Chief Family Historian for Ancestry.com Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak got the assignment of a lifetime when it was discovered in 2007 that future President of the U.S. Barack Obama had Irish roots. Smolenyak’s job? To find out where in Ireland Obama’s family came from.
Ancestry.com had established that Obama was part Irish, and that his third great-grandfather on his mother’s side, Fulmoth Kearney, is his most recent connection to the Emerald Isle.
Naturally, the Irish wanted to know more. Not since John F. Kennedy had the Irish been so excited to learn about a U.S. president’s Irish heritage.
Smolenyak’s first task in tracing Obama’s precise link to Ireland was finding Fulmoth Kearney on the U.S. census and back-tracking his journey to the States. Luckily for the historian, Obama’s relative’s name was fairly unique, compared to say, a “Patrick Kelly.”
The most recent mention of Fulmoth was in the 1870 census, where one of Obama’s great-great-grandmothers, Mary Ann Kearney, was listed as having a 38-year-old father from Ireland named Falmoth or Fulmoth (the name was difficult to make out).
Smolenyak then investigated Fulmoth’s arrival record in America on Ancestry.com, finally locating him as Falmouth Carney, arriving on the Marmion in New York on March 20, 1850. The arrival record was unusually detailed, including Fulmoth’s destination in the U.S.: Ohio.
Smolenyak then found Fulmoth in the 1850 census in Wayne Township, Ohio, and discovered that by 1860, he was living in Deerfield, Ohio, with his wife, Charlotte, and several children.
The genealogist then connected the original census she found with Mary Ann and Fulmoth’s names, and figured out that around 1866, Fulmoth moved from Ohio to Jefferson Township, Tipton County , Indiana, where he was listed to be living in 1870. Fulmoth died before the 1880 census.
Now that Smolenyak had a full picture of Fulmoth’s journey through America, she had to connect the dots to find out about his origin in Ireland.
To do so, she broadened her search to include the trail of Fulmoth’s relatives. She focused on two people, William and Margaret Cleary, who were listed as heading to Ohio alongside Fulmoth in his U.S. arrival record.
Through their records, she discovered Margaret was Fulmoth’s sister, and their parents were Joseph and Phebe Kearney.
Smolenyak searched online records and accidentally discovered the reason the Kearneys left Ireland for the U.S.
She stumbled upon a will of a Francis Kearney, dated January 28, 1848, which stated he left land in Ross County, Ohio, to his brother, Joseph Kearney (Fulmoth’s father), “if he comes to this country.”
This document revealed that though the Kearneys most likely left Ireland because of the famine, they also left to acquire the land waiting for them.
The final key to opening up Obama’s roots was located in an Ohio cemetery. Smolenyak tracked down the gravestone of Fulmoth’s father Joseph Kearney in Ohio, which read that Joseph was born in Moneygall in Kings County (now County Offaly).
To verify Obama’s family’s Irish origins, the historian went across the pond to find the family’s parish in Ireland by trial and error.
Through baptism records of Fulmoth and his siblings and documentation of the marriage of his parents held in the diocese of Limerick & Killaloe, Smolenyak confirmed Fulmoth’s hometown was Moneygall, and finally solved the mystery of Obama’s Irish origins.