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Obama: A Tale of Irish Wigmakers, Shoemakers & Oratorical Bishops

Barack Obama as a teenage high schooler in Hawaii.

Barack Obama descends from an Irish shoemaker who emigrated to Ohio in 1850 when the family wig-making business dissolved in Ireland. This story looks at his unlikely links to the Kearney dynasty, one of whom was Provost of Trinity College Dublin, as well as the de Montmorency family of Castle Morres, County Kilkenny.

 

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Jane de Montmorency Wright lived at Burnchurch House, Bennettsbridge, Co. Kilkenny, for most of my adult life. The house is next door to where my late grandparents lived, although I had also known Jane from her time helping my father as his secretary during the early 1980s. She passed away on 12 November 2014 and was survived by her three children, Jasper, Caroline and Nell.

Back in September 2009, Jane was leafing through the Kilkenny People at Burnchurch when she read the news. A local film-maker called Gabriel Murray had apparently located the long-lost tomb of Barack Obama’s Irish ancestors in Kilkenny City. John Kearney, a Protestant Bishop of Ossory who died in 1813, was buried beneath a black marble slab in St. Canice’s Cathedral. The article explained how the Bishop’s uncle Joseph Kearney of Moneygall, Co. Offaly, was a direct ancestor of the first African-American President of the United States. Mr Murray later turned the story into a two-part documentary called ‘Obama’s Irish Roots’ which played at Cannes in 2011.

However, what caught Jane’s attention was the suggestion that the Bishop’s line had become extinct with the death of his two sons. An enthusiast for local history, Jane felt compelled to set the record straight. The Bishop’s sons might not have left any children, but what about his daughters? In fact, Jane knew all there was to know about the Bishop’s daughters because she was the great-great-granddaughter of his eldest daughter, Rose Kearney.

Working in conjunction with Eneclann, the Dublin-based historical research company, Jane established that she was almost certainly Obama’s cousin, albeit his sixth cousin, three times removed. And that, at the time, made her Obama’s oldest living Irish relative.

 

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Bishop John Kearney was a first cousin of Joseph Kearney, Obama’s direct
ancestor. The Bishop’s father Michael made such a fortune selling wigs in
Georgian Dublin that he was able to set Joseph’s father up with a new house in Shinrone, County Offaly. Photo by Dylan Vaughan

The story of the Kearney family, from whom both the 44th President of the USA and Jane de Montmorency Wright descend, is a fine one. A family of considerable influence in County Tipperary in the medieval period, they were the hereditary keepers of St. Patrick’s Crozier, known as the Staff of Jesus.

From this branch descended Michael Kearney, a man of relatively humble origin, who moved to Dublin in the early 18th century and as one of the City’s foremost citizens. He set himself up as a hairdresser and peruke-maker, or wigmaker, in an age when aristocrats, gentry and professionals alike simply changed wigs rather than risk disease by washing their hair in the city’s public waters.

Michael Kearney was evidently a highly skilled wigmaker, entering the Guild of Barber Surgeons and Periwig makers in Dublin in 1717. The following year, he was described as a ‘Capillamentarius’ or hairdresser in the Freeman Rolls. Less than ten years later, he was appointed Master of the Guild by an overwhelming majority.

Not everyone was thrilled with his election. A series of slanderous pamphlets appeared on the streets of Jonathan Swift’s Dublin declaring that ‘no man alive was equally fired with ambition’ to Kearney, urging the ‘Black-guards of the Town’ to ‘pelt him with Pellets of Perjury.’

However, he appears to have been an astute and honest businessman. As a Freeman of Dublin, Michael also had a say in civic elections. As such, his name was notably absent when Charles Lucas named and shamed a long list of Freemen who had been engaged in rigging elections in 1751.

Michael Kearney remained a prominent member of the Guild until his death in 1762. He invested his profits in property just as Georgian Dublin began taking shape, as well as in Shinrone, County Offaly. His shrewd investments enabled him to send his son John, the Bishop, to Trinity.

John Kearney was born in Dublin in 1742, the year Handel’s Messiah was performed in the city. He may have been a younger brother of Edmund Burke’s literary schoolfriend Michael Kearney. If anyone can confirm this connection, please let me know. [1]

Educated at Mr. Benson’s school, he entered Trinity College Dublin aged fifteen, and was elected a Fellow of the College in 1764. He became a Scholar in 1760, a BA in 1762 and was elected a Fellow in 1764, aged 22. In 1781, aged 39, he was given the Chair of Oratory at Trinity, which he held for eighteen years, an impressive feat given that this was the age of such great orators as Edmund Burke and Henry Grattan. Amongst the students he nurtured was the poet, Thomas Moore.

