Kilkenny in episcopal pitch on Obama ancestry

 

WHILE BARACK Obama continues his nine-day visit to Asia, the campaign to establish his Irish ancestry has intensified.

Kilkenny has become, after Offaly, the second county to pitch for inclusion on the itinerary if he decides, like many Americans, to visit Ireland in search of his roots.

Yesterday, in scenes worthy of The Da Vinci Code, the US ambassador visited the medieval St Canice’s Cathedral to investigate, at first-hand, reports of a tomb which allegedly proves the connection.

Dan Rooney, accompanied by his wife Patricia, was shown the grave of John Kearney, a bishop of Ossory and provost of Trinity College, who died in 1813 and was, according to researchers, the great, great, great, great granduncle of Mr Obama.

The ambassador, who plans to brief the president on this newly-discovered branch of his family tree, said that Mr Obama is “very much” interested in his Irish heritage and “wants to come” here. However, no date has yet been pencilled in for a visit because the president’s schedule is “so full”.

Mr Rooney, who was appointed by Mr Obama, said that “the first time I met Barack the candidate I told him, ‘you’ve got to come to Ireland’ and he said, ‘I’ll go with you, that’s great’.”

The Kilkenny “claim” on the US president may prompt a stand-off with residents of Moneygall in south Co Offaly. The village, with a population of 298, on the Dublin-Limerick road is the alleged birthplace of Fulmouth Kearney, a shoemaker’s son who emigrated to America in 1850 after the Famine and became Mr Obama’s great, great, great grandfather – on his mother’s side.

But, although the Offaly bloodline is more direct, there is no physical structure around which to develop a tourist destination. The site where the Kearney house once stood is today a patch of waste ground. The one-acre plot is owned by the county council – which had planned to use it for social housing but is now reportedly considering building a “heritage centre”.

The authorities in Kilkenny are hoping that the tomb – which Pat Nolan, director of the Irish Origins Research Agency described as “the only tangible link” to Mr Obama – may help to secure a presidential visit and boost tourism.

The mayor, Cllr Malcolm Noonan, is sending an invitation to the White House. The Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, a native and resident of Co Offaly, has already invited Mr Obama to Moneygall.

Mr Rooney diplomatically hinted that the president could visit both destinations. The impeccably blue-collar credentials of Offaly’s Fulmouth Kearney – who embarked on the American Dream as an illiterate farm labourer in Indiana – may appeal to a Democrat president.

But, as the Church of Ireland Dean of St Canice’s, Norman Lynas, pointed out, Kilkenny’s John Kearney represented “the eminent side of the family that you’d want to be associated with”.

On a day of unexpected connections, Mr Rooney, who is also chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers, said his football club currently employed a security guard called John Kearney who is “extremely Irish”.