Saturday, November 15, 2008

Obama's Irish Roots...

Apparently the "Obama is Irish" send-up is catching on like wildfire. Combing the headlines, from the Irish news service RTE    I find: ...Research by the genealogy website ancestry.co.uk reveals that Mr Obama's great-great-great-grandfather was born in Ireland. Falmouth Kearney sailed from Ireland to New York in 1850 at the age of 19 on the S.S. Marmion arriving on the 20th of March. He settled in Ohio, married, had eight children, and later moved to Indiana, next door to the state Obama currently represents in the US Senate. Mr Keaney was part of the great American migration to escape the 1840s potato famine in Ireland. Mr Obama's father was from Kenya, while his mother grew up in Kansas. 'A great deal has been made of Obama's Kenyan roots, however his European ancestry has until now been overlooked', said Ancestry.co.uk Managing Director Simon Harper.

Other searches revealed that: according to records found in a local parishioner’s cellar, Barack Obama’s Irish ancestors originated in the midlands village of Moneygall and neighboring Shinrone in County Offaly, Ireland. He's descended from an 18th-Century Dublin businessman, a wigmaker, and a shoemaker. All we need now is the baker and the candlestick maker to complete the nursery rhyme.

The Irish PM, Taoiseach Brian Cowen has officially invited Obama to visit his ancestral home in County Offaly.

Apparently all this brouhaha has created quite a buzz in the tiny hamlet of Moneygall, which has one stoplight, two pubs and a population of 298. I'd say that Moneygall is definitely now officially on the map. They must be positively over the moon.

I can see the Irish kitchen iconography coming alive now in the corner niche, with Jesus, the sacred heart, Mary, the Pope and the Irish-Kenyan-American Anglican President, Barack Obama all aflame with votive candles. Adds a whole new meaning to the term, Black Irish.

Another newspaper reporter Richard L. Benkin, in The American Thinker, actually credited Obama's meteoric rise to the presidency to Irish luck: "Barack O'Bama and the Luck of the Irish."

Ohhh -kay....and....?

Interestingly, it's getting very "Kevin Bacon-ish" out there (Guare's Six Degrees of Separation). On the Google search engine alone, I found some 4,400,000 hits that Barack Obama is Irish. Something's making me uncomfortable about all this focus on the Irish, I'm not exactly sure what it is, so the only way out is to write through it. Probably with egg on my face. So bear with me as I sort through it. It's a bit like that disturbing Arby's Dancing Chimp ad that aired a while back.

With more than 34.5 to 40 millions Americans claiming Irish descent (not counting the 5-6 million Scots Irish)— that's more than 12-15% of the populace—as of the 2006 census. Or the percentage of Americans of Irish American descent is almost nine times that of the population of Ireland itself.

In Massachusetts alone, at least 24% of the population can claim Irish descent. According to the 2006 US Census, Irish is among the top-five ancestries claimed in every state except Hawaii. The question begs, so who isn't of Irish descent somewhere in the old family tree? The Irish have a quaint term for Americans (and Aussies, etc.,) separated from their Irish-born ancestor by several generations: Plastic Paddys.

So Obama is at least 1/16th Famine Irish on his mother's side, and more to the point, who did all his subsequent Irish Indiana ancestors marry? American Irish and Scots Irish? Both Dunham and Payne sound Irish or Anglo-Irish. And many, if not most of our American presidents (and the KKK) were what—of Scots-Irish descent? Someone mentioned that this election was the most Irish ticket yet—on BOTH sides.

Shall we throw in little Cherokee into the admixture as well? One only needs 1/16th blood to get on the tribal roster. Next to claiming Irish ancestry, is the American preoccupation of claiming native American ancestry—almost always Cherokee, BTW. According to another source, in Barack Obama's "Dreams from My Father," his great-grandmother Leona McCurry was hiding a family secret, she was part Native American. Someone mentioned: Cherokee.

OK, let's put this tenuous race and identity thing into another perspective; how many white Americans routinely claim Irish heritage that dates back to the Great Famine? Quite a few. They think nothing of stretching ancestral relationships to extremes by invoking a second great grandfather. And nobody laughs that one off.