While he did not support the 1798 Rebellion, John Kearney sided with the majority of the Fellows of Trinity in opposing the Act of Union. Remarkably he was nonetheless appointed Provost of the College in July 1799. In 1806 he was appointed Bishop of Ossory and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. [2]

The bishop’s wife Anne Waller Keatinge was the only daughter of the Rev. Dean Cadogan Keatinge (1721-1799) and his wife Elizabeth (née Taylor), the daughter of a former Lord Mayor of Dublin. The Rev Keatinge was Rector of Castledermot and Kinneagh (1759-1778) and Narraghmore (1775-1779), Dean of Clogher (1781-1799) and Chancellor of St. Patricks (1778-1781).

After short illness, the 71-year-old Bishop Kearney died in office on 22 May 1813 at the Episcopal palace, Kilkenny. He was buried in nearby St. Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. The Rev. Richard Butler, my grandfather’s great-grandfather, was one of his trustees. [3]

Barack and Michelle Obama enjoying their pints of Guinness during their visit to Moneygall.

The Freeman’s Journal mourned his passing as one of Ireland’s ‘most distinguished literary characters’ and a brilliant conversationalist with an ‘enlightened mind’ and considerable ‘scientific knowledge’. They also hailed him as ‘the kindest Husband, the best Father and the Sincerest friend.’ They do not mention that he settled his two sons with two of the best-paid parishes in his diocese but that was standard practice for bishops in those times.

The bishop’s two sons, John and Thomas Henry, both became members of the Chapter of Ossory in 1809, so he was evidently able to follow common practice and settle his sons in two of the best parishes in his diocese. Neither of their lines survived into the next generation.

The Rev. John Kearney, the eldest son, was Rector of Attanagh , County Laois, from 1807 to 1809. He later became Rector of Castleinch and sometime Chancellor of St. Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. He lived at Castle Bamford until his death in 1838. A floor memorial at St. Canice’s recalls John and his wife Elizabeth, as well as their only son James, who died of cholera aged five.

The Rev. Thomas Henry Kearney, the younger son, was sometime Prebendary of Blackrath and Vicar Choral, succeeded his brother John as Rector of Attanagh in 1809 and was responsible for the building of the church which still stands in the village.  Erected in 1821, with a £850 loan from the Board of First Fruits, in 1821, it replaced the pre-reformation parish church, dedicated to St Bridget. He remained at Attanagh until 1832 when he departed due to growing unrest in the community.

The Bishop also had three daughters. Rose, the eldest, I shall turn to below. Frances, the middle daughter, married a Vernon, whose family had hosted Handel at Clontarf Castle in 1742. Waller, the youngest, married into the Vesey family and was ancestress to, amongst others, the family of Alan Lendrum.

 

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Obama is the descendant of an Irish shoemaker. Given that Joe Biden is also the descendant of an Irish shoemaker, it was surely a golden hour for the Guild of Irish Shoemakers when he emerged as the eventual winner of the 2020 presidential election.

Michael Kearney, the bishop’s father, was a self-made man determined to give his family the best start in life. But, from a 21st century perspective, the most important purchase of his career was a house in Gortcreen, just southwest of the estate village of Shinrone, Co. Offaly (then the King’s County), which he settled upon his brother Joseph.

Born in about 1698, Joseph was Barack Obama’s earliest known direct Irish ancestor. I do not know what Joseph did in life, but his eldest son Thomas ran the family’s wig-making business during what was to be its final phase. Another son, Joseph Kearney, Obama’s ancestor, worked as a wool-comber.[4]

One of the reasons why Bishop Kearney had opposed the Act of Union was because he realized that if Dublin no longer hosted an annual Parliament, the city would go into decline. His cousin Thomas was to be amongst the first to suffer that reality. Following the Act of Union, aristocrats and politicians ceased coming to Dublin and the demand for wigs completely dried up. Indeed, Jane’s family have a portrait of Bishop John Kearney in their possession, and it is notable that he did not wear a wig for the painting.

