There was a glimmer of hope but, alas, it was not to be. It ends up that U.S. President Barack Obama is not Bob Brehl’s long lost cousin. CNS photo

A little girl, a potato and the President

  • March 2, 2016

A long-anticipated trip to Ireland, researching ancestors, a poignant story about children playing with a potato, even the name Barack Obama, all eventually led me to pondering the plight of Syrian refugees and the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.

It all sounds complicated, but it really isn’t.

Like thousands of Canadians, perhaps millions, I can trace ancestors coming to this country in the middle 1800s around the time of the horrific potato famine in Ireland. Though my surname is Germanic, my heritage is mostly Irish with three of my four grandparents of Irish ancestry.

I’ve long wished to see Ireland and the counties of my ancestors: Cork, Clare, Monaghan and Tipperary. While preparing for the trip, two things jumped out from the research: A possible familial connection to the U.S. president and a story about a little girl and a potato.

I learned that a great-greatgrandmother, Margaret Kearney, born in 1837 in County Clare, came to Toronto in the 1850s. An Irish friend of my brother told me Obama had an ancestor named Kearney on his mother’s side. That piqued my interest.

I then found Obama’s greatgreat- grandfather Fulmoth Kearney was born in 1830 in an Irish town called Moneygall not far from County Clare. He left for New York in 1850. Maybe Margaret and Fulmoth were cousins, I thought. I knew they couldn’t be siblings because they came from different towns.

When I found Kearney was not even in the top 100 most common Irish surnames, I got a little excited thinking I could be related to the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, albeit very distantly.

In Dublin, we stayed at the beautiful and historic Shelbourne Hotel, which staffs a “genealogy butler” who helps people trace their Irish roots. Only in Ireland would there be genealogy butlers, I thought.

We met with Helen Kelly, a delightful woman who has worked at Ireland’s Genealogy Office and the National Library and National Archives of Ireland. It didn’t take this genealogy butler long to tell me it is highly unlikely Margaret and Fulmoth Kearney were related. She had several reasons but the main one was Margaret was Catholic and she found that Fulmoth was Church of Ireland (Anglican.)

Oh well, I thought, there goes any chance of an invitation to the White House and it sure kills a fun story for dinner parties. Helen gave me further places to check, like church records in County Clare, if I needed 100-per-cent confirmation there was no link between the two Kearneys. If only we’d had more time in Ireland to scour through old records. Instead, I took her at her word.

The second Irish genealogy story is about one of my greatgrandmothers. Her name was Bridget Smith and she came to Canada when she was four years old, not long after the desperate and hungry years of the potato famine. She and her family eventually made their way to Ontario, where on the first night here they were put up in the home of relatives who arrived several years earlier.

Entering the home, the first thing the little girl saw was children playing and rolling a potato on the floor between them. Aghast, the little newcomer leaped to save the precious potato. Giggles ensued and an adult told her there were plenty more of them for eating and that she should join the other children in the game.

In awe that something so prized as a potato could be a plaything, young Bridget turned to her mother and said, “This is going to be a good place to live.” Indeed, Canada is a great place to live.

I remember being told that story as a young boy, but had forgotten it until researching the Irish trip. We can all trace our ancestors coming from somewhere else, most likely from a place in far greater dire straits than Canadians have ever experienced.

Last week, I was reminded of little Bridget Smith again when I opened my Catholic Register and read a story about Syrian relief and that donations are slowing. The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace — the Canadian bishops’ international development organization — is more than $1 million short of its $3.5 million goal for Syrian relief.

Like Bridget Smith back in 1863, I bet a lot of Syrian children have arrived in Canada recently and said something similar about this being a good place to live. To donate, visit

(Brehl can be reached at bob@ or @bbrehl on Twitter.)

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