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Bette Browne: Obama girls booked in for eye-opening visit to the first family's 'homeland'


US President Barack Obama with first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia

US President Barack Obama with first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia

Spencer Platt

US President Barack Obama with first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia

WHen President Barack Obama's kids come here this weekend with Michelle, they will be following what is fast becoming a White House tradition.

Caroline Kennedy is arriving to mark the visit of her father, President John F Kennedy, 50 years ago. And when another US first daughter, Chelsea Clinton, visited with her parents, the country had such an effect on her that she chose to write her college thesis on the Irish peace process.

But college is still a while off for Sasha, who turned 12 on Monday, and Malia, who will be 15 on American Independence Day, July 4. So they won't be thinking about a thesis just yet. However, their parents do expect them to write a report about their visit to Ireland.

That's one of the Obama family rules. "When Malia and Sasha go on trips, they write reports on what they have seen, even if their school does not require it," Michelle Obama has said.

The girls already know all about their dad's Irish links, but maybe not as much about their mother's. Yet the story of Michelle Obama's journey from slavery to the White House in five generations as the descendant of an Irish immigrant is an extraordinary one. It is also a window for the girls into the tangled web that makes up the history of relations between African-Americans and Irish-Americans.

The president, of course, is keenly aware of his wife's heritage, once remarking: "I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners." But back when he made those comments in 2008, the details of Michelle's ancestors had not yet been fully unearthed.

Now we know decisively that her ancestry traces back to a white Irish slave owner in the southern US named Andrew Shields, who was her great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. Her great-great-great-grandmother Melvinia was a slave who had children by Charles Shields, a grandson of Andrew Shields.

DNA technology was used to prove the links to Shields, which were first detailed by 'New York Times' journalist Rachel L Swarns in 'American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama'. Swarns' research drew on that done by Megan Smolenyak, the genealogist who discovered that the president's own roots go back to Moneygall.

But the girls will also be captivated by the country itself, an African-American friend of mine suggested, recalling her own visit to Ireland from Washington a few years ago.

"The people were wonderful. It still ranks as one of my best vacations ever. I think it'll be the same for them," JoAnne Allen predicted.

While Michelle wants the girls to connect with their history while they're here, they will also have plenty of down time. But they better not contemplate getting any Irish tattoos! That's a delicate family topic since the president warned the girls recently that if they ever got a tattoo, so would he and Michelle – the exact same tattoo in the same place and then go on YouTube and show it off as a family tattoo.

"Our thinking is that might dissuade them from thinking that somehow that's a good way to rebel," the president said.

But if they behave themselves – and by all account they have impeccable manners and are always on their best behaviour – they will undoubtedly get a chance to do some shopping. They both adore fashion and since they're staying at the Shelbourne, Grafton Street would be a natural starting point, followed by lunch in Temple Bar and a sightseeing tour.

The girls already have a number of Irish connections. They live in a house designed by an Irish-American, James Hoban, and they may well have picked up the cupla focal from their dad, who used them to great advantage in his 2011 Dublin speech.

They also have an Irish book their dad brought back to them from An Taoiseach. It was written by Padraic Colum about the myths and legends of Hawaii, their dad's birthplace, and was originally commissioned by the Hawaii legislature. "It just shows if you want to do good writing, you hire an Irishman," remarked the president when he accepted the book for his girls.

But now he'll be hoping that's not what the girls will do when it comes to writing their report about Ireland!

Irish Independent