With the collapse of the wig-making business, the Kearney’s fragmented. Some began to look abroad. Thomas Kearney, a son of the younger Joseph, emigrated to Ohio where he became a naturalized American citizen and set himself up as an upmarket carpenter. [5] His move to Ohio set the pattern for the next generations, down to his great-nephew Fulmuth Kearney, ancestor of Obama.

Thomas Kearney’s brother (?) William remained in Ireland and turned to shoemaking, catering to the rural community between Moneygall and Roscrea. Fortunately, the family still retained ownership of property in Shinrone and Moneygall which they had acquired in more prosperous times.

By his wife Margaret Reeves, William had at least two sons, Joseph and Francis. Born in about 1794, Joseph joined his father in the shoe-making trade. In the summer of 1825, he was married in Templeharry Church in north Tipperary to 21-year-old Phebe Donovan, the daughter of a farmer from Ballygurteen, near Roscrea. [6]

Meanwhile, his younger brother Francis also emigrated to Ohio where he acquired a farm in a rich, fertile valley lying amid the Appalachian Mountains of Pickaway County. The Reeves family also appear to have owned land in Pickaway in 1844, primarily in Perry Township.

In about 1849, Joseph received word that Francis had died in Ohio, aged 44. In his final will and testament, dated 28 January 1848, Francis bequeathed Joseph his farm on condition that ‘he comes to this country.’ [7] ‘If he does not come to live in this county,’ said Francis, ‘the lands will be dispersed among my relatives.’

The ongoing famine in Ireland undoubtedly helped Joseph make up his mind. His home on Moneygall’s Main Street stood close to a workhouse and a fever hospital which would have both been overcrowded by the time news of his brother’s will arrived. He left Ireland almost immediately, and appears to have sold off his family interests in Moneygall in order to raise the fare for his passage. He sailed from Liverpool on the Caroline Read, arriving in New York on 25th April 1849. By extraordinary coincidence, James and Maria Kennedy, ancestors of JFK, had arrived in Boston Harbour on the Washington Irving two days earlier.

Upon arrival in New York, Joseph made his way to Pickaway County and took possession of his brothers’ land. The following year, he was joined by his 25-year-old son Fulmuth Carney, Barack Obama’s great-great-grandfather, as well as his daughter Margaret and her husband William Cleary.

Born in May 1826, Fulmuth Carney was baptised in Templeharry Church. Indexed as Falmouth Cainey, he had arrived in New York (via Liverpool) on the Marmion on 20 March 1850.

With his family by his side, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States on 20 January 2009.

Fulmuth had also been working as a shoemaker in Moneygall. This trio also made their way directly to Ohio, presumably by wagon, as did Joseph’s wife Phebe, son William and daughter Mary who arrived in New York on 28 August 1851. And so the Kearneys, shoemakers of Moneygall, re-established themselves as farmers in Ross County, Ohio.

Joseph and Phebe died on 30 October 1861 and 25 May 1876 respectively. Both are buried in Compton Cemetery. Fulmuth’s brother William died in 1855, four years after arriving, while Mary Ann survived until 1866.

In 1852, Fulmuth was married in Fayette County, Ohio, to Charlotte Holloway. The Justice of the Peace who officiated at their wedding was William Kearney. By 1860, the couple were living in Deerfield, Ohio, but they later moved to Tipton County, Indiana, where Charlotte died in about 1877 and Fulmuth passed away on 21 March 1878. They had three sons and three daughters. The three girls married three Dunham brothers and became known as the Dunham Kearneys.

Fulmuth and Charlotte’s youngest daughter Mary Ann Kearney married Jacob W. Dunham and moved to Wichita, Kansas. Their grandson Stanley Armour Dunham (1918-1992) was Barack Obama’s grandfather. He apparently went by the name Dunham Kearney in his younger years. Stanley’s daughter Ann Dunham became a noted anthropologist and married Barack Obama senior in Hawaii. Stanley and his wife Madelyn lived in Honolulu where they raised Obama from the age of 10.

 

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THE DE MONTMORENCY’S OF CASTLE MORRES

Castle Morres was the ancestral home of the de Montmorency family, who intermarried with the Kearneys. It was finally demolished in 1978.

