The Irish roots of Barack Obama

BARACK OBAMA was born on August 4 1961 in Honolulu to a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya. His parents met at the University of Hawaii, where his father was a foreign student on scholarship.

The couple divorced in 1964 and Obama’s father remarried and returned to Kenya. Barack’s mother then married an Indonesian student, Lolo Soetoro, and the family moved to Jakarta. He described his extended family as “like a little mini-United Nations”

Obama was raised by his grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn ‘Toot’ Dunham, from the age of 10 and they had a profound influence on him.

‘Toot’ in particular gave him a stable home and traditional American Midwestern values of prudence and hard work. At 20 Obama enrolled in Columbia University in New York City and majored in political science and international relations. In 1982 Barack’s father died in an automobile accident.

After four years Barack left New York and found work with a church-based community organisation on Chicago’s south side. His role put him into direct contact with some the most impoverished working class people in America.

All the while he becoming more and more aware of his African heritage and in 1988 he visited Kenya for the first time and met with his paternal relatives. Later that year he entered Harvard Law School and his election as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review gained media attention across the US.

In 1995 Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father was published, just as he was preparing to launch his political career in Chicago. Barack was elected as senator from Illinois 13th District in 1996 and was re-elected two years later.

In 2004 he delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston and it elevated his status among the American voting public. Obama announced his candidacy for the US presidency in 2007, in front of the building where Abraham Lincoln had delivered a historic speech during the Civil War.

The resultant race for The White House became the political event of a lifetime. Midway through the campaigning it was discovered that Barack Obama had Irish ancestry through his maternal great-great-great grandfather Falmouth Kearney. The village where Fulmouth was born, Moneygall, Co Offaly, was thrust into the international limelight.

Author and publisher Stephen MacDonogh of Brandon Books first become aware of Obama after he made his speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004. He watched Obama’s political development with interest and felt he fired the imagination of people like no one else.

Earlier this year MacDonogh released a book on Obama’s Irish heritage entitled The Road from Moneygall’.

“I didn't write the book because I am an Obama supporter,” Stephen tells me, “nor do I present myself as a political pundit. I find him fascinating as a person and politician. The circumstances he inherited were exceptionally negative.”

The story of Obama overcoming adversity and pioneering brave new initiatives mirrors that of his Irish ancestors who left behind Ireland’s darkest days. Falmouth Kearney was an Irish Protestant living in a predominantly Catholic area and felt that his future lay in the newly opened American west.

“I think Irish people are almost entirely unaware of the contribution made by pre-Famine Irish immigrants to the development of American society and religion in the areas to the west of the Appalachians,” MacDonogh says.

“It is a kind of hidden history, and I felt it was important to bring it to life as much as possible. I had to do without any memoirs, letters, or other material emanating from the Kearneys themselves. So, I had to knit together a narrative from the experiences of their contemporaries whose accounts have survived.”

Many Irish people believe John F Kennedy was the first Irish-American president. However, prior to JFK’s election in 1961 there were at least 11 US presidents, including Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, Ulysses S Grant, Grover Cleveland, and Woodrow Wilson who claimed Irish ancestry.

Buchanan’s father, James Buchanan sr, was born in Donegal, and his son nicknamed ‘Old Buck’ declared “My Ulster blood is my most priceless heritage” and Stephen is keen to celebrate these forgotten men of Irish-American history.

“In both Ireland and the US we inhabit a fallacious myth, that Irish and Catholic are synonymous and that Protestant means English,” MacDonogh states. “Through researching and writing the book on Obama’s Irish ancestors I learned a lot about the hidden role of the Protestant Irish in both the US and Ireland.”

The Irish Independent has described MacDonogh’s book as “endlessly fascinating” and The Irish Times wrote it is “a thought-provoking study of what it means to be Irish”.

Stephen MacDonogh will give a talk entitled US Presidents and their Irish ancestry at NUI, Galway’s Aula Maxima on Friday September 17 at 8pm as part of the Galway Americana Festival 2010.

The event is co-sponsored by American Democrats Abroad and NUIG Arts Office. Admission is free. See www.nuigalway.ie/arts_office

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