Obama's Irish Roots: The Story of America




When it was first revealed a couple of years ago, like most people here I took the claim that Barack Obama's ancestors could be traced back to the village of Moneygall in Co. Offaly with a grain of salt. Not another American president with roots in an Irish cottage!


But it soon became clear that this was for real. A detailed family tree could be followed, generation by generation, from Obama's mother all the way back to the Kearneys in Moneygall. The births of the same Kearneys who went to America at the end of the 18th century are there in the local church registry books in Moneygall. The link is real and can be traced all the way down to the present day.


But up to now there has not been that much information about what happened in between. What exactly happened to the Kearneys who went to America at the end of the 18th century? Where did they and their children and grandchildren go, and what did they do?

Those questions are answered in detail in a new book by author Stephen MacDonogh, the founder of the Brandon Press publishing house in Kerry, which was published in Ireland this week. The book is called Barack Obama -- The Road from Moneygall and it tells the extraordinary story of the Kearneys in America in exhaustive detail for the first time. (The book will be published in America in November, although you could order it on line immediately from www.eason.ie.)

I got an advance copy a few weeks ago, and it is a compelling read. 
What MacDonogh, who spent months researching the book, has come up with is endlessly fascinating, a story that begins in the pioneering days when immigrants traveled by horse drawn wagon and river boat into the wild frontier to clear and settle the land and carve out the America we know today. 


The first to go was Thomas Kearney from Moneygall who was born in 1765, emigrated probably in the 1780s and arrived in the port of Baltimore, where he got married in 1791 (the first written record of Obama's Irish ancestral family in America). 

Thomas is listed in the Baltimore Directory for 1800 as a carpenter, and he lived on or beside Granby Street in the Inner Harbor, just around the corner from the now historic Flag House.

Some time later Thomas moved on, traveling a few hundred miles on the so-called Wilderness Road into the frontier. He settled in a wild, densely forested valley in what would eventually become the state of Ohio.


In the following years several of his relatives from Moneygall followed him to this fertile Scioto Valley area in Ohio, and to this day their graves are visible in small local cemeteries. They were among the first settlers in Ohio.

Probably the most evocative pictures in MacDonogh's book are of the Kearney gravestones in Compton Cemetery in a township called Wayne, in Fayette County, Ohio.

One of the best preserved gravestones there, with inscription still legible, is that of another Thomas Kearney, a nephew of the original emigrant.

The inscription on the gravestone tells us that this younger Thomas was born in the King's County (Offaly) in 1800, and died in Ohio in 1845. Another gravestone is that of Thomas's brother Francis who had also followed his uncle to America.

Francis died in Ohio in 1848, and in his will he left some land to another brother, Joseph, who was still back in Moneygall, on condition that he come out to Ohio to work it. It was "a tract of land lying in Ross County, on the waters of North Fork of Paint Creek." 


Joseph did so in 1849 and was followed a year later by his son Fulmouth, who was then 18 or 19, and the rest of Joseph's family from Moneygall.

Fulmouth (the unusual Christian name came from his mother's family) worked as a farm laborer in the Scioto Valley and in 1852 married a girl in Fayette County and built a house on Dogtown Road, not far from Compton Cemetery.

Fulmouth was still working as a laborer 15 years after he had arrived in Ohio and in 1865 he, like many others, pushed further on into the wilderness in search of land, settling in Indiana. By now he had a family, and one of his daughters was Mary Ann Kearney who was born in 1869. 


Mary Ann eventually married a man called Jacob Dunham. Obama's mother's name was Dunham and Mary Ann Kearney, who lived until 1936, was her great grandmother. So Joseph Kearney from Moneygall, Fulmouth's father, was Obama's great-great-great-great-grandfather. 


From the time Mary Ann marries Jacob Dunham, the story follows the Dunham name and moves on as the post-pioneer era begins and towns and industries start to spread. 

What makes this book so fascinating is not just the way it brings Obama's Irish ancestors to life.

This is not just the story of one family, it's the story of how America was made, starting before the American Revolution and following the creation of the country by the pioneers who moved out from the narrow tamed areas along the east coast into the vast frontier to the west to settle the land.

It's a story of hardship, courage and great adventure. The Kearneys were a part of that great story.

Not only were they among the first settlers of Ohio, they were pioneers in Indiana and Kansas, even taking part in the great land rush of Oklahoma. 


Almost in passing, the story also brings up many facts about Irish and American history that are often forgotten, especially here in Ireland.

Although the assumption is often made here that nearly all Irish emigrants to America were Catholic, the Kearneys were Protestant. In fact when Thomas Kearney was born a quarter of the population of Ireland (then an undivided island) was Protestant, and in cities and towns this went up to 30-40%.

Up to half a million Irish Protestants emigrated to America in the same decades as the Kearneys and played a pivotal role in the creation of the new nation. More Irishmen (nine) signed the Declaration of Independence than any other ethnic group, and all but one of them were Protestant.

The main Catholic wave of emigration came later, in the decades just before and then in huge numbers after the famine. Many of the Protestant settlers were almost as poor as the Catholics who followed them. Thousands of them from Ulster who were admirers of King Billy (William of Orange) settled in the Appalachian Mountains and became known as the Billy Boys of the Hills, or Hillbillies. Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were from the same Protestant Irish stock. 


As MacDonogh points out, our habit today of referring to John F. Kennedy as the first Irish American president is wrong. He was the first Catholic, but at least eight Presidents before him were Protestant Irish, including the iconic Andrew Jackson (both of whose parents were Irish).

The history of the Kearney family in Ireland is also an instructive window into the past here. As well as the Moneygall Kearneys there was a Dublin branch of the family which was highly successful, including a John Kearney who was provost of Trinity College Dublin and later bishop of Ossory, and a Michael Kearney who was a businessman and prominent in the Dublin city politics of the day. 


The fortunes of the Dublin part of the family were founded on the wig making trade, a huge business at the time because professional people wore wigs instead of washing their hair with water (which was believed to spread disease). Wigs were also worn by the gentry and the aristocracy.

But the Act of Union in 1800 and the transfer of all official business to London killed the trade in Dublin.


So Obama has wigmakers and bishops among his Irish ancestors, as well as pioneers who made America.

When the wig business in Dublin collapsed, the Kearneys took up their other trade, shoe-making, and some went back to Moneygall. But their best years seemed to be over. 

The Kearneys were no longer prospering, and due to this and the worsening situation in the country in the years leading up to the Famine, some of them started to look elsewhere. America, where Thomas had already settled, beckoned.

America, where 160 years after Joseph Kearney arrived as an immigrant in 1849 to join his uncle Thomas, his great great great great grandson became president. What an amazing journey for one family in just 160 years ... the story of America.

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