The New Yorker Culture Desk
Rediscovering Obama’s Irish Roots
In a tiny Irish village, one man will always be President
By Chris Colin December 10, 2016
President Obama raises a glass of Guinness in a pub on a visit to Moneygall, Ireland, on May 23, 2011. Credit PHOTOGRAPH BY JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty
During the eighteenth century, a wigmaker in Ireland could expect to have a prosperous career. Wigs were popular among the aristocracy, and useful in a pre-shampoo era. But the eighteen-hundreds brought a cold reappraisal of artificial hair. In the tiny village of Moneygall, on the border of Offaly and Tipperary, the Kearney family turned to shoemaking. By the arrival of the Great Famine, they’d joined millions of fellow-citizens who were hungry for a restart. When, in 1850, the Kearney family learned that a relative in America had bequeathed them a parcel of land, Falmouth Kearney, then nineteen years old, set out from his twelve-and-a-half-foot-wide house for Liverpool. There, he boarded a New York-bound coffin ship, so named for the high mortality rate among passengers. From New York, Kearney, an intense-looking man with a pressed-down mat of dark hair, made his way to Ohio, and married an Ohio woman named Charlotte Holloway. They had children and resettled, eventually, in Indiana, where Kearney worked as a farmer. Their youngest daughter had children of her own, and those children had children, and those children had children. One of the little Irish babies was Barack Obama.
The Irish roots of America’s first African-American President have a way of registering perpetually as a news flash. But it was back in 2007 that the world, and Obama himself, first learned about great-great-great-grandfather Falmouth. That year, a genealogist from Ancestry.com pieced together the family story with the help of a rector in Ireland who had access to church records from the nineteenth century. For the young senator from Illinois, this newfound heritage became occasional campaign-trail fodder; it was a hoot, and didn’t hurt with Irish-American voters.
Henry Healy was watching the news with his mother one evening in 2007 when the newscaster mentioned a familiar-sounding name. Healy was twenty-two, and had lived all his life on Moneygall’s central thoroughfare. He recalls glancing at his mother and saying, “Did he just say ‘Kearney’?” The Kearneys had married into the Healy family in the eighteenth century; Henry had been interested in family trees since his father’s death, thirteen years earlier. As word spread that Obama had a skinny, white eighth cousin—several, in fact—in a rural Irish village with a population of three hundred, reporters poured in. In Henry, a tall man with glassy blue eyes and ears bordering on the prominent, they found a spokesman for the Healy line.
Obama was not the first American politician to discover a lurking Irishness; in the past half-century, finding one’s Celtic roots has been something of a Presidential tic. Ronald Reagan learned that his great-grandfather hailed from Ballyporeen. Bill Clinton learned that he might have family from County Fermanagh. Richard Nixon and the Bushes claimed Irish heritage. John F. Kennedy, America’s first Irish-Catholic President, once told the citizens of Limerick, “This is not the land of my birth, but it is the land for which I hold the greatest affection.”
A cross-Atlantic courtship began between Obama and Moneygall. In early 2009, Healy and Stephen Neal, the rector who found the old records, corresponded with the president of the Irish American Democrats. Soon after that, the acting ambassador travelled to the village, the Irish Prime Minister phoned Healy, and the public-affairs director of the U.S. Embassy paid a visit. Finally, the new ambassador gave Healy the message that would spark the longest period of insomnia he had ever known: Barack and Michelle Obama were coming to Moneygall.
If you live in a city or a good-sized town, or really any place that people visit of their own volition, you must strain, much as Moneygallers strained, to comprehend the effects of what happened next to their generally overlooked village. A donation of thirty-five thousand litres of paint was secured, from Dulux, to touch up every house; the company also provided a color coördinator’s services. Every pothole was repaired, planters were hung in windows, and a ticket system was devised to accommodate all those who wished to join the reception on Main Street. No conceivable “O’Bama” souvenir went unrealized: placemats, teapots, hats, key chains, “Yes We Can” T-shirts written in Gaelic, “What’s the craic Barack?” coffee mugs. Brack, a kind of fruit loaf, became “Barack’s brack.” Soon the Secret Service began the painstaking process of insuring that the most excited people in Ireland did nothing foolish.
