Archive Online – Obama, Irish American. Summer 2010


Archive: Summer 2010, Issue no. 322

Interview with Shirley Kelly and Steve MacDonogh, author and publisher of Barack Obama: the road from Moneygall (Brandon).

Note: Steve MacDonogh, aged just 61, died suddenly in November 2010, shortly after this article was published. His publishing house Brandon is now part of The O’Brien Press.


 

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Steve MacDonogh: ‘Obama never played the Irish card’

road_to_moneygallAt a glance, Barack Obama: the road from Moneygall (Brandon) looks like a cynical attempt to talk up the US president’s Irish ancestry for commercial gain. But first impressions are sometimes unfair. This book is, in fact, a thoughtful and scholarly work that traces the exodus of several generations of Irish Protestants to the US during the nineteenth century and their role as pioneering settlers in the western territories. Obama’s African roots have been well-documented, in his own books and others, but this is the first in-depth account of his Irish lineage and Obama should be grateful to Brandon publisher Steve MacDonogh for researching his family history so thoroughly. MacDonogh’s original plan was to commission the title from an Irish historian, but when that arrangement fell through he decided to do the job himself.

“My involvement in this project was a comedy of errors really,” he says. “My Irish historian couldn’t commit to researching the American side of the story, and I couldn’t find anyone else to do it. Then he pulled out altogether and, because I was already hooked on the subject, I decided to carry on by myself.”

Barack Obama’s great-great-great grandfather, Falmouth Kearney, was born in Moneygall, County Offaly in 1831. He lived through the famine years and left Ireland for America in 1850, aged 19. His uncle, Thomas Kearney, had emigrated to Baltimore, on the east coast, some sixty years previously and joined the movement westwards in search of land during the early 1800s. It was a treacherous and uncertain journey for these early settlers; they faced attacks by native American tribes, and the constant threat of starvation, dehydration and disease. Thomas Kearney arrived in Ross County, Ohio, with his wife and children and little else, but the family thrived there and paved the way for their relatives, including Falmouth. MacDonogh shows how the Kearneys continued to prosper and disperse throughout the United States, and highlights the largely overlooked role played by Protestant Irish families in the making of the United States.

“In America it’s traditionally assumed that if you’re Irish then you must be Catholic. The history of the Irish emigration to the US has focused almost exclusively on Catholics, but many emigrants, like the Kearneys, were Protestant and they were particularly prominent in the settlement of the western territories. But they did not define themselves as Irish to the extent that the Catholic Irish did. They joined other nationalities, like the English and the Germans, on the journey west and they assimilated very quickly. John F. Kennedy is seen as the first Irish-American president, but in fact there were eight presidents of Irish ancestry before him. Kennedy was just the first Catholic, the rest were Protestant Irish.” In 1887, one of the Kearney clan, Mary Ann, married Jacob William Dunham, son of a neighbouring settler family of English ancestry, and the couple moved to Kansas. One of their sons, Ralph Waldo Dunham, would become Obama’s great-grandfather. He died in 1970, when Obama was nine years old. Ralph’s son Stanley Dunham, and his wife Madelyn Payne, would play a central role in young Obama’s life.

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Pic: The young Barack Obama with his maternal grandfather.

They moved from Seattle to Honolulu in 1960, just in time for their only child, Stanley Ann to enrol at the University of Hawaii. There, in a Russian language, she met the college’s first African student, Barack Obama senior, and they fell in love.

They married in February 1961 and six months later their son Barack was born. In june of that year Obama senior accepted a scholarship to Harvard and that, in effect, was the end of the father-son relationship.

Stanley Ann Dunham would go on to a career in international development, working for various relief agencies, while her parents provided a stable home in Honolulu for young Obama.  His grandmother, in particular, was a strong role model. Starting out as an office clerk, she eventually became the first woman vice-president of the Bank of Hawaii. Speaking of his grandmother on the night he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, Barack Obama said: “She’s the one who taught me about hard work. She’s the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life. she poured everything she had into me.”

mcdonagh_201604061318_0001This book began as a sideline to MacDonogh’s full-time job as a publisher, but it soon turned into a major undertaking. “Initially I thought I would speak to a couple of American historians and get a feel for the Irish American side of the story,” he says. “But then I discovered this whole Protestant Irish element and it became a much bigger project. I ended up doing a whistle-stop tour of the US. I was up at 5 a.m. visiting Ohio, Kansas, Indiana, Baltimore. I was able to continue my research online and on the phone. I asked Obama’s people if he would give me an interview but they declined.”

He’d still love to meet Obama, and hand him a copy of the book. ” I admire the man, although politically I’m to the left of him, and like most people find him interesting. People have invested a lot of hope in him. I also found it interesting that throughout his election campaign he never played the Irish card. Again and again he articulates what unites America, not what divides it, so he doesn’t court particular ethnic groups. It might have been a different story if his ancestors were Catholic Irish.”


Interview by Shirley Kelly

 Books Ireland archive: Summer 2010, Issue no. 322


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