The O'Bama Question
Southern Ohio learns that Barack Obama's Irish relatives are all around...but will it help his cause?
In rural Pickaway County, 30 minutes south of Columbus, Ohio, word has spread that two of Barack Obama's Irish-born ancestors are buried just a few miles away, writes Margaret Bernstein of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
The Democratic nominee who has faced strong headwinds in rural Ohio where he was beaten by Hillary Clinton in the primaries, now discovers that he has lots of distant relatives living across southern Ohio. All are white.
In New Holland, Ohio- Joshua Rea, 30, heard the news while having a bite at CC's White Cottage restaurant. "This is crazy, man," he said incredulously, reaching for a phone to call his dad - "Obama's ancestors lived right down the road," he told his father, a local farmer. "Our ancestors were probably kicking it with his ancestors."
Rea and plenty of other diners at the White Cottage admitted it comes as a big surprise to hear that Obama, often regarded simplistically as the black candidate for president, is related, on his mother's side, to the Kearney family, who migrated from Ireland two centuries ago and were early settlers in this part of the state.
Obama, the biracial son of a Kenyan father and a Kansas-born mother, grew up mainly in Hawaii and Indonesia.
Genealogists researching the family of Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, have found that a number of her relatives sailed from Ireland in the 1800s to stake claim to land in Ross, Fayette and Pickaway counties. Obama has never met his Ohio relatives.
He's no native son, but could his Ohio roots be a way to connect in a region of the state where he's had a hard time winning over white rural voters?
Democratic Party leaders aren't betting on it. They know it's a daunting job to persuade traditionally Republican voters in southern Ohio to support Obama.
Yet the fact that Obama has distant cousins scattered across Ohio's bottom half can't hurt, they say. Some party leaders even dare to hope that Obama's Irish ancestry and local kin could boost residents' comfort levels and possibly cause voters to grapple with whether they've bought into racial preconceptions about him.
The real question is, do the Kearneys want to be associated with him?
From Dayton to Chillicothe, they're learning that it can cause an uproar when you toss "Barack Obama's my cousin" into a conversation.
"I hope you're not telling anybody," a friend responded after Roger Kearney told her.
"My answer to her was, 'Of course I'm telling everybody. I'm proud of it,' " responded Kearney, of Miami County, the family's self-appointed historian, who informed his kin months ago that Obama is related by blood.
More than a few times, the revelation has prompted veiled or outright racist remarks from friends and acquaintances, forcing good-natured Kearney to find a comeback and risk rippling the once-placid social waters.
Kearney, 72, a retired technology director, stumbled upon the Obama relationship while reading an article that mentioned the presidential candidate is a descendant of an Irish immigrant named Fulmoth Kearney.
"Fulmoth! I've got him in my database," he crowed. He promptly contacted ancestry.com's chief family historian, Megan Smolenyak, the genealogist who had traced Obama's family back to Moneygall, Ireland, after reading the inscription on two tombstones in Ohio.
Although he didn't know much about Fulmoth, Kearney knew they were related. He had seen the unusual name on Ohio property records owned by Kearney men during the 1800s.
Kearney calculates that Obama is his fourth cousin, three times removed, but that's not the reason he supports him. He was a fan of Obama's before he knew they were related - ever since the then-aspiring senator gave a speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
His words touched Kearney deeply. "I didn't know who he was; I never heard of him. I heard his speech and I thought, 'That young man is going to run for president, and I'm going to vote for him.' "
The Kearneys are a bit of a surprise themselves: Although they live in heavily Republican counties and aren't closely knit, they seem to swim against the political tide.
Not all will commit to saying they'll vote for Obama. One relative, Barbara Kearney Taborn of Springfield, who is registered as an Independent, says she's still wavering. "He's promising us the world," and that worries Taborn, 68. "I'd like to see everything he says transpire, but I doubt very much if it will. He's got Congress to go through."
A sense she would be understood
Obama's Ohio kin are independent thinkers. That's obvious when you step inside Diane Kearney Pennock's home in Frankfort and see the 4-foot-tall sculpture of a hand created by her artist daughter, who opposes laws curbing her right to smoke her beloved Camels. Embellished with thousands of cigarette butts, the hand has an extended middle finger.
Pennock, 63, lives 15 miles west of Chillicothe in a home she inherited from her father, musician Robert Kearney. Debilitating osteo-rheumatoid arthritis has stripped her of her ability to work, so she lives on about $650 a month in public assistance.
"I've been poor all my life, so I'm not real thrilled with Republicans," said Pennock, a scrappy activist who helped convert a Chillicothe apartment building into a homeless shelter a decade ago. "I know how vulnerable women are. My husband dumped me in the streets of San Francisco with two kids and a suitcase."
