Why Obama's Offaly roots help shatter Irish-American myths


ANALYSIS:Irish America was first seen as Catholic, then Presbyterian and now Church of Ireland too, writes BRIAN WALKER

PRESS COVERAGE of Barack Obama's election as US president has drawn attention to his connection with Ireland. His late mother Ann Dunham was a descendant of Fulmouth Kearney who left Moneygall, Co Offaly, for the US in 1850.

This connection is of special interest, however, because it casts an important light on the subject of the Irish diaspora in the US. Indeed, it provides an answer to some of the mystery about this diaspora, the full character of which has often been obscured by widely-held myths about both the Irish Americans and the Scots Irish.

Fifty years ago the number of those with an Irish background in America was put at about 16 million. It was assumed that most of these were Irish Americans who were mainly descendants of Catholic Irish who had come to America from the time of the Great Famine on. The family background of Joe Biden, the incoming vice-president, falls into such a category.

This picture, however, was upset radically in the 1980s. The American census results of 1980, which for the first time stated ancestral backgrounds, recorded a figure of about 40 million people who gave Ireland as their ethnic background or country of origin. This figure was much greater than had been expected.

A second surprise followed with publication of a number of opinion polls which revealed that a majority of those who indicated an Irish background were Protestant and not Catholic, as had been widely assumed. For example, a survey by Gallup in the 1980s put the proportion of Protestants at 54 per cent.

To explain this situation attention now focused on the Scots Irish. The first waves of emigrants from Ireland to America in the eighteenth century consisted largely of Ulster Presbyterians, numbering about a quarter of a million people, who were descendants of 17th-century Scottish immigrants to Ireland. Due to their early arrival and thanks to a multiplier factor, it was argued, their descendants made up a major part of those in America with an Irish background.

This conclusion, however, was dramatically challenged by the outcome of the 1990 census. For the first time, the census allowed people to declare a Scots Irish background. The results recorded a figure of 38.7 million Irish, but only 5.6 million Scots Irish. Again we may note that the National Survey of Religious Identification, published in 1991, confirmed that a majority of people who acknowledged an Irish background were Protestant.

This raised very interesting questions. Who exactly are these people who make up the majority Protestant section of the Irish in America? The assumption had been that they were mostly Scots Irish, but only a small proportion chose to identify themselves this way. From a total figure of 44 million Irish and Scots Irish, self-identified Scots Irish were only about 12 per cent and not half, as we might have expected.

A number of explanations have emerged to try to explain who they are. One of them is that many in fact are Scots Irish, part of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century emigration from Ulster. When we look at recent US census returns we discover that the area with the largest number of those who describe themselves as Irish is not the north-eastern region (which includes Boston and New York), but the southern region. We know from nineteenth-century census figures that relatively few of the famine and post-famine emigrants went south, so most of these people are a result of the earlier emigration.

Canadian academic Michael Carroll has argued that these people retain what is often a very distant link with Ireland because of their origins and because the Scotch Irish image of individuality and self-reliance linked to the American Revolution accords with how they see themselves. Why don't they call themselves Scots Irish in the census? While the term Scots Irish was sometimes used in the eighteenth century, many from this background called themselves Irish rather than Scots Irish. This has remained the case.

Republican John McCain has written with pride about his Scottish Presbyterian ancestors, who came from Ulster in the eighteenth century, and included John Young, one of Washington's staff officers. His wife, Cindy McCain, recently acknowledged this Irish background in response to a question about race in the presidential election by saying: "Yes, you know, Mr Obama is an African-American man, and yes, we're Irish. And isn't that a wonderful thing for America?"

Another explanation is that these figures of Irish with a Protestant background include descendants of people who were Catholic. Several historians have argued that numbers for the Irish in the 18th-century American colonies include Catholics, who became Protestant because there were very weak Catholic Church structures. During the 19th and 20th centuries, in predominantly Protestant America, people from a Catholic background became Protestant. A good example was Ronald Reagan whose father was from an Irish Catholic background, but who followed the Protestant faith of his mother.

Bill Clinton claims a Protestant Irish link from his mother who was a member of the Cassidy family, originally from Co Fermanagh. In 2004 on BBC television, in a reference to David Trimble, Clinton declared: "He's a Scots Irish Presbyterian and so am I... but my state of mind [ is] more like the Irish Catholics. I am more rosy and loquacious."

In fact, Cassidy is a Gaelic rather than a Scots name, and most, but not all, Cassidys in Fermanagh are Catholic. Perhaps this explains Bill Clinton's personality!

Finally, we must consider the explanation that there are people in America who have Irish ancestry and are Protestant, but who are not from a Presbyterian Scots Irish or Irish Catholic background. This is where Barack Obama's Irish ancestry casts a special light on the diaspora.

In Ireland, there has been, and still is, a sizeable section of people from a Church of Ireland background whose roots are often English, but also, sometimes, Scottish or Gaelic. Significant numbers of these people have emigrated to America from all parts of Ireland, but their presence has often been overlooked.

Recently, however, historians have acknowledged that serious attention must be paid to this Irish group. Barack Obama's Irish ancestor, Fulmouth Kearney, is a good example of such emigrants. Thanks to the research of Canon Stephen Neill, rector of Cloughjordan, we know that he and his family were members of the Church of Ireland in Moneygall, Co Offaly. A shoemaker by trade, he left in 1850 to settle as a farmer in Ohio. In 1960, his direct descendant, Ann Dunham, married a Kenyan student, Barack Obama. Their son, also called Barack Obama, will be the next US president.

The latest indicators of Irish identity make interesting reading. The 2000 US census recorded 30.5 million Irish and 4.4 million Scots Irish. This drop in numbers is explained largely by an increase in those who register simply as Americans.

Recently the National Opinion Research Centre published its 2006 general social survey, which included an Irish but not a Scots Irish category. It revealed that of those who described their first ethnic identity as Irish, 48 per cent were Protestant, 29 per cent were Catholic and 23 per cent were unaffiliated or other or no religion.

Numbers in this last category have grown in recent years. It may include vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Her mother's name is Sheeran and her family came from Ireland in the first half of the nineteenth century. An evangelical Christian, she has been described as "post denominational". Links between religion and identity are now fluid for many Americans. Early this year, the Pew Forum survey found that more than a quarter of American adults have left the faith in which they were raised in favour of another religion, or no religion at all.

All this serves to demonstrate the great diversity of those with an Irish background in the US. Contrary to a commonplace Irish American myth, it is Irish with a Protestant background who make up the largest single component of the Irish in America. Contrary to a popular Scots Irish/Ulster Scots myth, the majority of these people identify themselves as Irish rather than Scots Irish. The example of Barack Obama's ancestors reminds us of the danger of viewing the Irish diaspora in America in a simplistic, two-dimensional light.

In Banbridge Church of Ireland parish church there is a memorial plaque, dated 1920, to James White, Chicago, and his father John White, Banbridge. The plaque states that the White family presented a clock and chime of 10 bells to the church, with the proviso that at Halloween the air of "Home sweet home" should be played on the bells. A few weeks ago, as in every year since 1920, this tune rang out over Banbridge.

• Brian Walker is professor of Irish studies in the politics school at Queen's University Belfast