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Category: Asset 8News & Views

Details of Obama visit still unclear

April 27, 2011

By Staff Reporter

While there is mounting anticipation of the visit by President Barack Obama to Ireland, there are still very few official details.

Left with only speculation, some media outlets have cribbed quotes off the internet and remanufactured “new” information about the First family’s Irish ancestry, and that has one expert upset.

“The First Lady may well be part Irish, but I’m not absolutely sure about that,” said Megan Smolenyak in a telephone interview from her office outside of Philadelphia.

The famed genealogist, who first broke the news to the world that Barack Obama’s maternal relatives came from the small town of Moneygall in County Offaly, was in the Tampa, Florida airport when she recently got a Google alert.

It indicated that a news report was quoting her as stating that First Lady Michelle Obama had “Irish roots.”

“I had not spoken with anyone from that paper or its website,” explained Smolenyak.

She surmised that the White House’s announcement in March that the president would be visiting Ireland was spurring  interest in her work.

She has carried out extensive research on Michelle Obama’s ancestry, but the results are not yet definitive. She says the “new research” touted on the website was really recycled old quotes by her given to the New York Times back in 2009.

Smolenyak is the author of the best selling book “Who Do You Think You Are?: The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History,” a companion guide to the NBC series.

She formerly was Chief Family Historian and spokesperson for Ancestry.com, the largest genealogical company in the world, and is the creator of RootsTelevision.com.

“If you look at the paper trail, it strongly suggests that one of Michelle Obama’s ancestors was a fellow by the name of Shields, but you can’t be sure. There’s not an explicit paper trail for it, so the only way to tell for sure would be to do DNA testing,” she told the Echo.

Smolenyak, whose own grandmother came to the U.S. from Ballymoney in County Antrim, and coincidentally is named Shields, will be going back to Ireland to be there for the president’s visit in May.

She was invited to attend the festivities after working closely with Church of Ireland Canon Stephen Neill in Moneygall. She said she understands that the First Family is pleased with her research on their extensive family trees.

Also needing clarification this week was an interview by the Irish Times with the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney.

Rooney’s only revelation in the interview was the definite exclusion of Cork from the presidential visit. Mr. Obama was invited to Cork for the unveiling of a statue of American abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

However, planners are having enough difficulty fitting in the events in Dublin, Offaly, and even Mayo where there is the possibility of golf in Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s home county.

As the chairman emeritus of his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers, Rooney is the force behind the presidential visit and said it meant a great deal to Irish Americans like himself and his wife that the Obamas were coming.

The Times went on to declare in the interview that in order to campaign for the president’s re-election, Ambassador Rooney would resign “soon” and return to the U.S.

After queries about such a resignation came from the media in Pittsburgh, the U.S. Embassy in Dublin put out a statement by Rooney aimed at clarifying his intentions.

“Some readers have drawn the incorrect conclusion from my comments to The Irish Times” it stated.

“I was asked what I could do to help President Obama in the next election and I responded that the best thing I could do would be to help him campaign.

“Were I to do so, it would require my resignation as Ambassador to Ireland. However, I am very pleased with my accomplishments to date, and I intend to continue to carry out my duties,” Rooney stated.

Tanya Powell, a spokeswoman for the State Department in Washington, said there were no current plans for a change in Rooney’s job status.

“What appeared in The Irish Times was assuming he had been asked by the president to help in his campaign. That hasn’t occurred,” the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported Powell as saying.

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