On May 23, 2011, Healy sat at Ollie Hayes Bar, Moneygall’s main pub (the other one sits on the other side of the road), watching live footage of Marine One landing nearby. He was a wreck. The son of a farmer, he worked in accounts at a local plumbing company. Now his local bar had been equipped with fourteen phone lines, and soon he’d be part of the inner circle hanging around with the President of the United States. “Someone offered me a brandy, but I didn’t want the President’s first impression of an Irishman to be one who smelled like alcohol,” Healy told me, this past fall. “I had a pint of water.”
The Obamas’ first stop was to a low, drab-looking house toward the south end of Main Street. It was the ancestral home—the place that Falmouth had left, a century and a half earlier, for America. The President could’ve just nodded appreciatively, one Moneygaller told me. But he wanted to check it out. Healy and Hayes were with him, and reported later that he seemed genuinely moved there in the living room. He stomped on the floorboards where his people had walked, pored over an artist’s impression of how the house had once looked, and then relayed what he had learned to the First Lady when she walked in.
Then they went to the pub. In photos, ruddy locals beam over the couple’s shoulders, unable to contain their palpable joy. Healy is seen seldom more than a foot or two from the first family, and not looking remotely nervous. Ollie Hayes, Healy’s uncle and neighbor, stands nearby. By all accounts, the atmosphere verged on euphoric. “You’re keeping all the best stuff here,” Obama declared at one point, talking about how Guinness tastes better in Ireland than abroad. The quote, sounding like a broader endorsement, was later memorialized on a sign outside the pub. “We are going to talk about this day forevermore as the day that Moneygall made history,” Hayes said. Healy told a journalist that it was “the greatest day this village has ever had, ever will have.”
The Obamas left the pub to find all of Moneygall waiting outside, along with a few thousand visitors. The plan was for the first family to say a few hellos and then get in a limo. But, as locals tell it now, something came over them, and they walked the entire length of the village, shaking every hand. Lengthwise, it’s said to have been the longest Presidential handshake session in modern history. And then they left. The Obamas left, the Secret Service left, the media left. Everybody left except the Moneygallers themselves.
Preparations ahead of Obama’s visit to Moneygall. PHOTOGRAPH BY JULIEN BEHAL / PA WIRE / AP
The first thing you notice about Moneygall is that you’ve accidentally driven through it. In the northeast, you quickly find yourself in Irish countryside: ash trees, low stone walls, thick-walled homes hunkered down against the chill. On a recent morning, the local radio station aired a segment on the proper installation of flue liners.
But zip out of Moneygall from the southwest and you arrive at the gleaming, glassy Barack Obama Plaza, rising in thrilling disharmony from the cows and hills and green. The multimillion-dollar complex opened on the outskirts of town three years after the visit. Only technically is the futuristic-looking structure just a rest stop. Inside, diners can find proper Irish meals, in addition to fast food, and a spacious dining room with actual silverware. Upstairs, there’s a suite of meeting rooms, should anyone need to conduct a meeting. Down the hall, an extensive visitors center showcases all things Obama-plus-Moneygall. There’s an exhibit on other famous locals, a bust of Obama, a giant photo of Healy shaking the President’s hand.
Having been put on the map by Obama’s visit, Moneygall intended to remain there. The plaza is the most elaborate of the village’s monuments to its historic significance; for a while, there was talk of building a hundred-and-fifty-room Barack Obama Hotel. The Obama Café opened on Main Street, and the village’s official Web site began promoting an Obama-themed bike ride around the region. Visitors can attend the annual Obama Country Fest; stroll through the nearby cemetery, where the President’s ancestors are buried; or snap selfies outside the church they likely attended. And, of course, they can pop into Ollie Hayes Bar, itself a mini museum of Obama photos, memorabilia, and another bust of the President. The sign out front has been modified to incorporate a blown-up photo of Obama drinking Guinness.
