Thursday, 25 February 2010

Family history and modern America - by Brian Walker

The author of the article below, Professor Brian Walker of Queens University Belfast, made contact with me following the discovery of Barack Obama's Irish roots. He has a particular interest in Irish/Scotch-Irish ancestry in the United States and his studies have encompassed the Irish heritage of Barack Obama. Well worth a read.

Reproduced with permission from: Familia: Ulster Genealogical Review, Number 25 (2009). Published by the Ulster Historical Foundation (

President Barack Obama
Family history and modern America
Brian Mercer Walker

On 17 March 2009, President Barack Obama marked St Patrick’s
Day at the White House in Washington, DC. His guests from
Ireland included Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who not only presented him
with a bowl of shamrock but also referred to the President’s ancestor,
Fulmouth Kearney, who had come to America from Ireland in 1850.
The President gracefully accepted the shamrock and acknowledged his
ancestor. He remarked, however, that he had only learnt recently of his
Irish ancestry, and he joked that this information would have been very
helpful when he first entered politics in Chicago! In this article, atten-
tion will focus first on how President Obama’s link with Ireland was
revealed. Secondly, we will examine our current understanding of the
position in modern America of the numerous descendants of all those
emigrants who came from Ireland, particularly from Ulster, and use
information about his particular family background to cast some light
on this matter.

