This week in County Offaly they celebrated the one year anniversary of President Obama coming to town by opening his ancestral home in Moneygall. There in attendance were the US Embassy’s director of communications, Barack’s long-lost cousin Henry Healy and Canon Stephen Neill (Trading – quite successfully - as “Paddy Anglican” on Twitter) to mark the event.
It might be seen by some as a tenuous attempt at notoriety on the back of the most powerful person in the world, but Moneygall is right to take its place among the surprisingly plentiful locations all round the island to which The 44 can trace their ancestors.
Of course, JFK’s visit to Wexford captured the imagination like no other, and Ronald Reagan’s trip to Ballyporeen, Co. Tipperary was as schmaltzy as you’d expect from The Gipper, but there have been plenty of other men who’ve taken up residence at The White House with deep connections to The Mother Country.
The family of James Buchanan, for example, originated in Ramelton in Co Donegal, which incidentally is also the home of Dave Gallaher, the first captain of the New Zealand All Black rugby team. A few generations before Woodrow Wilson dreamt up the League of Nations, his family were living outside Strabane, Co Tyrone. Andrew Jackson, most famous in modern times for his being mentioned in The West Wing for possessing a big block of cheese that was open for anyone in his White House to take a bite out of, had family from Carrickfergus in Antrim. Even The Presidents Bush, the most white bread, down home of all the Presidents, have relatives who hailed from Rathfriland, Co. Down. And lest we forget James Hoban, the Irishman who built The White House in the first place.
But my favourite story of a President of Irish extraction was one who can trace his roots back to my hometown of Lifford in Donegal. His three times great grandparents, one of whom was born at Cavanacor House on the outskirts of Lifford, emigrated from there to Maryland in the late 17th century. As the family moved inland, first to North Carolina and then Tennessee, they too had their name shortened, from Pollock to Polk. And it was James K Polk who became, not just the youngest President at the time, but also the one serving when the now famous Annapolis Naval Base, Washington Monument and The Smithsonian were all initiated. He also vastly expanded the nation’s landmass westwards and was Governor of Tennessee, Speaker of the House and Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Not bad for a Lifford fella.
And that’s why ancestral homes the likes of which we’re seeing opened in Moneygall are so important. They are in many ways a testament to the power of what people can do when they strive for something and take their opportunities and make something of themselves, even if they do so far away from whence they came. It can say to people from one-horse towns, “If a guy with relatives from my town can make it to the White House, what am I not capable of?” And most of all, it shows the extraordinary effect this island has had in shaping some of the world’s most influential leaders.