Saturday 24 February 2018

George Clooney's ancestors were driven out of Ireland by neighbours

George Clooney and his wife Amal
George Clooney and his wife Amal
Historian Fiona Fitzsimons, who traced the Clooney line back to the days when they were driven from these shores. Photo: Tony Gavin
Clooney Homestead in Windgap, Co Kilkenny
Jerome Reilly

Jerome Reilly

The Irish ancestors of Hollywood star George Clooney were victims of grotesque human rights abuses that drove them out of their pitiably small cottage on the Kilkenny Tipperary border, the Sunday Independent has revealed.

The treatment meted out to the forebears of the 53-year-old actor, director and activist, was so shameful that Clooney could be forgiven if he harboured a deep resentment of Ireland.

And nor can the British be blamed for the orchestrated campaign of harassment, intimidation and corrupt law that forced his direct ancestor, Nicholas Clooney and his siblings out of post-Famine Ireland. Rather it was the land-owning Irish around Windgap, Co Kilkenny who were involved in the "cleansing" of the Clooneys and their kith from their homesteads in the three years after the Great Famine ended in 1852.

The Clooneys were part of the cottier class - landless labourers working for bigger farmers who were paid in the form of a tiny piece of fallow land on which to grow their own subsistence crops.

But after the Famine, during which a million died from starvation and disease and another million emigrated, there was a repellent "survival of the fittest" battle among the natives as land ownership was consolidated.

In the eyes of big farmers, their odious "middlemen" and the landlords, cottiers like the Clooneys had no rights and were effectively disposable.

And they used crooked law to get rid of the Clooneys and their neighbours.

The proof was uncovered by the noted genealogist Fiona Fitzsimons of Eneclann, the award-winning history and heritage company which unearthed US President Barack Obama's Irish roots.

She says romantic claims made recently that the Clooneys have a connection with Abbeyleix, in Co Laois and that one of his female ancestors made carpets that were eventually laid on the Titantic, are without substance.

And claims that a hated British landlord drove them from their land in the famine is also untrue, she says

She told the Sunday Independent: "There is absolutely no documentary evidence linking George Clooney with the Clooneys of Abbeyleix. His connection is with Windgap."

'In the eyes of big farmers, cottiers like the Clooneys had no rights and were effectively disposable. They used crooked law to get rid of the Clooneys...'

Fiona discovered records and documentary proof that the Clooneys' Irish heritage was marked by violence and victimisation.

She also found authenticated records from the local Magistrates Court from August 1852 that paints a harrowing picture of the Clooneys' last days in Ireland.

Nicholas Clooney and six cottier neighbours who lived in ramshackle thatched cottages around the townland of Knockeen were convicted for "breach of the Sabbath by reaping oats on the 15th of August" of that year.

It was a low blow. Cottiers such as the Clooneys were forced to work six days a week. Only on the seventh day could they tend their own meagre crops.

Even then "Breach of the Sabbath" was an ancient law that the authorities generally ignored. Using the law against Nicholas was a contrivance to drive him off the land.

Nicholas, then just 23, was fined 4s 2d, about eight days wages, but refused to pay. He was imprisoned for four days with hard labour.

Nor was that the only harassment. In the spring of that year Nicholas took a case against a loathed neighbour by the name of Flynn who sublet a one-acre field - a little smaller than an American football pitch without the end zones - to the Clooneys.

Nicholas alleged Flynn had assaulted him, prevented the sowing of a crop of oats, turned his horse out of the field and threw his harrow over a ditch. The judge threw the case out because there were no independent witnesses.

Some time during the next three years Nicholas and his siblings Margaret, Thomas and Mary Clooney, threw their hat at dear old Ireland and emigrated to Kentucky.

They left behind their widowed mother Mary Clooney, though she was not alone. The Clooneys had earlier taken in young Mary Walsh who was probably an orphaned relative.

Mary later married a neighbour man called Burke and their descendants retain ownership of the land and what remains of the old Clooney homestead to this day.

The Clooneys put down deep roots in the fertile bluegrass country of Kentucky - presumably without a hint of regret at leaving Ireland.

George Clooney was born in Lexington in the Bluegrass State in 1961 and last year married international lawyer Amal Alamuddin whose life's work has centred the type of human rights abuses suffered by her husband's ancestors, more than 160 years ago.

Sunday Independent

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