By VIVIENNE MACKIE
We were in Ireland this summer for the first time and loved it, especially for the friendly people and relaxed lifestyle. We found that Americans really love going to Ireland, partly because so many have Irish ancestors. This was especially noticeable in Killarney in the southwest of the country, but it’s a trend we see all over Ireland.
This got us thinking about the influence that many of those Irish immigrants to the U.S. had on the country and the culture. Those early Irish immigrants enriched this country, and who is to say that future immigrants (from anywhere actually) will not do the same? Despite what the current administration and president are doing.
Anyway, one day, as we drove back to Dublin on the motorway, we started to make a list of prominent people, and an obvious entry was the Kennedys, but who else? So it was an amazing coincidence that we pulled off to a big services area (with gas, a food court with seating, bathrooms, etc.) to discover that it’s called Barack Obama Plaza.
The little village of Moneygall is where some of Obama’s ancestors were from, and they wanted to honor them all. It’s at junction 23 of the M7. As it says, “Welcome to Moneygall, County Offaly, the ancestral home of the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama.”
Moneygall derives its name from the Irish Muine Gall, meaning “thicket of the foreigners,” which is interesting, as a few hundred years ago, there probably weren’t many foreigners there.
The plaza also has an exhibition upstairs called “From Moneygall to the White House: The Influence of the Irish Abroad.” We spent an hour or so up there, and it was a fascinating exhibition. The focus was on Obama and his family, but we discovered that, in fact, 22 American presidents had Irish or Scots-Irish, ancestry. That’s quite a number.
There are a number of photos of Obama’s visit to Moneygall in 2011 and of him being presented on St. Patrick’s Day 2015 with a framed portrait of his great-great-great grandfather, who was from Moneygall. There are also many good information boards and the American and Irish flags.
How did this happen to Moneygall?
In 2008, to everyone’s surprise, including the locals, this small village came into the international spotlight when it was discovered that a great-great-great-grandson of one of its former residents was about to assume the role of leader of the free world. Three years later, Obama made a pilgrimage to this village his ancestors had left more than a century-and-a-half earlier.
This exhibition tells the story of his ancestors — the Kearneys — and the journey of Falmouth Kearney, the son of a local shoemaker, and his descendants from Moneygall to the White House. It also highlights the impact that Irish emigration has had on the New World, especially the United States.
This is how the story goes:
Sometime around 1800, the Kearney family bought property rights in the small market village of Moneygall, County Offaly (then called Kings County). William Kearney (1762-1828) and his son Joseph (c.1794-1861) worked here as shoemakers. Around 1825, Joseph Kearny married Phoebe Donovan. The couple lived in the heart of the village and had at least three children, including a son named Falmouth. Kearney, also spelled Carney, derives from the Gaelic surname O’Cearnaigh, meaning “victorious.”
During the dark years of the Great Hunger, or Great Famine (1845-1852) — as starvation, disease and emigration decimated the local population — a surprise inheritance gave hope to the Kearneys. Some years earlier, Joseph’s younger brother Francis had emigrated to the United States. Just before his death in 1848, Francis filed a will in the courthouse in Circleville, Ohio, leaving a tract of land to his brother, “if he comes to this country.”
The following year, Joseph traveled to America to claim his land. His eldest son, Falmouth, soon followed. In 1865, the last of the family left Moneygall for new lives in Ohio.
Two years after he arrived in America, Falmouth married Charlotte Holloway. Charlotte died in 1877 and Falmouth, the following year. They had five daughters and at least three sons. Barack Obama is the great-great-grandson of Falmouth’s youngest daughter, Mary Jane.
How was this all found out?
In 2007, an Irish-American genealogist, Megan Smolenyak, discovered that the presidential candidate was part Irish on his mother’s side. His great-great-grandmother was Mary Ann Kearney, and the U.S. Census of 1870 showed that her father, Falmouth, came from Ireland. After some searching, he was found listed as “Falmouth Carney” on his arrival in New York on March 20, 1850. Luckily, the ship’s manifest also noted his final destination — Ohio. And Falmouth appeared in the U.S. Census of 1860 living in Deerfield, Ohio, with his wife and four daughters.
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when the tombstone of Joseph Kearney, Falmouth’s father, was discovered in Ohio, which gave his birthplace as Moneygall. This led to contact with Canon Stephen Neill of Templeharry Church, near Moneygall, who confirmed the connection using local Church of Ireland records.
It’s a nice story, and the people of Moneygall are very proud to honor and acknowledge Obama. According to the story here, Obama was very happy to be here and pleased to acknowledge that ancestry, and to encourage Ireland as a country to never give up. He even concluded a speech later in Dublin with the words, “Is Feidir Linn,” which in Irish means “Yes We Can.”
Vivienne Mackie, an Urbana resident, loves to travel — especially when new foods and wines are involved. Visit her blog at viviennemackie.wordpress.com.