With the economy tanking, she is distressed that shelter officials now offer housing only for men, and the closest women's shelter is nearly an hour away. "I'm like, 'Why don't you serve women and kids? Women, are they supposed to walk to Columbus?' "
"Look at the statistics here in Ross County. There's no jobs here," she fumed. "That's why I'm glad to have him as my cousin," she said of Obama.
Obama's background in community organizing, his concern for social services - Pennock said it all helps her to feel a kinship with him. "He's a politician, but I like him. He seems more aware than all the rest of them."
She's not the only one to see a hint of a family similarity.
Brian Donovan, chief executive officer of Eneclann, an Irish genealogy research firm, has traced the Kearneys back to the late 1600s and learned that Obama hails from a family of wigmakers who eventually became involved in Dublin politics.
One Obama ancestor, Michael Kearney, became a successful politician in Ireland and apparently faced heavy criticism from his opponent, Donovan said at a September genealogy conference, producing a pamphlet written against Kearney that stated, "No man alive was equally fired with ambition."
Obama's campaign did not comment for this story but offered a statement Obama has made in the past about his heritage: "I've got pieces of everybody in me."
U.S. Sen. John McCain, Obama's Republican opponent, has roots reaching back to Ireland, too. An ancestor, Alexander McKean, immigrated from Ireland and arrived in the Pennsylvania-Maryland area well before the Revolutionary War, according to genealogist Smolenyak. She has uncovered McCain ancestors in Iowa, Oklahoma, Mississippi, California, Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky - but none in Ohio.
McCain's campaign offered a statement when told of Obama's ancestry in Ohio, a battleground state. "Despite any distant ties he may have, Barack Obama's high tax and anti-growth record is far removed from the values of working families in southern Ohio."
Battling the Republican mindset in southern Ohio will take a lot more than just leaning on Obama's local roots, said Jim Ruvolo, former Ohio Democratic Party chairman.
"I certainly think the Republicans have been very good at getting folks in southern Ohio to vote on things other than their pocketbook. They've won the culture war against us down there," Ruvolo said. "We have to get back to talking basic economics; we have to get people to understand they're voting against their own self-interest."
Gov. Ted Strickland, a popular Democrat in southern Ohio who is campaigning heavily for Obama, seemed tickled at the news of Obama's local ties. Voters look for ways to connect with candidates, and Obama's sense of shared history with rural southern Ohio could be a boon, he said.
It's a reminder, Strickland said, that Americans are interconnected in ways they often fail to realize or understand. Yet he hopes people don't downplay Obama's identity as an African-American: "The fact that Barack Obama is the candidate of our party ought to be something we would feel proud of. It says a great deal about how far we have come.
"Ohio's supposed to be the mother of presidents," Strickland added with a chuckle. "Wouldn't it be interesting if we were the great-great-great-grandfather of a president?"
The Kearney clan has produced at least one new foot soldier for Obama.
Roger Kearney's Camry now boasts an Obama bumper sticker, and he's plunked three Obama signs into his yard. It's a big change from a few weeks ago, when he sometimes took off his Obama cap before going out in public, afraid to stir controversy.
Kearney said the bigotry that has popped up in conversations has pushed him to openly campaign for Obama. He's still stunned that a woman he knows well told him bluntly she won't vote for Obama because he is black.
Still, he refuses to be disheartened. "More and more people are accepting him as a brilliant young man" and are moving beyond old prejudices, Kearney said.
Kearney is optimistic that in November his newfound cousin will win the White House. And should that happen, "I'm hoping Barack makes me ambassador to Ireland," he said, laughing.
To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: email@example.com, 216-999-4876
Tiny Irish Village Is Latest Place to Claim Obama as Its Own
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 13, 2007; A14
MONEYGALL, Ireland -- Here they call him O'Bama.
Stephen Neill, a local Anglican rector, said church documents he has found, along with census, immigration and other records tracked down by U.S. genealogists, appear to show that Obama's great-great-great-grandfather, Fulmuth Kearney, was reared in Moneygall, then left for America in 1850, when he was 19.
Megan Smolenyak, chief family historian for Ancestry.com, an online repository of family history records, said that although no single "smoking gun" document was found, there are about 20 different records that when pieced together make her "absolutely certain" of Obama's Moneygall roots.
Kearney sailed to New York aboard the S.S. Marmion at a time when legions of Irish were leaving their famine-stricken island. The shoemaker's son made a life in America, and his family line eventually produced Ann Durham, who was born in Kansas, according to Ancestry.com. The Web site has posted some of Obama's records online.
While neither Obama nor his campaign has confirmed the connection, it has created a buzz in Moneygall, which has one stoplight, two pubs and a population of 298.
"Sure, it's great!" said Henry Healy, 22, a villager who said family records indicate he is distantly related to Obama. Like many Moneygall residents, he is suddenly following the U.S. presidential race more closely and rooting for his kinsman. "It would be brilliant if he won because for one thing, he is related to me, and also it would be good for the village."
