Finding O'Bama

Sat, May 21, 2011, 01:00

As Moneygall prepares for Barack Obama’s visit, Canon Stephen Neill tells how his trawl of parish records yielded key evidence of the US president’s Irish roots

WERE IT not for the rector of Cloughjordan, in Co Tipperary, Barack Obama would not be coming to Ireland at all – and might still be labouring under the misapprehension that he was not really an O’Bama. We know better now: “Barack’s as Irish as JFK,” as the Corrigan Brothers put it in their song. A discovery by Stephen Neill, the parish’s Church of Ireland canon, provided a key piece of the jigsaw of the US president’s Irish ancestry. Neill, whose parish includes Moneygall, the Co Offaly village that the president will visit on Monday, remembers well an e-mail from Kyle Betit, in Salt Lake City, in April 2007. Betit specialised in Irish genealogy and was working for Ancestry.com. He had reason to believe . . .

So had Neill. Though an optimist by profession, he could not get his head around the idea that the likely Democratic Party candidate for the US presidency might have local connections. The relevant records had been kept by Elizabeth Shortt, the parish treasurer in Templeharry, near Moneygall. Shortt had died only the previous month. What was about to happen “would have made her life”, says Neill.

After her death, Shortt’s son Harry looked after the documents. And it was in these, in all their faded glory, that Neill discovered proof that Obama was “as Irish as bacon and cabbage and stew”. But Ancestry.com imposed a strict silence. “It was hugely exciting, but what made it so difficult was that we were not allowed speak about it for weeks,” says Neill.

Genealogists “are not people given to leaps of faith”, he says, and “are extraordinarily conservative”. Nothing less than verification beyond doubt would convince them of Obama’s Irish ancestry. On May 3rd, 2007, Ancestry.com issued a press release: “Barack Obama’s Irish ancestors originated in Moneygall and neighbouring Shinrone in County Offaly, Ireland . . . Baptism and probate records linking the family line back to Moneygall have been unearthed with the assistance of Canon Stephen Neill in the Templeharry rectory records, until recently stored in a parishioner’s home.

“It was initially thought that Obama’s third great-grandfather Fulmuth Kearney, who sailed from Ireland to New York aged 19 in 1850, was the only member of the family to emigrate, however the records reveal that other Kearney family members had in fact been in America since the 1790s. One member, Fulmuth’s paternal uncle Francis, had in fact bequeathed land to his brother, Fulmuth’s father Joseph, with the condition that he emigrate in order to inherit. He did so along with his wife Phebe and four children, including Fulmuth, although at various times in the mid-19th century.”

That was the end of life as they had known it in Moneygall. The village came under media siege. There were also visits from US embassy officials in Dublin, the emergence of the Corrigan Brothers’ There’s No One as Irish as Barack O’Bamaand the rechristening of Henry Healy, a local thought to be an eighth cousin of Obama, as Henry VIII.

There had still been no direct contact with their distant relative, but Obama acknowledged his Irish ancestry in radio interviews during the presidential campaign.

Neill attended the inauguration in January 2009, as did the Corrigan Brothers and Henry Healy. An encounter on a train in Washington seemed to established further proof of the new US president’s Irish roots and his kinship with Henry Healy. As Neill recalled at an event in Moneygall last year: “Henry is, as you know, a cousin of President Obama’s. If you are at all sceptical about this the definitive proof of this came on the morning of the inauguration when Henry and I, the Corrigan Brothers and other assorted chancers were on the very overcrowded metro in Washington DC, heading in to view the event of a lifetime.

“The atmosphere on that train was electric: everybody was laughing, singing and crying – not tears of sadness but of joy. When we introduced Henry to people on the train as Obama’s Irish cousin some of them were bemused, and some were very excited, but one African-American woman, asked by her friend if she could see anything of Obama in Henry, said without hesitation: ‘Oh yes! He has Obama ears!’ ”

Obama had hardly warmed his seat at the Oval Office when a letter signed by Neill, by the local Catholic priest Fr Pat Mulcahy and by Henry Healy was dispatched, inviting the 44th US president to visit Moneygall. “A lot were sceptical, but a core of us were true believers,” Neill said recently. The believers had it, with the announcement last St Patrick’s Day that Obama would be coming to Ireland.

Neill expects the visit to be the highlight of his 13 years in the parish, as it will be for his wife, Nicola, and his 14-year-old son, Aaron. A fifth-generation priest of the Church of Ireland, and son of the recently retired Church of Ireland archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough, John Neill, the canon has his own ancestral connections with Templeharry. His great-grandfather Robert Richard Neill was rector of Templeharry from 1910 to 1916. “So I feel a personal affinity for the place,” he says. He and the 44th president of the United States.

Obama’s ancestry The president’s genealogists

Megan Smolenyak

US genealogist and the author of Who Do You Think You Are?

When Megan Smolenyak began preliminary research into Obama’s ancestry, she methodically tracked through the branches of his mother’s family tree, scanning for any evidence of foreign births. She found it in the 1870 US census: Fulmoth Kearney, the father of one of Obama’s great-great-grandmothers, Mary Ann Kearney, was from Ireland. An immigration record listed under Falmoth Carney revealed he arrived in New York on March 20th, 1850, from Moneygall, Co Offaly.

“The only thing I couldn’t find in the United States was what religion the family had been,” Smolenyak says. “So it turned into a church-canvassing situation. I had a list of everything I was looking for, and when Stephen Neill found it at the Templeharry parishes, it was like a key fitting in a slot. A perfect fit.”

Steve MacDonogh

Publisher of Brandon Books

Pioneers: The Frontier Family of Barack Obama adds historical narrative to the president’s genealogical history. Published by Brandon Books, the imprint MacDonogh founded in 1982, it weaves together an arc that begins with tales of Irish wigmakers and culminates with Obama’s inauguration as president.

Sadly, MacDonogh died last November. Last month his life and work were commemorated by an event at the Féile na Bealtaine literary festival in Dingle, where Michael D Higgins, Alice Taylor and Manchán Magan read from work of theirs that MacDonogh had published.

Eneclann

Electronic publisher of historical sources and data, based at Trinity College Dublin

Eneclann picked up the project when a researcher, Fiona Fitzsimons, was training a colleague in the importance of cross-referencing sources. She wanted to show how one small detail not found elsewhere could open up a search.

Taking Obama’s case as an example, Fitzsimons and her colleagues were able to delve back over five generations to his seventh great-grandfather, Joseph Kearney, who was born around 1698. “It was a real challenge to work through the sheer volume of documentation,” says Fitzsimons. “In genealogy there are no quick fixes, no one document that sets out all family relationships and tells the entire family story. We had to stay focused and diligently examine all documents, no matter how unpromising they initially seemed. In this way we painstakingly established each link in the chain.”

Eneclann’s newest discovery is that Obama’s closest living relatives hail from Ballygurteen, Co Tipperary. “They’re entirely new connections and stories, adding a whole new light on the origins of Obama’s family in Ireland,” says Brian Donovan, the company’s director.

“We were able to get that information through to the US embassy and they’re fully clued in, so Obama will be meeting documented close relatives as opposed to someone who might be a relative.”

CIAN TRAYNOR