During and after the Great Irish Famine (or The Great Hunger; An Gorta Mór) of 1845-1850, literally millions of "unskilled" Irish (Catholics) emigrated to urban North America, providing a vast instant workforce for industrial America. They worked in the factories, built the canals, laid the railroad tracks, mined the ore. Between 1820 and 1860, over one third of all immigrants to the United State were Irish Catholics who settled in huge urban enclaves in the north: New England. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Delaware.

New York City alone boasts more people who claim Irish heritage than the whole of Dublin's population. Hey that works out to something like a ratio of 1-in-6 (the ratio is higher on St. Paddy's Day, of course). By contrast, the Scots-Irish “ethnic group” tended to settle in rural climes—Appalachia and the South.

Among the the most Irish American cities/towns of America are Milton, MA, with 38% claiming Irish descent; Greeley, NB (pop. 527) 43%, and Butte, MT. Other "Irish" cities include Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Missouri, San Francisco and to a lesser degree in the south, Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans. We've come a long way from the hostile anti-Catholic Know Nothing Movement of the 1850s which was followed by the "No Irish Need Apply." But the road is still long.

More than one third (47%) of all U.S. presidents can claim Northern Ulster Anglo-Irish or Scots-Irish ancestral origins—from George Washington to President Bush. Andrew Jackson's parents were Irish born. The big Irish brouhaha over Kennedy was that he was Irish Catholic not Irish Protestant. Obama is Anglican. The Famine Irish are still, by and large, Catholic. Traditionally, the Irish Catholics have voted 80-95% Democratic. Protestant politicians are rarely identified as Irish, except Reagan and Clinton.

When I was on Cape Cod last summer, I surprised by, in ordinary conversation, "Hi my name is...and I'm from..." how many of the reserved Eastern Seaboard folks claimed Irish or Pilgrim/Puritan descent. No matter that at Plymouth Rock, the rock itself has been whittled down to a vestigial nub, protected from decades of overzealous souvenir hunters hungry for a piece of the rock.

It's an American thing to trace your roots, folks. Dubious links to the past. Miles Standish and all that. (Take that to the extreme: yeah, and I was an Egyptian princess in a past life...) I understand we all need something to hold onto. So, what exactly are people latching onto, by way of identity?

Many groups not traditionally associated with the Irish also have Irish ancestry including many Native American tribes; Caribbean Blacks and African Americans have more than a little Irish blood, thanks to Cromwell's selling of Irish child slaves in the Barbados. I don't even want to think about convoluted Kenyan family trees under British Colonial Rule. When Barack Obama was born (in Honolulu), Kenya was still a British colony. He was largely raised ad educated abroad, so he's a citizen of the world. 

Obama’s mother was a Dunham (by way of the Kansas Kearneys). His father was from Kenya . Some say his mother and father met after the long march over the bridge in Selma, Alabama. He was born in Hawaii. That makes him... er, Hawaiian? Shaka, bro! Another report mentions Indonesian roots as well. By way of his stepfather? Another mentions Arab. Are we secretly trying to whitewash him? That makes him multi-racial. Embrace the change. Let us all be colorblind global citizens.

As  (Barry) Obama so aptly put it, "I've got pieces of everybody in me." Yes.

I am reminded of Bono's "Let's Put Humanity Back on Earth" speech:

Let's not forget ... no Blacks, no Irish.
Let's not forget ... the back of the bus.
Let's not forget ... apartheid and Jim Crow.
Let's not forget ... women couldn't vote.

Yeah Bono. Let's keep our eye on the prize.

Yes we can, Bharhach O'Bhamagh. Yes we did.

Because of the Internet, I also know some strange Obama factoids: Obama is a Mac user, he uses OWC hard drive enclosures, I know he writes poetry.... Yes.

Ad Gilbert Bailon wrote in STD Today (St. Louis): "Mr. Obama has a rare opportunity to unite diverse people. Americans should resist reflexive temptations to cast his actions along racial lines. He and the country have too much at stake to get sidetracked with divisive racial politics."

But he's still a dark horse and only time will tell if he has the chops to get us out of this pickle we're in. It's up to us to continue to stay in the race and be proactive in politics and not take a back seat, like during the Bush regime. We let that one happen, folks, by not being proactive. Yes we did.

Barack Obama stated several times that he can't deliver universal health care or create a sweeping clean energy policy on his own. We will all need to do our part. Yes we do.

Only the first 100 days will really tell. But I have faith. Yes we can.

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