Two years earlier, on 12 March 2007, Ancestry.Com, the genealog-
ical organisation, published a press release on the family background of
presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama. His Kenyan ancestry
through his father, also called Barack Obama, was already well-known.
His background on the side of his mother, Ann Dunham, was little
known until this point. While most of the roots of his mother’s family
tree went back to the beginning of the nineteenth century and earlier
in America, investigation had shown an important link to an 1850
emigrant from Ireland. Senator Obama’s mother was the daughter of
Stanley Dunham and Madelyn Payne, both originally from Kansas but
resident later in Hawaii. The young Barack spent much of his child-
hood with his grandparents in Hawaii. Stanley Dunham was a son of
Ralph Dunham and Ruth Armour, both also of Kansas. Ralph
Dunham’s father was Jacob Dunham while his mother was Mary
Kearney: they lived in Kansas but had come originally from Indiana.
Mary Kearney was daughter of Charlotte Holloway, born in Ohio, and
Fulmouth Kearney, born in Ireland.
The sources for this information came from birth and marriage cer-
tificates, and census returns. Census schedules for Ohio and Indiana,
1850–70, included Fulmouth Kearney and recorded that his place of
birth was Ireland. What these sources did not show, however, was from
where in Ireland Kearney had come. In the quest which followed to
find Kearney’s exact place of origin, the leading role was taken by
genealogist Megan Smolenyak, who sought to construct a picture not
only of Kearney but also of his family in the hope that this would cast
light on him.2 Checking New York passenger lists, she located aboard
a ship, the Marmion, which came to New York in March 1850, a 19
year old labourer from Ireland called Fulmouth Carney, clearly another
spelling of Fulmouth Kearney. This first name, sometimes Fulmuth,
Fulmouth or Falmouth, is highly unusual, and it is not clear whether
it is a proper name or a nickname. Nonethless, its rarity assisted greatly
the search for this person. The passenger list recorded that he was
bound for Ohio, which was also the destination of two others from
Ireland recorded after him, William and Margaret Cleary. An 1850
census return for Wayne Township, Ohio revealed that all three were
residing together, which suggested that there might be a family link
between them.
The 1860 census returns for Ohio again recorded these three indi-
viduals, but Fulmouth was at a different address from the other two.
Present in the Cleary home in 1860, however, was an elderly couple,
Joseph and Phoebe Kearney, which raised the possibility that they were
the parents of Margaret and also Fulmouth Kearney. Continuing her
researches into New York passenger lists, Megan Smolenyak was able to
discover that Phoebe Kearney had emigrated to America in 1851 with
two children, Mary and William: Joseph Kearney had come in 1849.
Then she located an Ohio will dated 1848 of a Francis Kearney who
left land to his brother Joseph, ‘if he comes to this country’. All this
suggested that Fulmouth Kearney’s move to America in 1850 was part
of a family chain migration. Finally, search among graveyard records in
Ohio revealed the graves of Joseph and Phoebe Kearney in Fayette
county. Of critical importance, the gravestone inscription of Joseph
Kearney, who died 1875, stated that he came from Moneygall, King’s
Co. (later Co. Offaly).
Attention shifted to Ireland, particularly to the Diocese of Limerick
and Killaloe. Eventually success was achieved due to the efforts of
Canon Stephen Neill, rector of the parish of Templeharry which
included the town of Moneygall. In the parish registers of the
Moneygall Church of Ireland church, Canon Neill found records of
the marriage of Joseph and Phoebe Kearney and of the baptism of their
children, Margaret, William and Mary. A problem remained, however,
concerning Fulmouth Kearney. There was no mention of him in these
records, although there was an entry in the baptismal register for a
Timothy Kearney for May 1829, which fits in with what we know of
the age of Falmouth Kearney. It is very likely that Timothy and
Fulmouth are the same person.
At this stage, one would have to say that these possible connections
between President Obama’s ancestor, Fulmouth Kearney, and the
Kearney family of Moneygall and Ohio are interesting but hardly con-
clusive. One final piece of evidence, however, draws all these pieces of
information together and makes a very strong case for accepting such
connections. Megan Smolenyak has pointed out the significance of the
names of Fulmouth Kearney’s nine children which are known from
census returns. One of their names was Martha, the same as his wife’s
mother, while another was Elizabeth, for some unknown reason. All
the others, clearly, are those of Fulmouth Kearney’s parents, siblings
and uncle. So, two are named Joseph and Phoebe (after his parents),
Mary Ann, Margaret and William (after his two sisters and a brother),
and Francis (after his uncle). A final child was called Fulmouth. From
all this evidence it is reasonable to conclude that, in all probability,
Fulmouth Kearney was indeed a member of the Kearney family, for-
merly of Moneygall, Co. Offaly, Ireland.
Although President Obama was unaware until recently of his family
connection with Ireland, the same cannot be said of many of his fellow
Americans. When in 1980 the U.S. census for the first time asked
people to declare their ancestry some 40 million recorded Irish.3 The
1980 Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, sought to pro-
vide information on those in America with an Irish background.4 The
volume pointed to two main groups. First, there was what was believed
to be the largest section, namely Irish Americans, comprised primarily
of descendants of emigrants from Ireland during and after the Great
Irish Famine, and usually Catholic in background. Secondly, there was
a smaller section called Scotch-Irish, that is mainly descendants of
Scottish emigrants to Ulster who then moved to America in the eigh-
teenth century, and who were normally Protestant. The 1980 census,
however, gave no indication of how the 40 million Irish actually fell
into any of these categories because it recorded neither people’s religion
nor the number of Scotch-Irish. People did describe themselves as
Scotch-Irish in 1980 but the census authorities thought that this meant
in many cases people who were of both Scottish and Irish ancestry, and
so their figures were just added into both the Irish and the Scottish
numbers, rather than tabulated seperately.5
While the 1980 census gave only a partial picture of the make-up of
the Irish in modern America, other sources provided valuable insights
into this matter, and not a few surprises. From the 1970s a number of
opinion polls sought to investigate the composition of the main ethnic
groups in America and to cover areas not dealt with by the census.
These polls included an Irish but not a Scotch-Irish category. The first
interesting thing which the polls revealed was that Protestants made up
the largest section of those people who identified themselves as Irish in
contemporary America. For example, a Gallup survey of the 1980s
estimated that of those Americans who said that their primary ethnic
group was Irish, 54% were Protestant.6 Recently, the 2006 survey of
the National Opinion Research Centre (NORC) of the University of
Chicago reported that of those who described their first ethnic identity
as Irish, 48% were Protestant, 29% were Catholic and 23 % were other
or no religion.7
How do we explain this high proportion of Protestants among the
Irish in America? Professor Don Akenson has pointed to the impor-
tance of the time of arrival of the various groups in America.8 The first
waves of emigrants from Ireland came throughout the eighteenth cen-
tury, predominantly from Ulster, and were mainly Presbyterians,
descendants of earlier Scots settlers in Ulster. The bulk of Catholic
emigrants, who were more numerous, came later, especially after the
Famine. Other factors are also relevant to explain the high number of
Protestants among the Irish in America today (see below, two penulti-
mate paragraphs), but this early arrival of Protestants from Ulster, plus
a simple multiplier element, is a very significant factor in the high
number of their descendants today. Further evidence to support this
argument can be seen in the findings of the NORC surveys of the
1970s which revealed that, in its sample, some 40% of Irish Catholics
were at least fourth generation in the US, while around 80% of Irish