Meanwhile, in July 1811, Thomas Kearney’s first cousin 18-year-old Rose Kearney, eldest daughter of Bishop John Kearney, struck lucky when she married 29-year-old Harvey Pratt, heir to a massive 4,840-acre estate near Knocktopher, Co. Kilkenny, including the Georgian mansion, Castle Morres. Harvey was the third son of the Rev. Joseph Pratt, scion of an influential landowning family from Cabra Castle, Co. Cavan. His mother Sarah de Montmorency was a sister and co-heiress of the 2nd Viscount Mountmorres.

Shortly after the wedding, Harvey was appointed manager of Knocktopher and moved into Castle Morres, which was built by the Dublin architect Francis Bindon in 1751. When his mother died in 1831, he succeeded to the property on condition that he ‘assumed the Surname and Arms of De Montmorency.’

Harvey and Rose’s eldest son John was born six weeks before the battle of Waterloo in 1815. In 1838, he married Henrietta O’Grady, daughter of the 1st Viscount Guillamore, who had been one of the prosecuting attorneys at the trial of Robert Emmet. Ten years later, as the Great Famine ripped through Ireland, John and Henrietta took over from his parents at Castle Morres.

Harvey passed away in 1859 but Rose survived until 1874, dividing her latter years between Monkstown, Co. Dublin, and Barraghcore, near Goresbridge, Co. Carlow. She was regularly visited by her ten children, who all lived in Ireland.

John de Montmorency died at Castle Morres in 1868. Five years later, following the death of his older brother in a riding accident in India, John’s second son Waller succeeded to the family estate.

Waller was Jane de Montmorency Wright’s grandfather. Born in 1841, before the Great Famine, he followed in the footsteps of his great-grandfather John Kearney and entered the Church of Ireland. He rose through the hierarchy, serving as Chancellor of St. Canice’s Cathedral and eventually became Archdeacon of Ossory. His wife Mary O’Brien was a daughter of the Bishop of Ossory, Ferns and Leighlin. As well as his clerical duties, he farmed extensively at Castlemorres until his death in 1924. Waller and Mary had two sons, Captain de Montmorency, father of Jane, and Sir Geoffrey de Montmorency, Governor of the Punjab from 1928 to 1933.

Captain John Pratt de Montmorency – Rose Kearney’s great-grandson and father of Jane Wright – was born in 1873, joined the Royal Navy as a young man and served in the First World War. He retired with the rank of Commodore and went on to manage the de Montmorency family estate at Castle Morres, where he was born. The estate was sold to the Irish Land Commission in 1926. The grand mansion of Castle Morres, in which Rose Kearney was once mistress, was subsequently burned in an accidental fire, deroofed in the 1930s and demolished in 1978.

Captain de Montmorency had no children by his first wife, Kitty Pym, who died in 1932. Two years later, aged 63, the naval veteran was married secondly to his cousin Norah, a daughter of Colonel Mervyn de Montmorency of Inch House, Kilkenny. In 1949, they moved back to Ireland and settled in Bunrchurch, Bennetsbridge, County Kilkenny, which, by chance, was built by one of my ancestors, the Rev. Richard Butler, a friend of Bishop Kearney.

Two de Montmorency daughters followed, Jane (1936-2014) and Sally, or Sarah Anne (1943-1997), who both spent the bulk of their lives in Kilkenny. Sally was educated at Hall School (later part of Rathdown) while Jane was at Sherborne School.

At the age of 20, Jane graduated from Studley Agricultural College for Women in England with a diploma in dairying. In 1960, she married Beverley Wright, an Englishman, with whom she had a son and two daughters. In 1967, the Wrights settled in Blessington, Co. Wicklow, where she became administrator of the Montessori School founded by the American heiress Diane Guggenheim and her husband, Irish journalist Bill Meek. Jane later worked as an estate secretary at Lisnavagh, for my father, and owned a craft shop. Upon her retirement she studied for a BA in Local Studies through St. Kieran’s College in Kilkenny and settled in the Rectory which her father had purchased during the 1940s.

When Jane established her connection to Obama, a good deal of local fame followed, with the US Embassy leading the posse who acknowledged her kinship. She never got the call up to meet her famous cousin when he came to Moneygall, but she was okay with that.

‘I’ve managed to get by for 75 years without being the centre of attention and I’m quite happy that way,’ she told me with a smile, while weeding her garden on bended knees.

‘But of course, it is interesting to think that I might be related to Obama. I admire his intelligence enormously. If I was American, I would be a Democrat and I would certainly have voted for him.’

