Obama's Irish Ancestry

Tracing Barack Obama's Irish lineage, Jenny Cathcart discovers a family connection

45 years on from Dr Martin Luther King’s 'I Have a Dream' speech, America had its first African-American president. Reading his autobiography, Dreams from my Father, one gets a sense of Barack Obama’s humanity and keenness to understand the African culture of his Kenyan, Muslim father.

Having visited the family compound in Kenya in 1988, he deduced that his father’s apparent aloofness (they met briefly when Barack was a boy in Hawaii) was due more to male pride than any issues of race, religion or colour.

'The silence killed your faith,' Obama writes. 'And for the lack of faith you clung both too much and too little to your past. Too much of its rigidness, its suspicions, its male cruelties. Too little in the laughter of Granny’s voice, the pleasures of company while herding the goats, the murmur of the market, the stories around the fire…'

One wonders what thoughts the president might have in relation to his Irish heritage.

Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, who came from Kansas, had protestant Irish ancestors, a fact which only came to light when it was discovered by the American company Ancestry.com, and followed up by Eneclann, based at Trinity College, Dublin.

When he heard about his Irish family connections, Obama is said to have joked that, had he known about it earlier it would have helped him as a young community worker and politician in the early days in Chicago, a city with a large Irish population.

The story of Obama’s great great great grandfather, Fulmuth Kearney – born into a family of boot makers in Moneygall, County Offaly – is intriguing.

In March 1850, Fulmuth (sometimes written Fulmouth or Falmouth) sailed with his sister Margaret and her husband Matthew Clery on the Marmian to New York. From there they journeyed to Ohio, to be joined later by their parents, Joseph and Phoebe Kearney. Their uncle, Francis Kearney, had bequeathed land to Joseph on condition that he came to America. Joseph duly arrived in 1848, followed by his wife in 1853.

Mystery surrounds the name Fulmuth, a most uncommon name. When Canon Stephen Neil, a Church of Ireland clergyman from Cloghjordan near Moneygall, checked the parish records, he found notice of the marriage of Joseph and Phoebe Kearney and the baptism of their children. While there was a Timothy Kearney, however, there was no mention of any Fulmuth.

In summer 2009, at the William Carelton Summer School, held at the Corick House Hotel in Clogher, County Tyrone, Dr Brian Walker, professor of Irish Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast, presented a paper entitled 'Barack Obama and the Irish connection'.

He offered one anecdotal explanation as to how Fulmuth could have been baptised Timothy. During the baptism of a child in a shipyard parish in east Belfast in the 1930s, the Reverend Cuthbert Elliott asked the child’s father, a trade union leader and communist, to name the child. The man replied 'Karl Marx', whereupon the rector baptised the boy Carolus Marcus.

'Could it be,' asked professor Walker, 'that Joseph Kearney presented his son to be baptised Fulmuth, and the clergyman, thinking this wasn’t a proper name, baptised him Timothy?'

From the audience of summer school delegates at Walker's lecture came other suggestions. Perhaps Fulmuth was a nickname and the child had a full mouth of teeth when he was baptised! Or maybe he had no teeth at all? Historian Jack Johnston allows that in farming circles, a Full Mouth Ewe can be up to four years old and still have a full set of teeth. Was Fulmuth a sheep dealer? These questions remain unanswered.

Yet professor Walker remains convinced that Fulmuth was the son of Joseph and Phoebe, because Fulmuth named all of his eight children save one (Elizabeth) after close family members. There was Joseph and Phoebe, Martha (mother of Fulmuth’s wife) Francis, Margaret, William and Mary Ann, who became the great-great grandmother of Obama.

In the second part of his lecture, Walker used the example of the Kearneys, Church of Ireland Protestants from the south of Ireland, to illustrate how there was a group of Irish immigrants in America who were neither Ulster Scots nor the so-called 'Famine Irish', and who contributed significantly to the overall Irish population.

The Ulster Scots, mainly Presbyterians, who emigrated from the north of Ireland to America in the 18th century, arrived before the Famine Irish who left Ireland after the late 1840s. In general the latter settled mainly in New York and Boston, whereas the earlier Protestant immigrants, personified by frontiersmen like Davy Crockett, had a more individualistic and pioneering spirit and ventured to the Mid West, the Appalachians and the southern states.

Walker points out that, due to mathematical and multiplying factors, the early Protestant Irish settlers would have become more numerous than the Catholic Irish. By 1980, the US census recorded 40 million Irish, making them the third largest immigrant group after the Germans and the English. Several opinion polls in the late 1970s and 80s revealed that around 55% of those who claimed an Irish ancestry were Protestant.

In the frontier territories, where there were fewer Catholic priests, nominal Catholics simply worshipped in the nearest Baptist or Methodist churches. There were several waves of conversion to Evangelical and nonconformist sects such as Baptists and Methodists.

The 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s mother was Sheerin, and probably came from a Catholic Irish family. But Palin is an Evangelical Christian. Ronald Regan was born of a Catholic father and a Protestant mother, yet, whilst his brother remained a Catholic, he was a Protestant. Bill Clinton’s ancestors, Cassidys from Fermanagh, were Catholic physicians to the Maguires, but he too is Protestant.

It was not until the 1990 census that Americans were allowed to record their ancestry as Scots Irish, but this produced a relatively small number of people. While 38 million said they had Irish ancestry, only 5.6 million said they were Scots Irish. The 2000 census records 30 million Irish and 4 million Scots Irish, a drop of 10-20 per cent in both cases.

'It can be assumed,' concluded Walker, 'that many more people are now registering simply as American, but the question still remains. Where did the Protestant Irish who were not Scots Irish come from?' He points us back to the Kearney family and their ilk, Church of Ireland Protestants from the south of Ireland.

Ann Dunham was born a protestant and her son Barack espoused Christianity rather than the Muslim faith of his father. Professor Walker’s own ancestor, David Walker, served in the US cavalry and another, Greer Garson, Hollywood star of Cecil B de Mille’s Oscar winning film Mrs Miniver, was not an English rose but an Ulster rose.

Back in Moneygall, a Kearney married a Healy and one of those Healy’s married Ann Hodgins whose family owned Hodgins House, a coaching inn on the Main Street of Moneygall. Ann was my own maternal great grandmother. So, lo and behold, the records prove that I am a third cousin of an eighth cousin of Barack Obama! It's a small world, after all.