Saturday, 29 May 2010

Launch of 'Barack Obama - The Road from Moneygall' by Stephen MacDonogh

Great night in Moneygall - I had the privilege of launching Stephen MacDonogh's new book on Obama's Irish heritage. Below you will find links to reviews in today's Irish Times and Irish Independent as well as my 'few words' at tonight's launch:

Irish Times Review

Irish Independent Review

My Speech:
Ladies and Gentlemen – Many of us have been here on many occasions enjoying Ollie & Magella’s hospitality as yet another chapter of the Obama/Moneygall story unfolded. From the early days when the link was first discovered through primaries, the election campaign,  election night, the Inauguration itself, visits from the Ambassador and from various media crews, we have gathered here to celebrate and share our story, and how that story intersects with that of President Barack Obama.

Stephen MacDonogh has now provided us with the narrative of that story and it is a compelling one. The story is complex and Stephen’s greatest achievement is in drawing all the strands together and giving us what is both a hugely informative and hugely enjoyable read. I am not a historian, no more than I am a genealogist! (I am constantly amused and flattered to have been described as an expert genealogist in media coverage of this link) Stephen’s book is one for a person like me and I suspect most if not everybody present this evening because it doesn’t just present facts and figures, it tells a story and it tells it so well.

Central to that story is Barack Obama and this place in which we are standing, Moneygall, but it is about much more than that – It is a hugely revealing social history which sheds light on both good and bad alike. On the one hand we hear of some landlords who treated the people who worked for them with far less dignity than they deserved, but on the other hand we hear of how the famine relief committees in this area were characterised by Protestant and Catholic clergy and laity working together for the common good, and specifically in Dunkerrin & Moneygall where the Catholic priest and Protestant rector worked in tandem to set up kitchens.

Stephen’s meticulous research shows clearly that in the famine times, which are the backdrop to the later Kearney emigration to America, though there were tensions in the area as indeed throughout the country they were not so much sectarian as class centred. The sectarian element was to come later and bear bitter fruit for all traditions on this island. We can be thankful today that we have largely put the worst of that behind us but I can’t help wondering how different it might have been if the hidden history of better times and early ecumenism which Stephen so skilfully uncovers were better known and celebrated.  Just as Barack Obama’s heritage has proved to be complex and diverse so too Stephen reveals is our own and I certainly have learnt a lot about my own tradition, both good and bad by reading this fascinating book.

Equally interesting is how Stephen deals with the question of Irish identity in the United States as he provides the context for the arrival of the Kearney clan in America. I like many people assumed previously that the Irish American identity was largely if not exclusively a Roman Catholic one and was unaware of the fact that at least as many Protestants of various hues emigrated to the states at various periods, both pre and post famine. Also interesting was how members of my own Church of Ireland largely abandoned Anglicanism and became Baptists or Methodists due to the negative association of Anglicanism with England. In their desire to blend in their Irish identity was often if not disguised certainly not worn as a badge. 
Neither did Barack Obama trade on his Irish identity during the campaign though he did acknowledge it on many occasions. As Stephen observes in the book this did not stop the late Senator Ted Kennedy from giving him the endorsement of Irish America, because he recognised in Obama ‘an ability to deliver on his vision for Americans of all ethnic backgrounds’.

On a lighter note I also discovered something about my good friend Henry Healy from reading this book. Henry is as you know a cousin of President Obama’s. If you are at all sceptical about this the definitive proof of this came on the morning of the Inauguration when Henry and I, the Corrigan Brothers and other assorted chancers were on the very overcrowded Metro in Washington DC heading in to view the event of a lifetime.  The atmosphere on that train was electric – everybody was laughing singing and crying, not tears of sadness but of joy. When we introduced Henry to people on the train as Obama’s Irish cousin some of them were bemused and some were very excited but one African American woman asked by her friend if she could see anything of Obama in Henry said without hesitation: “Oh Yes! He has Obama ears!”  Henry if you don’t know it already it gets better – Stephen MacDonogh exclusively reveals in this book that through your relationship with your cousin Barack you are also a cousin of Wild Bill Hickok & ….. wait for it…. Brad Pitt! If you are ever looking for a pick up line there is plenty to go on there. (Its on page 191 in case you are interested).

Stephen I think all of us owe you a huge debt of gratitude for what you have produced. Not only does it tell the story of the Irish roots of someone who we hope and pray will come to be seen as one of America’s greatest presidents, but it also helps us understand a little bit better who we are. It reminds us that whatever party or tribe we belong to, whatever faith we hold, our stories are complex and intertwined through generations, and that our future is in working together to make this corner of our world a better place. I for one am proud to be associated with this story.
Thank you for writing it.

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