It is estimated that there are about 40 million Americans who claim Irish descent. Hardly surprising then that 20 Presidents of the United States of America can claim to have Irish blood in their veins. President Obama’s Irishness is a relatively recent discovery and came as a surprise to many. There was no hint in his un-Irish surname nor was there any hint of a ruddy Irish complexion!
President John F Kennedy was the first President to come here to visit the home of his ancestors. His grandfather used to tell him stories of Ireland that he in turn had heard from his mother. In all, Kennedy had 8 great grandparents who left Ireland in the mid 1800s as famine gripped the country.
Migration has been a feature of Irish history more than almost any other country in the world. Long before the Famine – from 1600 – Irish people crossed the Atlantic,with considerable numbers leaving from 1720 onwards in a fairly steady stream. These early emigrants were mostly from the northern and eastern counties of Ireland. However, by far the largest numbers to emigrate did so around 1845 during and after the Famine, with huge numbers leaving from the south and west of the country.
The Kearney family, from who the 44th President Obama is descended, were a relatively prosperous family in Shinrone, and later in Moneygall, in County Offaly, or what used to be King’s County. Wigmakers by profession, the family was part of an extensive family business and later became shoemakers to their local community. There are records to show that the family were active in famine relief in the Moneygall area. A young Fulmuth Kearney left Ireland at the end of the Famine, arriving in New York in March 1850.The 1870 census records him farming in Indiana, where he died in 1878.
On St Patrick’s Day 2011 President Obama paid tribute to his ancestors and all people who left this country for a new life: ‘‘Like so many immigrants who came to call this country home, these men and women were guided by a deep faith and an unwavering belief that here in America a better life is available for anybody who’s willing to try. And even though they weren’t always welcomed in their new land, they persevered. They built and led and defended our country while still holding fast to their heritage. And in many ways, what it means to be Irish helped to define what it means to be American.”
On Monday May 23rd 2011, over 160 years after his ancestor left these shores, the most powerful man in the world will visit the tiny rural community where his ancestors lived out their lives. Beidh céad míle fáilte roimhe.
Those family historians who are exasperated trying to trace Irish family records will be particularly interested in reading the family history for it shows the difficulties with Irish records and how we need to rely on other sources for information.
Ancestors of American Presidents (2009 Edition), Gary Boyd Roberts reviewed here by Sean Murphy