Protestants were.9
The second interesting thing revealed by the polls related to the
social and economic position of these two sections in modern America.
The NORC surveys of the 1970s sought to grade the different ethnic
groups in relation to major indices of occupational and social success,
such as income, education and professional careers.10 What the surveys
revealed was that as an ethnic group Irish Catholics had become among
the highest-ranking groups. They also revealed that as an ethnic group
Irish Protestants were among the lowest. How do we account for this
disparity? The answer to this lies primarily in geographical and social
differences between the two groups which were revealed by the polls in
the 1970s. A majority of Catholics lived in the more prosperous North
East and North Central USA, and were overwhelmingly urban, while a
majority of Protestants lived in the less prosperous South and, while
mostly urban, included a significant rural section. Professor Timothy J.
Meagher has described how the settlement of Irish Catholic emigrants
in northern metropolitan regions ‘permitted their children, grandchil-
dren, and great grandchildren to take advantages offered by the
dynamic centers of the world’s most dynamic economy’.11 There were
fewer opportunities in the South, especially in the Appalachians,
during the twentieth century, until the last decades.
The 1990 census for the first time recorded those people who chose
to identify their ancestry as Scotch-Irish. A total of 5,617,773 decided
to do so. The 2000 figures record a figure of 4,319,232 for Scotch-Irish
and 30,528,492 for Irish. The 1990–2000 fall in numbers in both
cases has been attributed to more people declaring their ancestry as
American. The figures for those who described themselves as Scotch-
Irish are substantial: they are similar to the figures of those who self-
identified as Scottish, 5,393,581 in 1990 and 4,890,581 in 2000.12 At
the same time, these Scotch-Irish figures cannot be taken as a complete
picture of Protestant emigrants from Ulster. We have already observed
that around half those who record an Irish background are Protestant,
but those who list a Scotch-Irish ancestry are only 15% of the com-
bined Irish and Scotch-Irish figures in 2000, a total of some 35 mil-
lion. This leaves a very sizeable number of the Irish in America who are
Protestant (and others who were formerly Protestant but now list no or
other religions), but do not call themselves Scotch-Irish. Who exactly
are these people?
One answer to this question, and probably the main one, is that
many millions of people today are also descendants of the early
arrivals from eighteenth century Ulster, often from a Presbyterian and
Scottish background, but they identify as Irish rather than Scotch-
Irish. We get a good insight into this matter when we look at the
regional distribution of those who say they are Irish in modern day
America. The greatest number of those who record an Irish ancestry are
to be found, not in the North East, as one might expect, but in the
South. The 1990 figures, for example, show that of the 39 million who
recorded an Irish ancestry, 33% were in the South and only 24 % in
the North East.13 One hundred years earlier, the U.S census reported
on the place of birth of individuals and their parents, which helps us
to see where emigrants from Ireland during and after the Famine set-
tled in America.16 Out of 4 million in 1890 who recorded Ireland as
their country of origin, only 5% were to be found in the South, while
64 % were in the North East. Obviously, there has been population
movement since 1890, but it is clear that this high number of people
in the South who call themselves Irish today must be attributed in large
part to the influx of emigrants, primarily from eighteenth century
Ulster, before the Famine.
Why do many of the descendants of eighteenth-century Ulster emi-
grants self identify as Irish rather than Scotch-Irish? The answer is that
in the eighteenth century their ancestors were often called, and, even-
tually, came to call themselves Irish. Professor Michael Montgomery
has given good examples of how the term Scotch-Irish was also used
in this period.15 Nonetheless, Irish was a more common designation
and this is still the case. The term Scotch-Irish would take on added
emphasis in the late nineteenth century, and it remains an important
source of identity for many people. At the same time, it is clear that
many other people from an eighteenth century Ulster background con-
tinued to describe Ireland as their country of origin and their ancestry
as Irish. Senator John McCain and his wife, Mrs Cindy McCain, are
examples of people with this Irish identity. Senator McCain has written
proudly about his Scottish ancestors who came to Ulster and then
moved to America. During the presidential election Mrs McCain
responded to a question about race by saying; ‘Yes, you know, Mr
Obama is an African-American man, and yes, we’re Irish. And isn’t that
a wonderful thing for America.’16
There are other explanations which help to account for the large
number of people in America today who are Protestant and retain an
Irish identity. We must take into account Catholics who became
Protestant. It is now reckoned that the eighteenth century emigration
from Ireland included significant numbers of Catholics.17 In the
American colonies, however, Catholic church structures were very
weak. The first Catholic diocesan bishop for America was consecrated
only after the American Revolution, and there was a shortage of clergy.
In eighteenth century America, many Catholics became not just
Protestant, but, more importantly, Baptist or Methodist, in part
because their structures were more suitable for frontier conditions.18
Many Presbyterians also became Baptist or Methodist, often for the
same reason. In nineteenth and twentieth century America, with its
highly mixed society, other Catholics became Protestant. For example,
Ronald Reagan whose father was from an Irish Catholic background
and whose mother was from a Scots Presbyterian background, was
brought up in his mother’s faith. We may note that a recent Pew report
on religion in the US found that 28% of people had left the faith in
which they were raised, in favour of another religion or no religion at
Finally, the example of President Barack Obama’s ancestor, Fulmouth
Kearney, points us to two other important explanations for the back-
ground of many of these Protestant Irish in America. Fulmouth
Kearney was a member of the Church of Ireland and he left Ireland in
1850. A number of historians, such as Professors Joe Lee and Don
Akenson, have pointed out that the considerable numbers of emi-
grants, in the eighteenth century and later, who were members of the
Church of Ireland, have often been ignored.20 Many came from Ulster,
but many came as well from other parts of Ireland, such as President
Obama’s ancestor. It remains true that the first waves of emigrants from
Ireland to the American colonies in the eighteenth century consisted
predominantly of Presbyterians from Ulster, but we should not ignore
significant numbers of members of the Church of Ireland.21 We must
also note that Fulmouth Kearney emigrated in the mid nineteenth cen-
tury, a reminder of the many Protestants from Ireland, Presbyterian
and Church of Ireland (and also Methodist), who continued to emi-
grate to America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
including during the Famine.22 These later emigrants help to explain
the spread of Protestant Irish to various parts of America, outside the
In the entrance to the Church of Ireland parish church in Banbridge,
Co. Down, there is a memorial plaque to the White family, erected in
1920 by James White of Chicago. It states that he donated a peal of
bells to the church with the proviso that every Halloween the bells
should be rung to the tune of ‘Home, sweet home’. On the 1st of
November this year, as in every year since 1920, the sound of ‘Home,
sweet home’ rang out over Banbridge. This serves to remind us not just
of the White family but also all those other families, from diverse back-
grounds, who have gone to America from Ireland. Their descendants
today are first and foremost Americans, but still they acknowledge their
old home and the land of their ancestors.
Professor Brian Walker is currently doing research on people of Irish or Scotch-Irish
ancestry in America today. He will be happy to hear from people with interesting
accounts of their family history. He can be contacted at Queen’s University,
21 University Square, Belfast BT7 INN, Northern Ireland or