‘Family trees are notoriously complicated. But because my father was rather elderly when I was born, I am the same generation as Obama’s great-grandparents on the family tree. And my seven grandchildren, the oldest of whom is seventeen, appear to be a generation older than the President.’

‘My children are delighted by the connection. A Russian radio journalist came to my grandchildren’s school this morning and interviewed them about it all. And as well as being related to the American President, we apparently have lots of new cousins in Moneygall.’

She also extended an open invitation to President Obama. ‘When he has retired and has more time, perhaps he can come to Kilkenny and look at his ancestral tomb in peace. And he’s more than welcome to come here for some tea. Meanwhile, I think he has a world to run, and he really needs all his time to get on with that.’

 

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

With thanks to Jane de Montmorency Wright, Fiona Fitzsimons, Brian Donovan, Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, Nicola Morris, Hugh Gash, Paddy Donohoe and Gabriel Murray.

 

FURTHER READING

“Barack Obama: The Road from Moneygall” by Stephen MacDonogh (Brandon, 2010).

A version of this story was published in the Irish Daily Mail on 22 May 2011. See here for a photo of Turtle with Jane Wright by Dylan Vaughan.

 

FOOTNOTES

 

[1] Michael Kearney, who became a Fellow of Trinity College Dublin in 1757, was Archdeacon of Raphoe and married Frances Stopford, daughter of Joseph Stopford and Anne Chetwode. He became a friend of Edmund Burke at Abraham Shackleton’s Quaker School in Ballitore, County Kildare. There is certainly reference to a Michael Kearney who attended Ballitore School ‘from the 13th day of the 7th month 1743,’ while Burke was there from the ‘26th day of the 6th month 1741’ until he entered Trinity College in 1744. This suggests that Michael was a son of ____ Kearney, an attorney, but confusingly this also claims that ‘Benjamin’ was a father of John Kearney, D.D., Bishop of Ossory 1806. Michael lived to be ‘a great age’ and died in 1814.

[2] He was consecrated at Trinity College Chapel by Charles Agar, Archbishop of Dublin, assisted by Charles Lindsay, Bishop of Kildare and Nathaniel Alexander, Bishop of Down and Connor.

[3] Bishop Kearney’s will, made on June 27th 1812, was proved in 1813; he left his property in trust to Rev. Thomas Elrington, FTCD, and Rev. Richard Butler, DD, my ancestor. The Wright family have in their possession a portrait of the Bishop (wearing no wig), as well as Rose Kearney de Montmorency’s diary, a pin box and a photo of her taken shortly before she died in 1874.

[4] I am confused here so please correct me if you know more. By one account, I have it that Joseph (b. 1698) married Cicely (d. 1769) and had four known sons: Thomas (b. c. 1725), Joseph (b. 1730), John (b. 1735) and Patrick (b. 1741). But where is William on this list? I also have it that Joseph (b. 1698) married  Sarah Healey?

[5] Thomas Kearney was seemingly born in 1765 and moved from Shinrone to Baltimore, Maryland, where he established himself as an upmarket carpenter. He is said to have arrived in Maryland at the time of the Naturalization Act of 1790. He numbered among his friends Edward Hand (one of Washington’s allies who may also have been from Offaly). He later crossed the Appalachians and settled in Ohio, where he was buried in the lonely Compton Cemetery. Thomas married Sarah Baxley, a kinswoman of five brothers who were greatly involved in healthcare reform in the state of Maryland in the wake of the American Civil War. A photograph of five Baxley boys from this time depicts:

1.Jackson Brown Baxley (1814-1896) helped to organize the Maryland College of Pharmacy.

2.Henry Willis Baxley (1803-1876) graduated in Medicine in 1824. He took an active part in the establishment of the first dental college to be formally organized in this country and the world

2.William George Davis Tonge (1843-1910) was born at Mt. Pleasant, near Baltimore. Went to Bainbridge, Georgia, when his family moved there. Served in the Confederate Army.

3.Jackson Brown Baxley, Jr. (1856-1891) graduated in pharmacy and medicine.

4.Henry Minifie Baxley s practiced medicine in Baltimore for more than fifty years.

5.Jackson Brown Baxley built the major hospitals in Maryland.

[6] Their daughter Mary Ann Kearney, or ‘Karney’, was born in 1799 and on her baptism record, her father is described as a shoemaker. It was through the Donovan’s that the Christian name of ‘Falmouth’ came into the family.

[7] This will was uncovered by the American genealogist Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak.