President O'Bama's Irish Eyes -- and Ears? -- Smile in Ancestral Hometown

ABC News' Stephanie Smith, Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller report:

MONEYGALL, IRELAND -- President Obama Monday visited the town of his ancestors, the tiny town of Moneygall, about 90 miles from Dublin, to learn more about his family heritage and to pursue a perfect pint.

“The first time I had Guinness is when I came to the Shannon airport. We were flying into Afghanistan and so stopped in Shannon,” the president said as he hoisted a pint of Guinness in a Moneygall pub. “It was the middle of the night. And I tried one of these and I realized it tastes so much better here than it does in the States. ... What I realized was, is that you guys are -- You’re keeping all the best stuff here!”

The last time a U.S. president was so effusively welcomed to Ireland as a favorite was 1963 when President John Kennedy traveled here, calling it “the best four days of his life.” Almost 50 years later, another president with Irish roots is receiving the warm welcome.

The president’s journey to Moneygall began in 2007 when American genealogist Megan Slovenyak discovered the connection on Obama’s maternal side.

“I had no idea what his heritage would be. I was curious about how far back you would go to find an immigrant,” Slovenyak said. “Because we tend to elect people with deep colonial roots in America. And so I was curious about that. And so the first immigrant, the most recent one I encountered was Falmouth Kearney, who was his third grandfather who happened to be from Ireland. And as an Irish American I was pretty tickled about that.”

Slovenyak sent her information to Moneygall, to Canon Stephen Neill who was able to track the connection in the registries of the Templeharry Anglican Church here.

And indeed, Neill found records of the baptism of President Obama’s great, great, great grandfather Falmouth Kearney, the son of shoemaker Joseph Kearney.

“I was thrilled,” Neill tells ABC News. “A shiver went down my spine.”

Joseph and Phoebe Falmouth Kearney lived in Moneygall. His brother Francis had emigrated to Ohio and a week before his death in 1848, filed a will leaving a tract of land to Joseph “if he comes to this country.” Joseph went to the U.S. to claim his land in 1849. Falmouth and his sister Margaret Cleary soon followed.

“The Kearney family was involved in family relief committees” for the victims of the famine of the 1840s, said Neill. “They were among those who were better off, perhaps, and were better able to help those who were suffering in the post-famine period and the famine period.”

Falmouth Kearney married Charlotte Holloway. Their youngest daughter Mary Ann married Jacob William Dunham. Their son Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham married Ruth Armour, whose son Stanley Dunham married Madelyn Payne. Their daughter, Stanley Ann Dunham, married Barack Hussein Obama Sr. The rest, as they say, is history.

Moneygall has become for Obama what Crawford, Texas was for George W. Bush -- a small unknown town in the middle of nowhere transformed into a tourist attraction. Obama’s ancestral home on the main road in Moneygall -- rebuilt after the Kearneys left Ireland -- is now one of many tourist stops in the tiny town. On the bar at Ollie Hayes’ Pub sits a bust of the president; on the wall hang a 2008 Obama-Biden campaign poster and a picture of a smiling Obama hoisting a Guinness.

Ollie Hayes’ Pub today is where President Obama had his pint.

“I have been told that it makes a difference who the person behind the bar is,” the president said as Ollie Hayes tended bar. “People are very particular who is pouring your Guinness. Am I right about that?”

The crowd agreed.

“The perfect pint,” the president said. “Can people vouch for this guy?”

The crowd agreed.

“It’s quite an art,” the president said. “You think it’s ready? I want to get it perfect.”

While by some measures the president is only 3 percent Irish, that hasn’t stopped Moneygall -- a town of just 298 people -- from going all out to welcome the president. In preparation for today’s visit, the town was scrubbed clean, painted and repaved. American flags and O’Bama-themed souvenirs -- T-shirts, pens, hats, buttons -- are everywhere.

Today in Moneygall, President Obama greeted Henry Healy, 26, with a warm hug. The shy, unassuming accountant is Obama’s 8th cousin and has thus become a local celebrity.

“I don’t want anyone to treat me any differently,” Healy told ABC News. “I’m no different. I’m still Henry Healy from Moneygall. I’m not going to change. Look, if this connection wasn’t there, I still would be the same.”

But the townspeople don’t seem to think that.

“I’ve had people come up and ask to have their photographs taken with me and some of the children have asked for my autograph,” Healy said with a chuckle, “which was nice but it felt kind of strange having someone ask me for my autograph.”

Slavenyak showed us an old photo of Obama’s great, great, great Aunt Margaret Cleary, Fulmouth’s sister who may bear a certain resemblance to her descendant in one key area.

“I hope he takes this (in) the spirit I mean it,“ she says. “I think she’s the one he got the ears from. It seems to be the family trait. They had similar ears, yes.”

After learning of Slovenyak’s discovery during his presidential campaign, then-Sen. Obama brought up his Irish roots repeatedly on the campaign trail, acknowledging “it never hurts to be Irish.”

In 2008 he told a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in working class, Scanton, Penn.: “I know some of you have seen the signs with the apostrophe after the O, that indicated my bloodlines, but I also want you to know that Baragh is an old Celtic name.”

Slovenyak says there are probably many more Obama distant cousins around Ireland -- “6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th cousins quite distant but for sure in tomorrow's crowd there will be a lot of cousins there. "

In fact, we found one -- 80-year-old Ken MacShane -– who came all the way from Abbeyleix to share in the celebration. He says there is a connection to Obama from his relatives in the 1600’s.

“We think we are related because my mother was a Hunt,” said MacShane. “And we understand that one of the Hunts married one of the Kearneys in Barack Obama’s family. I really don’t know the exact relationship but I think it would be quite far back.”

“Distant,” MacShane continued. “Very distant cousin. Probably 8th or 9th or 10th cousin. Could be.”

Healy hopes Moneygall –- a town that has suffered tremendously from Ireland’s severe economic problems -- will change with all the attention.

“At the end of the day I keep emphasizing that it is the village of Moneygall that the president has chosen to come (visit), not to see me or anyone in particular,” he said. “It is to come back and see his ancestry. And I’m just delighted to play some part of this good news story. Our country has had enough of bad news over the last number of years.”

In hopes of attracting travelers and tourists to their town, Irish-American developer Pat McDonagh -- who owns a chain of Claddagh Irish Pubs in 15 locations in the U.S. -- is building a 12-acre shopping plaza in Moneygall that will be named after President Obama.

A spokesman for the project describes it as something of a local stimulus package, “providing 50 jobs to the town in a time when we all need jobs in the town. It's providing 70 construction jobs. It consists of a Supermac’s which is the brand we use here in Ireland for fast food. We have a pizza parlor, restrooms, shops and restaurants."

And Guinness, of course. The president told the crowd at Ollie Hayes’ Pub today: “I just want you to know that the president pay the bar tab. That’s how we do things, you know.”

-- Stephanie Smith, Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...