Barack Obama – A Painting of His Irish Ancestor

When famous portrait painter William Cuming (1769 -1852) sat painting his portrait of John Kearney in oils, on canvas, little did he comprehend that he was painting the ancestor of President Barack Obama, first African American to be elected President of the United States of America.

Little appears known of portrait painter William Cuming himself, except, that which can be gleaned from his surviving paintings, many of which depict Lord Mayors of Dublin City. We know that Charles Cromwell Ingham (1796-1863) born in Dublin, Ireland; studied painting under William Cuming. He, the former, moved to New York in 1816, where he opened a studio. He was a founder of the Academy of Design and became its Vice-President. He excelled in portraits and painted many prominent people of the day, including Lafayette, De Witt Clinton and Gulian C. Verplank.

John Kearney,

Trinity Provost 1799 -1806.

During William Cuming’s own life time, the Atlantic slave trade was at its peak, with the largest number of slaves captured by raiding expeditions into the interior of West Africa, being sold. These expeditions were typically carried out by African kingdoms who were waring against weaker African tribes. Europeans rarely entered the interior of Africa, due to a fear of disease and a fierce African resistance. Slave traders were happy to purchase their slaves from stations on the coast in exchange for cowrie shells. These cowrie shells or money shells were fastened, in some cases, together in strings of 40 or 100 with each fifty or twenty representing money. Before the shipping of slaves was completely outlawed in 1853, over 15 million slaves had arrived in the Americas.

John Kearney, the subject of Cumming’s portrait, was born in Dublin in 1742 the son of a surgeon-barber. He was elected Scholar of Trinity at the age of 18 years in 1760 and a Fellow of Trinity four years later, in 1764. He held the Chair of Oratory from 1781 until his appointment as Provost in July 1799. The Irish 1798 rebellion then had won little sympathy among the senior members of Trinity College. A majority of the Fellows of the college together with the this new Provost were opposed to it and Kearney was appointed despite his then political stance.

Kearney played an important role in recognizing and encouraging the talent of the Irish poet, translator, and balladeer Thomas Moore, who had been an undergraduate at Trinity during the turbulent years in Ireland of the 1790s. This is the same Thomas Moore of “The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Hall” and “The Meeting of The Waters” fame, latter better known as “Moore’s Melodies” published in 1846. Moore had gained access to Trinity College to study Law at this time because the college had recently allowed entry to Roman Catholic students.

John Kearney presided over Trinity College for six and a half years before resigning to take up a new appointment as Bishop of Ossory in January 1806.

This portrait by William Cumming, of President Obama’s ancestor presently hangs in the Provost Hall of Trinity College today.

Evidence is also, now, emerging that the Kearney family may have originally come from Cashel, Co. Tipperary, thus further strengthening President Obama’s Tipperary connection. A document exists dating back to 1777, in which Michael Kearney, latter a sixth great grand uncle of President Obama, purchased a 160 acre estate from another Kearney family in Cashel. This document predates the civil registration of births/marriages and deaths, and most other sources including parish registers.

While slavery as such today is outlawed, the ideals of cheap labour and easy profit are still fostered by the “Captains of Industry”. Much debate is needed on this subject. Profitable factories are being closing down in first world countries and transported to start up again in second and third world countries, to avail of a cheap labour force. “Much now need more” . Are we now involving ourselves in a new form of slavery? Have slave ships like the Jesus of Lubeck, the Adelaide,the Kron-Printzen and the Henrietta Marie been replaced by factory moving to third world countries? Are the scales of time swinging backwards? Your comments please.


3 comments to Barack Obama – A Painting of His Irish Ancestor

  • Barbara McIlwaine

    I was wondering if you can help me to find my ancestor. Seeing that there is so much information on the Kearney’s because of the President Obama.
    We are in Montreal Quebec Canada. We have a Francis Kearney from Kildare Ireland and his wife Bridget McAnally from Ireland in Montreal about 1838.
    I will need there parents name.
    Thank you
    Barbara Kearney McIlwaine
    105 McNicoll cr.
    Dorval Quebec

  • Kildare traffic, maybe some of you can help Barbara with her query.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>




nineteen + 8 =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.