When Ronald Reagan became president, it brought notoriety and tourism to his ancestral home in Ballyporeen, in County Tipperary. Moneygall, on the Tipperary-Offaly border, wouldn't mind that kind of a boost; there is already talk here of a need for a coffee shop to cater to the curious who might stop by.
Many U.S. presidents have Irish roots, including Bill Clinton, but none so famously as John F. Kennedy. Since Kennedy's 1963 tour through Ireland, when it seemed that nearly the whole country turned out to greet him, this country has changed dramatically: Joblessness has been replaced by prosperity, and rather than Irish youths leaving for work abroad, East Europeans and others are moving here in search of a better life.
Despite Ireland's rapid urbanization, Moneygall remains a quiet stop on the busy N7 road that runs through the green, hilly heart of the country, a place where families still have cows and time to chat.
"It's brought an uplift to the village," said Daphne Powell, who serves soft ice cream on the main street. There hasn't been such excitement here since a locally bred horse, Papillon, won the prestigious Grand National in England seven years ago, overcoming 33-1 odds.
In one of the village's two pubs -- which face each other and are owned by different members of the Hayes family -- Julia Hayes offered ham sandwiches and tea to a visitor as the smell of a turf fire filled the cool spring air.
"It's very exciting," she said, noting that local and foreign journalists have started to arrive. "I was hoping Hillary [Clinton] would get in, but now this has come up and I'd love to see him win."
Neill, the rector, said he had found baptismal and other church records related to the Kearney family in old, handwritten books that had been kept in a parishioner's home. Kyle Betit, a U.S. genealogist also involved in the Obama research, said that "many pieces of evidence on both sides of the water" link Obama to Moneygall.
Obama, the only African American in the U.S. Senate, has said about his diverse roots, "I've got pieces of everybody in me." Obama spokesman Bill Burton declined to comment on questions about a Moneygall connection.
Just over 1 percent of Ireland's population is black, and 88 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. That makes Obama's Irish Anglican connections quite a "novelty," said Healy, who now considers Obama to be family.
Neill said he faxed the Obama camp the church records he had found and hopes he gets a response.
Others are setting their sights on an Obama visit.
So many Irish people left their homeland in dire times, Neill said, that it is uplifting to see an emigrant's family faring well.
"We like to see people working their way to the top," he said.
2 May 2007
PROVO, UTAH - May 3, 2007 -- Ancestry.com, the world's largest online resource for family history, is now able to confirm that U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama's Irish ancestors originated in Moneygall and neighboring Shinrone in County Offaly, Ireland.
In celebration of St. Patrick's Day, Ancestry.com revealed on March 12th that Sen. Obama has Irish branches in his family tree. Following the news and in response to several inquiries, Ancestry.com continued its search of Obama's Irish ancestors.
Baptism and probate records linking the family line back to Moneygall have been unearthed with the assistance of Canon Stephen Neill in the Templeharry Rectory records, which until recently were stored in a parishioner's home.
"This research will once and for all put to rest any perceptions that Barack Obama is a first generation American, said Megan Smolenyak, Chief Family Historian for Ancestry.com. "Like most of us he has an interesting mix of ancestry, including some impressively early all-American roots."
Researchers initially thought that Obama's third great-grandfather, Falmouth Kearney, who sailed from Ireland to New York in 1850 at 19-years-old, was the only member of the family to emigrate. However, records reveal that other Kearney family members had in fact been in America since the 1790s.
One ancestor, Falmouth's paternal uncle, Francis, had in fact bequeathed land to his brother, Falmouth's father Joseph, with the condition that he emigrate in order to inherit. He did so along with his wife Phebe and four children, including Falmouth, although at various times in the mid-19th Century.
If interested, images of the Irish records are available upon request:
- Baptism records - Falmouth Kearney siblings
- 1825 marriage index - Falmouth Kearney parents
- 1850 U.S. passenger list records - Falmouth Kearney
- 1860 U.S. Federal Census - Falmouth Kearney
- Tombstones - Falmouth Kearney's siblings and parents
With 24,000 searchable databases and titles, Ancestry.com is the No. 1 online source for family history information. Since its launch in 1997, Ancestry.com has been the premier resource for family history, simplifying genealogical research for millions of people by providing them with many easy-to-use tools and resources to build their own unique family trees. Ancestry.com is part of The Generations Network, Inc., a leading network of family-focused interactive properties, including MyFamily.com, Rootsweb.com, Genealogy.com and Family Tree Maker. In total, The Generations Network properties receive 10.4 million unique visitors worldwide and over 450 million page views a month (© comScore Media Metrix, March, 2007).
Coltrin & Associates (for Ancestry.com)
212-221-1616 ext. 124
Coltrin & Associates (for Ancestry.com)
212-221-1616 ext. 101