Barack-Obama-Back to Our Past

President Obama

Apart from his more immediate genealogical connection to Ireland, it is claimed President Obama descends from Edward I of England through a female ancestor named Eltonhead Conway, so there is a possible ‘provable’ bloodline from Brian Boru for him too.

MONEYGALL SCHOOL - Back to Our Past - Barack - Obama

The school in Moneygall, Co Offaly that an ancestor of Barack Obama is said to have attended

Tracing the O’Bamas of Moneygall

Are presidential visits to the old sod just political manoeuvres?  Emphatically no says Genealogist Paul Gorry who observes that most of the trail to Moneygall – ancestral home of Falmouth Kearney, great-great-great-grandfather of Barack Obama — is relatively easy to follow through records available on-line.

Some people think it extraordinary that nearly anybody who becomes President of the U.S.A. is found to have an Irish ancestor hiding somewhere in their family tree.  Others think it’s just silly to delve into the remote ancestry of famous people.  But the success of television’s Who Do You Think You Are? proves that there is an appetite among the general populous for other folks’ roots.

Dunganstown, Timahoe and Ballyporeen; these were not places widely known till they were visited by American presidents.  Each had a fleeting romance with the international media before settling back down to everyday life.  Now it’s the turn of Moneygall, home of Falmouth Kearney, great-great-great-grandfather of Barack Obama.  Back in 1984 many were cynical of the motives of President Reagan’s visit to Ballyporeen.  It was seen as purely an exercise to harness the Irish American vote for his re-election.  Undiscerning elements of the media even questioned the authenticity of Ballyporeen’s claim.

So, are presidential visits to the old sod just political manoeuvres?  Are these villages plucked from obscurity by the Irish government just to provide a rural backdrop?  The answer to that is an emphatic NO.  If you cast your mind back to Bill Clinton’s state visit in 1995 you will be hard pressed to think of the rural backdrop used that time.  Clinton had more than one Irish ancestral line but it would be impossible to identify a location for any of them.  I know that as I was engaged by the Genealogical Office, on behalf of the Irish government, to investigate the situation.  There was no ancestral village for the president to visit, so he was not brought to one.  That did not stop undiscerning elements of the media running with silly stories about the Cassidys of Fermanagh, and the Clintons of Louth.  Incidentally, the president’s birth surname was Blythe.  He adopted his stepfather’s surname of Clinton.

Family history

Not everyone is interested in history, let alone family history.  The significance of a high profile visit to an ancestral village may not be apparent to all.  Genealogy has long been a favourite pastime in America, a melting-pot country where historic homelands have added importance.  Naturally family historians are interested in comparing their own varied ancestral journeys with those of the individuals who make it to the White House.  The rise to power of some presidents has an even broader significance.  John F. Kennedy’s victory as the first Roman Catholic and Barack Obama’s as the first person of mixed race were hugely important to millions of Americans of similar backgrounds.  These elections give a sense of acceptance and equality.

Kennedy’s state visit to Ireland in June 1963 was as historic for Ireland as it was for Americans of Irish descent.  All eight of Kennedy’s great-grandparents were born in Ireland and left the country in the Famine era.  He was truly the embodiment of the emigrant made good.  One of the most memorable aspects of his visit was the short time he spent with his relatives in Dunganstown, Co. Wexford, the home of his paternal great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy.  This return to the birthplace of an ancestor has been replicated thousands of times since by the descendants of Irish emigrants.  The journey might even be described as a pilgrimage.  It has enormous significance for a family historian and can be a very emotional experience.

Though Kennedy’s was the first official visit by an American president it was not the first state visit by the descendant of an Irish emigrant.  Two years earlier, in June 1961, Princess Grace of Monaco accompanied her husband to Ireland.  Later she made several private trips and purchased the home of her Kelly ancestors in Co. Mayo.  Richard Nixon’s state visit to Ireland in October 1970 included a trip to Timahoe, Co. Kildare, once home to his Quaker ancestors, the Milhous family.  By the time Ronald Reagan made his highly publicised visit to Ballyporeen, Co. Tipperary, fourteen years later there was a certain scepticism about the formula.  A journalist with no special expertise in nineteenth century handwriting decided that the ‘Regan’ in an 1829 baptismal record looked more like ‘Ryan’ to him, and his questioning grew legs.  Had he bothered to examine the baptismal entries for the other children of Thomas and Margaret Regan he would have been enlightened.

2011 is a busy year for state and official visits to Ireland by descendants of the Irish.  Chief among them is the first visit of the head of state of our nearest neighbours, Queen Elizabeth.  The queen’s Irish credentials are better than most.  While it is likely that nearly everyone in Ireland is descended from Brian Boru there are very few who can prove it.  Ironically, Queen Elizabeth is in that select group.  So too is Prince Albert of Monaco, who is also shortly to Ireland, but his proven descent from Brian Boru is through his father rather than through his mother’s Kelly line.  Then there is President Obama.  It is claimed that he descends from Edward I of England through a female ancestor named Eltonhead Conway, so there is a possible ‘provable’ bloodline from Brian Boru for him too.  However, he has a more immediate genealogical connection to Ireland.

Obama’s ancestry

Obama’s ancestry was traced by the American genealogist William Addams Reitwiesner, who died last November.  Most of the trail to Moneygall is relatively easy to follow through records available on-line.  The President’s mother’s maiden surname was Dunham.  Her great-grandmother, Mary Ann Kearney, was born in Indiana in 1869.  Her father Falmouth / Fulmouth Kearney arrived at the port of New York in March 1850 in company with William and Margaret Cleary, bound for Ohio.  Five months later all three were recorded in the 1850 Census at Wayne township, Ohio, in the household of William Kearney.  In 1860 the Clearys were living at Deerfield, Ohio, with Joseph and Phoebe Kearney, while Falmouth was living close by with his young family.  It was the distinctive forename Falmouth that linked the ancestry to the Moneygall area, as identified by Rev. Stephen Neill of Templeharry in 2007.  The following year the Dublin based research company Eneclann carried out further research, with Fiona Fitzsimons, MAPGI, and Helen Moss finding evidence of Falmouth as a name used within the extended family around Moneygall.

There may be all kinds of motives for politicians searching out their ancestors’ birthplaces, just as there may be for production companies making television programmes, but the by-products of both can have value for many people.  Who Do You Think You Are? entertains, motivates and possibly enlightens viewers.  Kennedy’s visit to Dunganstown inspired many Irish Americans to have pride in their heritage and to engage with it.  The 1963 trip was not Kennedy’s first time in Dunganstown.  He had been there in a private capacity to meet relatives in 1947.  Coming back as the most powerful man in the world he shone a light on this quiet place that had positive consequences.

I saw at first hand the excitement of such a state visit when Brian Mulroney, Prime Minister of Canada, came to Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, in 1991.  Having conducted the research on the family’s Irish origins for the Genealogical Office, I was one of the hundreds there to witness the event.  While some ‘cousins’ of dubious connection were thrown into the mix, the Mulroney family seemed to be genuinely moved simply by being there.  The visit didn’t put Leighlinbridge on the international map forever, but it contributed to encouraging others to seek out the connection with their ancestral place.  Similarly, the visit of President Obama briefly focuses attention on Moneygall.  Its benefits to Irish tourism, to Irish genealogy and to the popularising of family history in general will trickle through for some time to come.

Paul Corry is a Member of the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland.

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