President Obama’s Irish ancestry is genuine and far-reaching, and in Pioneers, The Frontier Family of Barack Obama, Irish writer and publisher Stephen MacDonogh presents the first full account of Obama’s links with Ireland. Cahir O'Doherty speaks to the author about the many unexpected discoveries he made about while writing the book.
Nothing about Barack Obama is ever obvious or typical, even when it comes to his ancestry.
Neither a product of African America (his father was a Kenyan professor) nor from a typically representative Irish Catholic background (his ancestors did not arrive here to escape economic hardship or the devastation of the Famine), instead he’s descended from a native Irish family who were Church of Ireland Protestants. That fact opens up a much different storyline, and a largely forgotten one, of the history of Irish Protestants in both American and Ireland.
Most present day Irish Americans and even the Irish themselves assume, MacDonogh claims with justification, that being Irish American and Irish Catholic are synonymous. Yet more than one million of the 5.5 million people who make up the Irish population are Protestants, so that assumption excludes 20% of the population.
It’s important to remember these facts, MacDonogh argues, because they highlight the important role Protestants played in the making of America. And Barack Obama’s rise, MacDonogh contends, provides us with a new opportunity to grapple with the full spectrum of what it means to be Irish in both Ireland and America.
“His black ancestry, his paternal ancestry, is extremely untypical of Americans,” MacDonogh tells the Irish Voice.
“African Americans usually grapple with the legacy of racism, discrimination, slavery and Jim Crow, that classic narrative. But Barack Obama has nothing to do with that. His father was a Kenyan who spent a short period of time in America. His maternal ancestry is much more archetypal though.
“He’s a mixture of Irish, English, German and a bit of Belgian. And what I’ve tried to do in the book is tell the story of the Irish thread of his maternal ancestry, and it surprised me that it turns out in many ways to be the story of the making of America.”
When he started on his new book MacDonogh thought it would be a typical Irish American story, but it turned out to be anything but.
“The story as I got it was that the emigration of the Kearney family (Obama’s Irish ancestors) began after the Famine. I thought they would be a part of the much larger and very moving narrative of the largely destitute Irish people who flooded the ports of America. That wasn’t the case at all.”
In fact the story of the Kearneys was part of a less well known Irish emigration story that generally does not get told -- the experience of the Protestant Irish who emigrated before and after the Famine.
“It was a characteristic of Protestant emigration that it was looked at enthusiastically in the U.S., which contrasts sharply with the Catholic experience. If you look at the folk memory of the Catholic Irish there’s a great deal of despair and negativity at the whole notion of emigrating,” MacDonogh says.
When the Kearneys arrived in America they simply did not face the discrimination or the hostility that their Catholic neighbors did.
“What fascinated me is that I had never heard this story told in an Irish context. Like most people I had bought into the narrative of the post-Famine experience,” says MacDonogh.
“But the truth is the majority of Irish Americans are of Protestant ancestry rather than Catholic ancestry. And they found themselves being swiftly absorbed into mainstream American life.”
The Kearney family may have had a well-off branch. One of their people was the Bishop of Ossory in Co. Kilkenny, but most of them were shoemakers and wigmakers. When that industry began to falter due to the mass return of the upper classes to Britain in the early 1800s they made the decision to emigrate.
“Obama was unconscious of being Irish when he was growing up,” says MacDonogh. “That’s one way in which he’s characteristic of the Protestant Irish in America in that he’s not so concerned with his Irish background.
“And also in his career he hasn’t played sectarian politics in that way. Many politicians have milked ethnicities for votes, but I don’t think Obama has that view of politics or wants to be involved in playing one sector off another. He didn’t grow up with any consciousness of his Irish background at all.”
Pursuing his research here, MacDonogh discovered that many Americans still don’t share Obama’s rather open-ended view of who is and who is not an American, though.
“When I was in Kansas and Indiana and Ohio I made a point of talking to ordinary people in bars and cafes and wherever I found them. I must say that almost all of the white people I met in these places were almost all in shock that they had a president with a black face,” he says.
MacDonogh is reluctant to call people names partly because he thinks it’s inaccurate as well as being impolite, but right wing American opinion, he says, is informed by racism more than any other characteristic.
“It doesn’t mean that every individual is racist, but conservatism tends to suggest that if you’re not white you’re less American,” MacDonogh says.
“The greatest blight on America is the history of racism and slavery. That’s the historic baggage it carries with it. Even to this day you have golf courses whose history is associated with thorough antagonism to people who are not white.
“Obama is correct in saying one day we may get beyond racism in America, but that day hasn’t arrived. His election does not signal the end of American racism.”
Speaking of Obama’s proposed visit to Ireland, MacDonogh takes a pragmatic view.
“One of the things that I have found to be true is that Obama is politically cool and calculating. I think that in a personal family sense that he would be interested in his Irish background,” MacDonogh says.
“However, if he takes a trip to Ireland it may be because his advisors have convinced him there’s an electoral advantage. I don’t think he will go Ireland as president without being convinced there’s a good political reason for doing so. I don’t think he’ll be able to set aside a great deal of personal time for it otherwise.”
Obama chose to title his own book Dreams From My Father, so we simply we don’t know as much about his mother Ann Dunham, but she is an interesting character MacDonogh says.
“She was intellectually curious and very broad in her internationalism. He has said himself that he was more politically influenced by her than by anybody else,” says MacDonogh.
“From what I have been able to research about her I would see her influence on him, but I would also see that he is much more interested in power and the wielding of power and calculation. It would be wrong to call her a hippy, but she was more idealistic and less career focused. When he says she was an influence he is thinking mostly of her principled nature.”
Obama’s own multicultural, hyphenated background and the strengths that arose from it are the key to his presidency, MacDonogh says.
“Obama formulated for himself an idea that there isn’t a white America or a black America, there aren’t red states and blue states – there’s a United States and we are all part of it,” says MacDonogh.
“He had the experience of an absent African father, he lived in Hawaii and Indonesia, he had the experience of a party absent mother, he came to terms with his blackness and with his white grandparents, and he’s come through that all with a grand unifying vision. Unfortunately a lot of Americans are not as ready for that vision as they thought they were.
“We may one day be able to say his presidency helped bring about the end of racism in American, but for the moment it seems to have stimulated a nativist moment in certain areas of the country. “
Pioneers: The Frontier Family of Barack Obama, Dufour Editions $34.95.