04.14.11

Barack Obama's Irish Roots

The Irish village of Moneygall is preparing to welcome an American president whose ancestor was a native son. Obama's planned May visit has excited locals—and prompted more racial awareness, writes Tom Sykes.

President Obama set down in Dublin Monday as part of a six-day European trip that will include a stop in Moneygall, the tiny town where his great-great-great grandfather was born. In anticipation, the 350 people who live there have painted their homes and opened a coffee shop called “Obama’s café.” Tom Sykes on the president's Irish roots.

The great, but generally unvocalized, astonishment of the people of Moneygall is not so much that one of their descendants is president of the United States, but that one of their descendants is black. You see, a lad going off to America and doing well for himself … well, all the folks in the pub drinking their pints of Guinness can get their heads around that story; sure, wasn't JFK the most famous Irishman of all?

But a black man? From Moneygall? What?

Moneygall, a very, very small village on the edge of a very, very large Irish bog, is the hometown of Barack Obama's great-great-great-great-grandfather, Joseph Kearney, an Irish wigmaker who emigrated to Ohio in 1849. As such, it will host the president on his current trip to Ireland.

After a bit of bemused head-scratching when the genealogical breakthrough was made by a parish priest during Obama's battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, the news has now been digested and processed by the collective consciousness of Moneygall, population 299.

So when (not if) the subject of "O'Bama" comes up at Ollie Hayes's stars and stripes-festooned saloon—Ollie's has been declared Obama HQ by the media because the Kearney family home was located out the back, and Obama's 24-year-old ninth cousin, Henry Healy, a plumber, drinks there—and you start to say, "But how come…" they cut you off right away, and explain patiently that Obama is "mixed race" and his mother's side are Irish and his father's side are Kenyan, and this is why the president is dark-skinned.

"People didn't really relate to the idea of a black president having Irish roots."

But the fact remains: Moneygall is very, very white. There are no black people living in the village, although there is a "very nice Indian family" living in the housing estate outside town. But Moneygall is not unusual in that respect; rural Ireland is very, very white. The 2006 census showed that just 1.06 percent of Irish citizens are black, and outside major city centers, black people are still a rarity. In the countryside, the presence of black people is usually commented on. Inadvertent racism pervades conversation and society, both polite and impolite. Mixed-race people, for example, are often referred to as "half-castes" or "half-and-halfs."

A university-educated, professional friend of mine who was going to stay with an Irish friend in London who is married to a black woman recently told me he was due to visit "Mandela Hall." It's not malicious (usually), just naivete and a lack of familiarity, awareness, and education. But still, you don't quite know where to look.

You might expect the Irish to be a bit more sensitive. They are far from unfamiliar with prejudice themselves. Generations of Irish emigrants saw signs in the windows of London hotels reading, "No Blacks, no Irish, no dogs."

Moneygall itself has been through an accelerated racial-awareness program since the news of Obama's heritage broke. You hear more people using the words "mixed-race" than "half-caste" here. But the village was unusually well-prepared compared with most of rural Ireland for the extraordinary news that one of their descendants was black, for, back in the 1930s, another black man lived in Moneygall.

His name was Joe Kelly, and he lived at the local big house, Ballintemple, which is located directly opposite the Anglican church where Obama's ancestors worshipped, married, and christened their children, and where the records identifying Obama's heritage were found. Ballintemple was occupied by a family of farmers called Burris until around 1930, when it was sold to the grandparents of the current owner, Henry Hogg.

"We still call his old room 'Joe Kelly's room,'" Hogg says. "Children from orphanages were basically handed out to families, and Joe Kelly was taken in by Mrs. Burris. When the house was sold the family 'inherited' Joe Kelly. He came with the house. It was where he had always lived, so he wouldn't actually have had anywhere else to go. My uncle later told me that his mother was a prostitute in Dublin. He was a houseboy for Mrs. Burris and then he was a houseboy for my grandmother. He used to go into Cloghjordan (a nearby town) at the weekends and go to the pub and so on.

"Then, one day in 1942," Hogg continues, "he went into town and never came back. He disappeared. My grandmother was very concerned about him and asked after him, to try and find out what had happened, and she was told he had been seen getting on the train to Dublin. We think he might have joined the army and been killed in the war.

"But, still, when I came back to Ballintemple in the 1980s, my uncles had left his old room completely undisturbed, on the expectation that he might some day come back. This was the only home he ever had. The room was left exactly as it was. I finally cleared out Joe Kelly's room about 10 years ago when we refurbished the house. His clothes were still hanging in the cupboards."

Were people shocked when they discovered that Obama is of direct Irish heritage?

"Shocked would be the wrong word, but people were highly surprised, because of his skin color," Hogg says. "People didn't really relate to the idea of a black president having Irish roots. But when they looked at it, and saw that Obama's mother is white, and his father is Kenyan, then they understood it. A marriage like that is quite normal in America, but it would be highly unusual here.

"Now, of course, people in the village think it is a huge honor to host an American president. The only concern now is whether they will actually get the opportunity to meet him. Because of the level of security, it is obviously not going to be like meeting a local politician. People are wondering how it will all work out. People really want to meet him, and shake his hand."

As the preparations were gathering pace, Brendan Wright, a representative of the paint company, Dulux, who was having a drink at Ollie's, said the company was providing free paint for the whole main street to be repainted. "The people just need to choose what color they want," he told me munificently, as he drained his glass.

When the president of the United States is coming to town, it seems, you really can have any color you want.

Tom Sykes, 36, is a British writer and journalist. He was formerly nightlife reporter for the New York Post and now tries to live a largely blameless life in Ireland with his wife, two kids, three pigs, six hens, and a turkey. He is the co-author, with Detmar Blow, of Blow by Blow, a biography of Isabella Blow.