Reproduced with permission from Familia: Ulster Genealogical Review, Number 25
(2009). Published by the Ulster Historical Foundation (

For an extensive family tree which covers both President Obama’s parents see
The Times, 6 Nov. 2008
See, 3 Dec. 2008.
U.S. Census,1980: Ancestry of the Population by State: Supplementary Report. PC-
S1–10, p. 2
Stephen Thernstorm (ed) Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups
(Cambridge, Harvard University Press).
U.S. Census 1980: Supplementary Report, p. 6.
D.H. Akenson, The Irish Diaspora: a Primer (Institute of Irish Studies, Belfast,
1993), p. 219.
National Opinion Research Centre, General Social Survey, 2006. I am grateful to
Dr Ian Shuttleworth of the School of Geography, Archaeology and
Palaeoecology for helping me to understand this data.
D.H. Akenson, ‘ The Irish in America: Catholic or Protestant’ in The Irish
Review, 11, Winter 1991/1992, pp. 19–20.
Ibid, p.20.
Akenson, op.cit, 1993, p. 38.
T.J. Meagher, ‘Irish’ in E.R. Barkan (ed) A Nation of Peoples: a Sourcebook on
America’s Multi-cultural Heritage (Greenwood Press, Connecticut, 1999),
p. 285.
U.S. Census 2000: Ancestry 2000, report issued June 2004. By Angela
Brittingham and G.P. de la Cruz.
U.S. Census 1990: Detailed Ancestry groups for States, 1990 CP-S-1–2.1
J.J. Lee and M.R. Casey, Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the
Irish in the United States (New York University Press, New York, 2007), p. 689.
Michael Montgomery, ‘Nomenclature for Ulster emigrants: Scotch-Irish or
Irish?’, Familia, 20, 2004, pp. 16–36.
Reported in Irish Times, 18 Oct. 2008.
For example, see David Doyle, ‘ The Irish in North America’ in J.J. Lee and
M.R. Casey (ed), Making the Irish American: history and Heritage of the Irish in
the United States (New York University Press, New York, 2007), p. 179.
Kevin Kenny, The American Irish: a History (Longman, Harlow, Essex, 2000),
pp. 72–3.
PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life, report dated 6 Nov. 2009. U.S. Religious Landscape Survey
Akenson, op.cit, 1993, p.222: Lee and Casey, op.cit., p. 4
Kerby A. Miller et al, Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan: Letters and
Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America (Oxford University Press,
Oxford, 2003), p. 4.
Reginald Byron, Irish America (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1999), p. 52.

No comments: