A History of President Barack Obama’s Ancestors, the Kearney’s

Moneygall is a small village located on the Offaly/Tipperary border, with a population of 298 people according to the 2006 census.  Moneygall has a Roman Catholic Church, five shops, a post office, a national school, a Garda station, and two pubs.  But this small unassuming village in rural Ireland has quite a substantial claim to fame; US President Barack Obama’s ancestors originate from the village.  President Barack Obama’s Irish links to Moneygall came to light in 2007, when Cannon Stephen O’Neill from Moneygall discovered the link.   On St. Patrick’s day this year, Obama announced that he plans to visit Moneygall, home of his ancestors, the Kearney’s, on his state visit to Ireland in May.

The Kearney’s were a protestant family of Gaelic Irish origin, originating from Tipperary.  They were skilled artisans, who prospered in the 18th Century.  One branch of the family did extremely well; Michael Kearney became embroiled in the Dublin city politics of the day and John Kearney, who would be a distant cousin of Obama’s, went on to become the Provost of Trinity College Dublin, and later Bishop of Ossory.  As the 19th Century progressed the family line from which Obama descended failed to prosper and they emigrated to the US.

Barack Obama is directly descended from the Kearney’s of Shinrone & Moneygall.  The height of this family’s prosperity was between the 1760s and 1780s, when the nephews from Offaly stepped into their Dublin uncle’s business of wig-making.  People wore wigs because they didn’t wash their hair, they thought that water would spread diseases.  If we look at the Kearney family that settled in Shinrone from the 1740s onwards, Joseph Kearney whom Obama is directly descended from was born in 1698, and he had four known sons, Thomas born in 1725, Joseph born in 1730 (Joseph is in Obama’s direct line), and Patrick born in 1741.  Thomas followed in the profitable line of business established by the senior branch of the family, and he became a peruke-maker, and Joseph became a comber.

After the 1780’s the fortunes of this line of the Kearney family went into fairly rapid decline because of a combination of factors.  Money couldn’t be made from wig-making because people stopped wearing them, only the elite continued to wear wigs.  The Irish Parliament was abolished with the Act of Union in 1801 creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, so that MPs elected in Ireland now sat in Westminster.  The political establishment moved from Dublin to London, and as they did so, they kept town houses in London during the sitting of Parliament.  The market for wigs at this time would have been predominantly among these elite, and because these elite would not be in Dublin then there would be no market for wigs whatsoever.  Another cause for the decline in fortune of this line of Kearney’s was the very success of the Dublin Kearney’s, Michael Kearney d. 1762 invested his profits in property in Tipperary and Offaly, and in the expanding city of Dublin.  His investments did very well, and provided good dowries for his daughters and a university education for his sons who were trained for the higher professions.  In the next generation, the Dublin Kearney’s were not involved in business. So over a generation, the extended Kearney family stopped acting as the ‘Kearney corporation’. As one generation succeeded the previous one, the passage of time undermined that strong family loyalty, and the valuable business connection, between the Shinrone/ Moneygall Kearneys and the Dublin Kearneys.

Tracing the history of the Moneygall/Shinrone Kearney’s, in the following generations William (1762-1828) and his son Joseph (ca. 1794-1861) both became shoe-makers, and there’s no evidence to suggest that they continued to transport their goods to Dublin for sale.

Falmouth Kearney, a direct ancestor of Obama, eventually emigrated from Ireland to America on the S.S. Marmion ship bound for New York in 1850 at the age of 19.  He initially settled in Ohio, got married, had eight children, and later moved to Indiana, right next door to the state Obama currently represents in the US Senate.  Mr Kearney fled to America like so many others at the time to escape the 1840’s potato famine in Ireland.  Obama’s father was from Kenya, while his mother grew up in Kansas.

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  1. […] election in the US than it did for Ireland. The humble house in the main street at Moneygall a nice contrast to the President’s historic academic connections with Trinity, through a Protestant ancestor with what we in Northern Ireland would generally see as a […]



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