Friday 20 October 2017

Secret Ireland: O'Bama country

Jason Austin pictured with son Matthew and niece Sophie
Jason Austin pictured with son Matthew and niece Sophie
Ollie Hayes
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

Mr President will be here any day. Pól Ó Conghaile drops in on star-spangled Offaly

The Obama homestead

"Our family's story is one that spans miles and generations, races and realities," Barack Obama once said. "It's the story of farmers and soldiers, city workers and single moms. It takes place in small towns and good schools, in Kansas and Kenya, on the shores of Hawaii and the streets of Chicago."

To that story, we can now add a plain old townhouse in Moneygall, Offaly.

According to records held in the National Archives, No 123 Main Street is the homestead where Phoebe and Joseph Kearney, a local shoemaker, were noted to have been living in the early 1850s.

Phoebe and Joseph were the parents of Falmouth Kearney, the young 20-year-old who left Ireland in 1850, and whose great-great-great grandson is now President of the US.

Back then, the Primary Valuation of Ireland House Books found the house thatched with stone or lime mortar walls, and in "very bad" condition. It's in better nick today, albeit a dull building with a pebbledash façade which motorists will have driven past countless times on the old N7.

Standing outside, I can just about imagine Falmouth and his family living through the Famine in this house.

At the western end, the original house wall is visible. The second storey, with dormer windows and TV antennae, was presumably added in the 20th century.

The interiors of No 123 are being stripped back to their original 1850s state for the President's visit (the fire will even be lit), but it remains privately owned and, though unoccupied, closed to the public.

Lace curtains veil a tantalising potential within -- it's crying out for a heritage reboot.

Find it: Main Street, Moneygall, Co Offaly.

The ancestral schoolhouse

Dulux has been quick to hop on the Obama-wagon, providing not just the paint to give Moneygall a makeover, but a colour co-ordinator to advise people, too.

"I'd say 95pc of them went with her advice," says local man Henry Healy, who says he shares a sixth great-grandmother with Obama and is his eighth cousin. "The other 5pc got what they wanted."

Moneygall local Jason Austin went for a stars and stripes theme.

One building that won't need a lick of paint is the Church of Ireland schoolhouse, which dates from the early 1800s and where . Falmouth Kearney attended class.

The schoolhouse is a private residence closed to the public, though word has it that the owner will open the door if President Obama fancies a cup of tea.

Recessed between two townhouses on Main Street, its vaulted windows look like a mini- church shorn of its steeple.

Find it: Main St, Moneygall.

The pint of Guinness

"I'm looking forward to going over there and having a pint," Obama told a reporter after winning the Iowa caucus in 2008.

Three years and one historic election victory later, it looks as if the US president will finally be held to his word in Moneygall.

"Please God I'll be able to give him a pint of Guinness," says Ollie Hayes, who proudly flies the stars and stripes alongside the tricolour and EU flag outside his premises on Main Street.

"I'll give him instructions and let him pull the pint himself, if he likes."

Hayes' is one of just two pubs in Moneygall (the other is owned by Ollie's uncle), and it was the hub for local celebrations of Obama's election, inauguration and St Patrick's Day announcement. It's a comfy little lounge in which snack bars and whiskey bottles sit alongside 'Obama's Irish Bar' T-shirts and a brand new coffee machine.

The walls are festooned with presidential paraphernalia. There are framed posters from Obama's campaign, a life-size bust on the bar counter, pictures of churches and parish records associated with his Irish ancestors, an 'Obama Abú' sticker on the door, and -- best of all -- a painting of the president with a pint of Guinness in hand.

Ollie is screwing on new vent covers when I stop by. He won't deny that the Secret Service have stuck their noses in, and he's hopeful the president will follow. He'll soon find out.

Find it: Main Street, Moneygall, Co Offaly. Tel: 0505 45230.

The unmarked graves

Before Obama's Irish roots were discovered, Moneygall's biggest celebrity export was Papillon, the racehorse who won the Aintree Grand National in 2000.

Today, the town is gearing up for the homecoming of Falmouth Kearney's great-great-great grandson. A committee has been set up to coordinate the gifts, brains are being racked as to where to land the helicopter, and pretty much everyone is angling for a stool in Ollie Hayes' bar.

