Kilkenny, Ireland May 2011
I went up to Saint Canice's Cathedral because trying to piece together a few bits of information that fit together vaguely.
A few years ago an elderly gentleman attendant there had told me that nobody knew whether or not any bodies were still interred within the cathedral itself. So when I heard that an ancestor of Barack Obama was buried there, I owed it to myself to wonder.
The auld fella had told me that when Oliver Cromwell overtook the city of Kilkenny in 1650, his troops removed all of the corpses from the tombs within Saint Canice's. This much is standard local history as is the fact that Cromwell stabled his horses there.
The fellow I spoke with back then (whom I learned today is now retired [and whom Fran said is the man to ask about these matters]) had told me that there *was* one caveat -- one possibility that bodies remained within Saint Canice's Cathedral. Actually, I think he told me that there *were* bodies in there, but that nobody knew anything more specific than that. He'd told me about the "Cox vault."
There's been write-up and talk, lately, about the upcoming visit to Ireland of U.S. President Barack Obama -- of course. The event follows in a long tradition of American politicians who want to claim any part of their Irish heritage and of Irish people who naturally want a visit from any American president who is one of their own.
President Obama's family traces roots directly to Moneygall in County Offaly. This has been long established and long discussed. But lately writers and talkers here in Kilkenny have been going on about his links to this county and its principal city. The scholarly discovery, as it turns out, goes back a couple of years -- but never mind that. The discussion is now hot, and partisan [inter-county-wise.]
[Obligatory note on nomenclature: the town where I live is officially a city, since King James I declared it so in 1609, and I don't want to argue the point. There are important reasons for continuing to call it so, and I'll leave it at that.]
There are two claims by County Kilkenny that wish to merit a visit by the current U.S. president. One is an elderly woman who lives in Bennetsbridge; and I'll leave her to her own devices.
The initial claim in the local popular media to the heritage presidential family Bishop John Kearney buried in Saint Canice's Cathedral. and I thought: "wait a minute."
If Barack Obama's ancestor is buried *in* the cathedral, does that mean that we *do* know that there are bodies there; and if we don't, then does that mean that the talk about Obama's ancestors might be incorrect?
Either is a valid possibility, of course -- the unreliability of government and religion is exceeded only by comparing one to the other, depending upon which day you choose to ask the question.
Only the religious lie more than the political -- and vice-versa, depending upon which day you ask the question and which side of the half-truth you choose to believe.
While I was talking with Fran today, she being the attendant at the 13th-century cathedral (now a tourist attraction during the week and a church on sunday,) two elderly gentlemen who knew her approached, after having spent some time walking about within the place.
While I was talking with one of them, I overheard the other fellow talking with Fran about the rumo(u)r that Obama is a muslim. She made the point that his connection to Bishop Kearney will have to put that to rest. Which isn't true, of course, because there's no end to the hatred and prejudice that religion can stir up and maintain -- and there's nobody who should know that better than the Irish. But, okay.
"What's your interest in this?" asked Fran, as she was showing me the limestone trap-door entrances to the sub-floor Cox family and Butler family vaults, and the wall-bound memorial to the Cox family, about whom I'd inquired.
One of the old fellows asked me that, too. That question, having been asked by two people, stuck in my head. I felt, afterward, that they'd been a little quizzical about my clear lack of reverence for the religious aspect of the whole matter. Maybe I'm wrong. Doesn't matter.
One of the old fellows was named Smithwick. Smithwick's is an important brewery here in the city, and has been since 1710 according to their self-promotion. His friend, whose name I didn't recognize and don't remember, noted that Mr. Smithwick is in fact of that family. Mr. Smithwick told me, when I was talking of the Cox vault, that he'd never noticed it -- and that he'd been "coming here for years."
The Cox vault is an inscribed limestone square set into the floor to the left of the nave, approximately in mirror-image allignment (but rotated 45 degrees) relative to the inscribed stone atop the Butler family vault on the other side of the nave.
The history of the Butler family is inseparable from the history of Kilkenny. It's a long story -- very long. They owned the castle, for example, from 1391 until 1967.
The Coxes, on the other hand? Their name seems to have disappeared. Mister Smithwick hadn't even ever noticed the entrance to their vault.
Fran told me to come back and talk with her later; that she'd find for me an English-language translation of the Latin inscription from 1745 that eulogizes a few members of the Cox family upon the gaudy blond marble memorial on the wall south of the nave.
But, anyway, here's what I have so far of Barack Obama's putative distant relative John Kearney, born ca. 1742 and the Bishop of Ossory from 1806 until 1813: He's either buried within the cathedral against the north wall of the northwest corner, where his name is inscribed in black limestone -- or he's not, in which case he's buried outside the front entrance and to the left, over near to the base of the round-tower with all of the bishops of Ossory in the last 100 years.
(Ossory is an ancient diocese approximately equivalent to the counties Kilkenny and Laoise.)
Mister Smithwick, as we stood in front of the memorial to Bishop John Kearney, told me that the place where we stood was going to be the place where President Obama was going to stand *when* -- not if -- he visits Kilkenny in May.