Tiny Irish Village Is Latest Place to Claim Obama as Its Own

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 13, 2007

MONEYGALL, Ireland -- Here they call him O'Bama.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, Democratic candidate for president, is the talk of this village because recently unearthed records indicate that he is a son of Moneygall.

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.

Durham married a Kenyan, also named Barack Obama, who was studying in Hawaii, and in 1961 they had a son, now a leading candidate to become president of the United States.

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.

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