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Mike Feerick, Chairman and founder of charity Ireland Reaching Out, explains how tracing the descendants of emigrants and inviting them back to become part of new and expanded virtual Irish communities will greatly benefit Ireland.
In recent years there have been a number of initiatives aimed at developing closer links between Ireland and its diaspora with various degrees of success. However, what is certain is that the Irish public’s consciousness of people with affinity to Ireland beyond our shores is higher now than it has been for generations. This is an opportunity that must be grasped.
Attracting people of Irish heritage to Ireland has obvious immediate economic benefits. The ‘Gathering’ initiative has sparked many a family reunion this year that might otherwise have remained a good intention. However, the deeper opportunity is to go beyond inviting people back home. Finding out who they really are, how we can help them, and how they can assist us is an even greater opportunity. In this way, the promise of the diaspora to be a resource of economic, social and cultural revival becomes a reality.
There are a number of clear steps which need to be taken to do this: firstly, on behalf of the Irish nation, a database must be developed to aggregate the data of our diaspora. Permission-based, it must be a charitable endeavour and non-government as those who might support will not do so if they believe the information can be used for anything other than for the purposes intended.
The second step is that this national database must receive the buy-in and support of central and local government. While various local authorities, to their credit, have been assertive in recognising the promise of their diaspora, separate databases for diaspora nation-wide leads to a duplication of resources, making issues related to data protection more complicated.
The benefits of organising our diaspora are many and varied. At ‘Ireland Reaching Out’, the national reverse genealogy programme founded in 2010, we see benefits far beyond what might first have been understood. Stories that quickly come to mind are of the recent Irish college graduate who emigrates to Australia, and instead of getting a job bar-tending in Sydney, gets an internship position as a trainee mechanical engineer. This position was organised by a member of her hometown’s parish diaspora in Australia which amounts to tens of thousands of people. It is the story of the Silicon Valley CEO, who on finding his roots in a rural East Galway parish, offers a summer internship to a recent graduate from that area.
I met a gentleman from Virginia at the Milwaukee Irish Festival last year, who had traced his family back to Ballina, County Mayo, in 1740. He had identified 1,200 descendants and had email details for over 700 people. Viewed differently, Ballina now has the opportunity to connect with 700 more people with connections to the town the next time it is organising its annual festival.
There is an inexhaustible list of similar stories and opportunities. With the gift of new online communication tools, we can engage like never before; that is of course, if we have the resolve to do so.
As the many anniversaries of key dates in our island’s history come about, it will become more apparent than ever as to how Irish people abroad have defined our national history in recent centuries. In an ever more virtual world, people’s sense of connection by blood to a physical place is perhaps becoming more important as people seek to find out what is unique about them and their own.
On a recent trip to China, a senior Irish politician was gently reminded by the Chinese Prime Minister that Ireland was not as small as he made out. It had, he said, its diaspora. Famous for their long-term thinking, we should be thankful to our Chinese friends for reminding us of the opportunity that lies before us, if only we have the wisdom to grasp it.