Sunday Life has tracked down US President Barack Obama’s secret Ulster family. The Thornton family from the sleepy village of Bellanaleck in Co Fermanagh have an extraordinary story that links them to the world’s most powerful man.
“Barack would be a far-out cousin of ours,” revealed George Thornton.
“We only found out the other day that we were related. Sure I don’t think anything of it. When I was told about it, I had a cup of tea and forgot all about it.
“I’m impressed by it but it’s the boy that’s more interested in it.”
George’s son Julian, an education officer at Enniskillen Castle Museum, is far more taken with finding out about his famous cousin.
“It’s certainly an eye-opener. It’s not every day you’re told news like this,” he said.
“It’s like something you’d see on EastEnders. But it won’t change me.
“Barack Obama may be one of the extended family now but I’m still the same person. I’ll admit though, the whole thing is completely mad.”
Julian added: “My background is in history and I am absolutely fascinated by it, especially in the light of the work I do at the Castle. Of the many gems I’ve discovered, this is the biggest of them all so far.
“Barack is an inspiration and it’s great that, like so many Presidents before him, he has Irish connections.”
Bill Clinton’s ancestral homestead was traced to the Roslea area of Co Fermanagh while he was in power in the White House. He did visit Enniskillen but didn’t venture any deeper into rural Fermanagh.
But the Thornton family wouldn’t have known anything about their link with Obama, if it wasn’t for the research carried out by close relative Marion Maxwell.
Marion, a first cousin of George’s, made the shock discovery that she was Obama’s 12th cousin after clocking the front page of an Irish newspaper which had revealed the President’s great, great grandfather, Falmouth Kearney came from Co |Offaly.
“I saw a photograph of young Henry Healy who lives in Moneygall in Co Offaly. I thought I recognised the fellow because I have relations in Moneygall of the same surname. I rang Johnny Healy up and he confirmed that it was indeed the same family.”
Healy's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-aunt was Obama's great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother.
“My great grandmother on my mother’s side was Anne Hodgins of Moneygall — the family had a coaching inn on the Main Street. One of them married a Healy and that is how Henry Healy and I are related. We would have had the same great grandmother.
“A Healy married a Kearney and Bob's your uncle — Barack's your cousin!
“By a series of inter-marriages, that’s how I arrive at my connection with Barack Obama,” says Marion, adding — with tongue firmly in cheek, “that as a third cousin of an eighth cousin of Barack Obama, that makes me practically the First Lady! Don't you think the family resemblance is uncanny?”
Obama’s great, great grandfather Falmouth Kearney left Moneygall for the States in 1850 and settled in Ohio.
“How Moneygall discovered their connection with Barack Obama was that Canon Stephen Neill of the Church of Ireland Parish of Templeharry got a phone call from Ancestry.com in America asking him about his parish records.
“That sent Canon Neill delving into these old records which were held in the house of an old lady parishioner,” explained Marion.
Among dusty ledgers dating to 1799, Canon Neill found entries that confirmed the presence of the Kearneys back to the late 1600s.
In 1850, Falmouth, the 20-year-old son of Joseph and Phoebe Kearney, emigrated to the United States, settling in Ohio.
Four generations later, Falmouth's great-great-granddaughter Ann Dunham married Barack Hussein Obama Sr.
Ann Dunham was the lady who died on the eve of Barack's election to the Presidency.
Marion admits that doing family tree research can become something of an obsession.
“It takes up a huge amount of time, but I enjoy it.
“And the whole thing about delving into your family tree is that you never know where it’s going to take you.”
Julian added: “OK, we may be a bit far out from Barack Obama but what a link to make! I think it’s important that everybody
knows something about their roots. After all, it's part of who you are and needs to be recorded for future generations.”
And so the family circle, who could just be the only relations of Barack Obama in Northern Ireland, look forward to welcoming their newfound relatives to Bellanaleck sometime.
“Barack Obama and the wife are welcome to stay anytime.
“There’s a spare room here and they'd get a bite to eat. They wouldn’t go hungry anyway!” laughed George.