On a brisk Wednesday evening this fall, three middle-aged men sat on stools in the pub watching a cooking show, while Hayes, who is fifty, and the fourth generation of landlords, scrolled idly through his phone. In the half-decade since the Obamas’ visit, Hayes and Healy were amazed to find that their relationship with the first family did not simply fade away. Healy got to bring his mother to the White House, and has made two trips to Washington, D.C., with Hayes, the first on an invitation from Obama. The second time, not wanting to trouble the President, they attempted to attend his Second Inauguration as members of the public. Soon after arriving in the States, however, they received an e-mail from the White House, and were invited to the Inaugural Ball, the Inauguration itself, and another private function. “Cousin Henry!” Michelle exclaimed when she saw him, and everyone hugged everyone.
Healy and Hayes estimate they’ve met with Obama ten times. Their days of getting nervous before each encounter are over. During one visit, tooling around Washington with the President in his limo, Healy and Hayes realized with mortification that they’d been talking at length about septic-tank regulation in Ireland. Obama, for his part, seemed fascinated. Recalling this and other evidence of Obama’s character, Hayes turned solemn. “A sound man,” he said.
The Obama connection still draws out-of-towners to the bar. “We’ve all become tour guides,” Hayes said. “It’s brought everyone together. Just one of the ways everything changed that day.”
But hope and change can snag. Mary Murray, who runs Moneygall’s sole bed-and-breakfast, told me that not all the transformations have been positive. Economically, the village struggles like never before, she said, pointing to the Obama Café, a short walk down Main Street. Fourteen American flags hang outside, and the front door is flanked by potted plants inscribed with “Welcome” and “Obama,” but most prominent is the sign in the window: “For Sale or Lease.” The antiques shop has also closed; the hardware store has closed. The art gallery moved to a bigger town. Mary Bergin, who runs Moneygall’s convenience store and post office, told me, “When I first opened, there were five shops on the street. It was busy all day. I’m the last one left, and I’m barely hanging on.” Down the road, the old Kearney home is no longer open to tours, a pursuit that didn’t bring much income. The owners began renting it out to peat farmers from Lithuania. One morning, I camped out on a stretch of Main Street sidewalk for an hour. The only human I saw was the mail carrier. I would have wondered where everyone was, but, of course, I knew.
When I got to the Barack Obama Plaza, it was packed, as it was every time I visited: travellers, a visiting school group, a meeting of school teachers in one of the community rooms. Outside the gift shop, I spotted Henry Healy, looking friendly in a power tie. He still lives in town, though no longer with his mother, and he still tweets regularly about Obama, and U.S. politics in general. (“Anything to be said for four more beers? #ElectionDay,” he tweeted, on November 8th.) When his plumbing-company job vaporized shortly after the President’s visit, he was besieged with offers. Now he is the operations manager at the rest stop. When a child got sick near the Papa John’s, I watched him approach with statesmanlike purpose.
The response to the plaza has been divided. Certainly it has created jobs and raised the local profile. But it has also siphoned business away from Main Street, amplifying a problem that began when the nearest motorway was rerouted to bypass the village. With so many necessities available under a single gleaming roof, visitors to the old shops have all but vanished. Bergin called the plaza “the last nail in the coffin for us.” Maybe there could be no better tribute to the President than an unresolved squabble in his name.
In the dining area, families were eating late lunches, kids were climbing under tables, and a boy in a Black Sabbath jacket was stealing glances at an older girl. It looked like a town square. With only a little reaching, it was possible to imagine a future President paying a visit to the place decades, even centuries, from now. “My ancestors worked right there at the Papa John’s,” he or she might say, or, “You’re keeping all the best stuff here.”