There's no one as Irish as Barack O'Bama
BIOGRAPHY:Barak Obama: the Road from Moneygall, by Stephen McDonogh, Brandon, 300pp. €16.99AT HIS FIRST St Patrick’s Day reception at the White House, on Tuesday, March 17th, 2009, Barack Obama embraced his recently discovered Irish heritage. He revealed his pride that he had been adopted by Co Offaly, where his great-great-great- grandfather on his mother’s side had emigrated from in 1850, and he noted that he had even been invited over for a pint by a pub in Moneygall, an offer he hoped to be able to take up someday. In an unscripted aside, he joked that he had heard that “Guinness tastes very different in Ireland. It is much better. You guys are keeping the good stuff for yourself. It could start a trade war”.
The story of Obama’s Irish lineage was only revealed in 2007, during his campaign to secure the Democratic nomination for US president. When Obama heard the news his first thought was, as he later admitted, Why didn’t anyone discover this when I was running for office in Chicago? And he joked that he “used to put the apostrophe after the O, but that did not work”.
It has taken until now, however, for the full account of Obama’s Irish connections to be told in print. The book, which will be launched tonight in the Moneygall pub that invited Obama over for a pint, is more than just a study of his genealogical links with Ireland. It is also a thought-provoking study of what it means to be Irish, and how the Irish story goes beyond any simplistic identification with a single religion.
The Kearneys whom Obama is descended from were a Protestant family from Moneygall, in what was then King’s County. Another branch of the family settled in Dublin, where Obama’s great-great-great- great-granduncle John Kearney became provost of Trinity College in 1799. It is significant that the current United States ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney, has visited both Kearney’s tomb and Moneygall since his arrival. Obama may not have been aware of his Irish roots until three years ago, and the connection might be considered slight enough when compared to his African and American ancestry, but it is something that he has taken an interest in, and it has become important to him.
The Kearneys of Moneygall made wigs and then shoes, and were relatively successful in the years before the Famine. That catastrophe must surely have affected the family’s fortunes, for in 1849 the patriarch, Joseph Kearney, decided to follow the example of an uncle who had emigrated to Ohio in the late 18th century and set out for the United States. The following year he sent for his family, and his son, Fulmouth Kearney, aged about 20, made the 40-day journey to New York, and from there went on to Ross County, in Ohio. This migration marked the end of Obama’s connections with Ireland, with Fulmouth the great-great-great- grandfather of the 44th president.
After the American Civil War Fulmouth moved to Indiana, where he purchased a small farm in Clinton County. There his daughter, Mary Ann, married Jacob William Dunham. It was said that she spoke with an Irish accent, that all her three sons had black hair and that each of her four daughters had red hair. One of these sons was the father of Stanley Dunham, and it was Stanley Dunham who married the woman who did so much to raise the teenage Obama, his beloved grandmother Madelyn (known as Toot). When she became terminally ill, in the final few days of the 2008 presidental campaign, Obama cancelled all his engagements and flew to Hawaii so he could be near the woman he described as his “quiet hero” and the person who gave him his strength and his discipline.
Obama’s mother was Stanley Ann Dunham – named after her father, because he had wanted a boy. While studying Russian at the University of Hawaii she met and fell in love with a young Kenyan student, Barack Obama. They quickly married, and Barack Obama jnr was born soon after, in 1961. The marriage did not last, and the elder Obama returned to Kenya. His son would have little real contact with him for the rest of his life. Obama’s autobiography, Dreams From My Father, is as much an attempt to come to terms with this abandonment by a parent as it is a reflection on the role of race and ethnicity in his own life and in US society in general.
Although Obama did not become aware of the Irish part of his diverse heritage until 2007, he did grow up with stories of other distant connections. He is, for example, a sixth cousin six times removed of Wild Bill Hickok, the legendary frontier lawman, who boasted of having killed more than 100 men. (The real figure was considerably lower.) At a speech in Springfield, Missouri, in July 2008 Obama noted that his distant cousin had fought his first quick-draw gunfight in that town, and he challenged his presidential opponent, John McCain, to a duel on taxes in the same style. Unsurprisingly, when genealogists later proved that Obama was distantly related to George W Bush and Dick Cheney, these connections were not exploited on the campaign trail.
On that first St Patrick’s Day in the White House as president, Obama accepted a bowl of shamrock from the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, and an impromptu lesson in Irish. To much applause, the first Irish leader from
Co Offaly explained to the first American president from Co Offaly – admittedly at a considerably more distant remove – that the phrase he needed to know was “Is féidir linn!” It took Obama two attempts before he delivered the line like a native son.
As we reflect on the diverse paths in Irish history, the stories of success and failure, of enterprise and emigration, and as we face the challenges of the present time, it is a lesson we could all do well to learn. Yes we can.
Patrick M Geoghegan is associate dean of research at Trinity College Dublin. He grew up in Co Offaly