‘O’ versus ‘Mac’: the Irish roots of US presidential candidates

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, General, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2008), News, Volume 16

Senators John McCain and Barack Obama on the hustings in July 2008.

Senators John McCain and Barack Obama on the hustings in July 2008.

There is always particular interest in this country in an American president who has an Irish ancestral connection, although frankly the Anglo element is usually predominant in presidential pedigrees. Yet the rise of the Irish as a successful ethnic group can be charted in the number of US presidents possessing Irish ancestors: before John Fitzgerald Kennedy, eight incumbents had Irish ancestry, and since Kennedy’s time all bar Gerald Ford could claim some Irish roots. The 2008 race must surely have been one of the most ‘Irish’ of American presidential elections: not only did both the Democratic and Republican candidates possess significant Irish ancestry, but their vice-presidential nominees did as well.
Barack Obama is, of course, Kenyan in his paternal ancestry, but his discovered Irish connection has led to his being humorously dubbed ‘O’Bama’. His forebears on his maternal side include a great-great-great-grandfather Falmouth or Fulmuth Kearney or Carney, born in Ireland c. 1832, who emigrated to the US in 1850, and whose father is stated to be Joseph Kearney, a shoemaker of Moneygall, Co. Offaly.
The jury is still out on whether McCain’s main paternal line originated in Scotland or Ulster, but attention is now focused on a claim that the senator is descended from an Alexander McKean who left Coleraine, Co. Derry, c. 1719 and appeared in the Pennsylvania and Maryland areas in the 1720s. One confirmed Irish ancestor is McCain’s four times great-grandfather, Captain John Young, said to have been born in Ballymore, Co. Antrim, in 1737, and whose wife, Mary White, was also from the same place (there does not, however, appear to be a Ballymore in Antrim, although there is one in Armagh). A most interesting connection has also been noticed between McCain and an Irish family with links to the Battle of the Boyne, the Coddingtons. One of McCain’s five times great-grandfathers was Dixie Coddington, born in Holmpatrick, Skerries, Co. Dublin, in 1693, who married Hannah Waller and died in Queen Street, Dublin, in 1776. Dixie’s father, and McCain’s six times great-grandfather, Captain Dixie Coddington, served with King William at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Captain Dixie’s eldest son and Dixie junior’s brother, John Coddington, acquired the Oldbridge estate in County Meath from the earl of Drogheda in 1729. This branch of the Coddingtons remained at Oldbridge until the 1970s and finally sold off the estate in the 1980s. Oldbridge House is now home to the Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre, opened on 4 May 2008 by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Northern Ireland’s first minister, Ian Paisley.
Turning now to the vice-presidential nominees, Obama’s running mate, Senator Joe Biden, has Finnegan forebears, as well as two great-great-grandparents born in Ireland, Patrick Blewitt and Catharine Scanlon, counties of origin at present unknown. It has been shown that Biden’s great-great-grandfather, Owen Finnegan, was most likely from Carlingford, Co. Louth, although this is not yet entirely certain.

Oldbridge House, Co. Meath (now home to the Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre), was acquired in 1729 by John Coddington, whose brother Dixie was Senator John McCain’s five times great-grandfather. Their father (also called Dixie) served with King William at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. (OPW)

Oldbridge House, Co. Meath (now home to the Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre), was acquired in 1729 by John Coddington, whose brother Dixie was Senator John McCain’s five times great-grandfather. Their father (also called Dixie) served with King William at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. (OPW)

McCain’s vice-presidential nominee, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, has strong Irish roots via her mother, Sarah Sheeran. Online US records show that both sets of parents of Governor Palin’s great-great-grandparents, Michael James Sheeran and Maria E. Burke of Minnesota, were all born in Ireland, county or counties unknown. Michael James’s parents were Michael Sheeran and Mary Kline, who probably emigrated to the US prior to or during the Great Famine in the 1840s. The surname Sheeran (Ó Sírín) is particularly associated with north Connacht and north-west Ulster, while Burke is common in Connacht, and especially in counties Galway and Mayo.
Ironically, it is easier to conduct a search in Ireland for a family in Minnesota than it is to track one in Mayo, so slow and uneven has been the pace of digitising and placing Irish records online. One important Irish online source, Griffith’s Valuation, shows that there was a significant cluster of Michael Sheeran householders in Rossinver parish, Co. Leitrim, in the 1850s, and the surname Cline/Kline is also found in the county. This is merely indicative evidence as to the possible county of origin of Palin’s ancestors, and the sparseness of surviving Leitrim records means that a conclusive identification may never be possible.
Visits to Ireland by US presidents are now traditional, particularly since their administrations have become so directly involved in the Northern Ireland peace process. By the time you read this we will know whether in the near future we may see President Obama travelling to Offaly (perhaps in the company of Taoiseach Brian Cowen) or President McCain travelling to Oldbridge, where an ancestor fought and a family residence still stands, before detouring north to Ulster in search of other ancestors.

Seán J. Murphy is an adult education tutor in genealogy at University College Dublin.

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