Mary Anne’s second son, one of seven siblings, was Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham Sr., Barack Obama’s great-grandfather. Of Ralph’s brothers and sisters, all born before 1900, some were still living as late as 1980, and the husband of one died only in 1991.
Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham’s son, Stanley Armour Dunham, became the beloved grandfather who with his wife Madelyn Payne ‘Toot’ Dunham raised Barack Obama from the age of ten.
Stanley’s life and progress as furniture salesman in Kansas, Texas, Washington and then Hawaii has been well documented in his grandson’s books Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. His death in 1992 deeply affected the thirty-one-year-old community activist, who married lawyer Michelle Robinson later in the same year; three years later, Barack’s mother, Dr. Stanley Ann Dunham, died at the age of fifty-four.
From these inspiring alliances and devastating losses would grow the strength of character that was to lead to Barack Obama becoming one of the forty-two (George Washington was the exception) chief executives who have occupied the most famous residence in the world – 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.