Although plans to build a 150-bed 'Barack Obama Hotel' have sensibly been scuppered, an M7 service stop under construction just outside the town has already been dubbed 'Obama Plaza'.

Somewhere amid the chattering birdsong of Cullenwaine Cemetery lies the source of all the excitement. The graves are unmarked, impossible to identify amongst the dandelion- dappled ruins, but this is where many of the Kearneys, Obama's ancestral family, lie buried.

Nearby, Dunkerrin Cemetery (below) is believed to be another Kearney resting place.

Find it: From Moneygall, take the first left off the R490 to Cloughjordan. Cullenwaine is a short distance up the road on the right hand side.

Beyond Moneygall

"It is a roller-coaster," says Henry Healy, the local man whose ancestral connection to Obama (they share a sixth great-grandmother) has earned him the nickname Henry the Eighth.

"Dunganstown in Co Wexford would be what we're hoping to emulate here. John F Kennedy was the first Catholic president. Obama is the first African-American president."

Though Moneygall is the centre of attention, however, Offaly is far from the only county with ancestral links, as Stephen MacDonagh outlines in his book, 'Barack Obama: The Road from Moneygall'.

Some 40 miles away, the tomb of Nicholas O'Kearney, a member of the Munster Kearneys who died in 1460, can be found in the Rock of Cashel.

Another ancestor, Michael Kearney, born in 1734, went to the Quaker school established by Abraham Shackleton in Ballitore, Co Kildare.

Some of the 18th-century Kearneys were artisans working as wig and shoemakers, but Obama's great-great-great-great-grand-uncle John went on to greater things, becoming Provost of Trinity College and later Bishop of Ossory.

His tomb in St Canice's Cathedral in Kilkenny bears the inscription: "In the studies of things divine and human he trained his mind with diligence and refinement."

It was in the genes, as a smiling Canon Stephen Neill suggests.

Find it: discoverireland.ie/cashel; kildare.ie; visitkilkenny.ie.

The baptismal records

When Canon Stephen Neill discovered the records that bolstered Obama's connection to Moneygall, a shiver went down his spine. Watching the big-boned clergyman thumb through the old baptismal, marriage and funeral documents today, I feel a similar sensation.

The records belong to Templeharry church, an austere Anglican pile located off the Moneygall to Cloughjordan Road. They're just as you would expect -- slim, dog-eared old volumes bristling with yellowing paper and fraying seams, little bits of history in his hands.

The name Kearney crops up several times, but the spine-tingling reference concerns the baptism of a boy born to Phoebe and Joseph Kearney in 1829. Although named as Timothy, Canon Neill believes this can only be Falmouth, Obama's great-great-great grandfather.

Dating from the early 1800s, the church itself opens one Sunday a month in summer, but given the hubbub, that may change (the records are not currently on view to the public).

Inside, an old pedal harmonium nestles between the pews, overlooked by a jewel of a stained-glass window.

Find it: From Moneygall, take the second left off the R490 to Cloughjordan. Templeharry Church is about one mile up on the right hand side. Details of services are on modreeny.com.

The forgotten town

Moneygall has been making hay from its Obama links, but there's another Offaly town with a justifiable claim on the US president.

Hidden away in an overgrown cemetery next to St Mary's Church of Ireland in Shinrone, locals believe, are the graves of at least 15 Kearney ancestors. "This is as far back as the family can be traced," says rector Michael Johnston, flicking carefully through a sepia-tinted book of records.

Inside, the beautiful old handwriting throws up no fewer than 45 Kearney references, including a line recording the baptism of Patrick, son of Obama's seventh great-grandfather Joseph Kearney, in 1741.

Shinrone is proud of the connection. In the local national school, headmaster Joe Cleary shows me a noticeboard children have filled with projects ("Rugadh Barack Obama in Honolulu, Hawaii, sa bhliain 1961"), paintings of St Mary's and a letter sent to his daughters, Malia and Sasha.

The village has extended an invitation to the White House but, despite good feedback, has yet to get any kind of confirmation. They'll celebrate regardless. A granite memorial plaque has just been erected beneath the yew trees at the parish church.

Find it: Shinrone, Co Offaly. Tel: 0505 47164.

Weekend Magazine

Editors Choice

Also in Life