For most of human history travel was a luxury largely reserved for the rich. Not so many generations past, crossing the ocean was a one-time gamble of last resort. Yes, millions of tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breath free made their way to these shores. (Not to mention the ones who came in chains, or those who were already here.) But after making the arduous passage, most who arrived from Europe, Asia or Africa never saw their homeland again.
Today we’re relatively lucky. Even when times ate tough, total crop failure followed by massive starvation is not the usual result. Travel in general is far more affordable. Even stay-at-homes can see and connect in ways utterly unimaginable to our immigrant ancestors.
Speaking of ways to connect, the Ottawa Citizen recently had an interesting article about something called reverse genealogy. According to the article, it’s an Ireland-based plan to reach out to the estimated 70 million people of Irish decent scattered across the globe.
“Many people are already tracing family history,” says [Phil] Donnelly, a 77-year-old retired public servant who immigrated to Canada in 1957.
“This goes beyond that to try to reach people who have not already become involved in identifying their Irish roots. The bottom line, from an economic point of view, is drawing more visitors back to Ireland.”
Lots of people take up genealogy on their own, but additional help on the other end can be quite attractive.
In this article from July 2011, the New York Times looks at the larger view of who is being targeted by the outreach. It’s a painful fact that Ireland is still grappling with a “diaspora“, thanks to a new round of severe economic constriction. (A big difference in this latest round of out-migration is how many of Ireland’s new economic refugees are well-educated.)
The “Ireland Reaching Out” project is a two-way street, to stimulate interest and ties with Irish abroad and bring some back as visitors to stimulate the Irish economy. Mike Feerick was one of the founders. As recounted in the NYT article,
There is a word in Gaelic for those who left — deorai — which means exile or wanderer, as though they did not choose to leave and could not put down roots anywhere but the land of their birth. That idea has made its way into Ireland Reaching Out.
“I want Ireland to start thinking of itself not as a physical place, but as a people,” Mr. Feerick said, and he wants it to start acting like it, too, through local projects like the one in Galway.
The program co-ordinates local volunteers to help visitors find what they’re after. As reported by Irish Central in 2011:
It’s this personal touch that Mike Feerick emphasizes above all else. “Genealogy can be a lonely business,” he says. “What’s missing is the contact with people. We asked all of our visitors to tell us what they knew about their family connections before they arrived, and our team of volunteers has been working on finding out more. As a result, we’ll be able to put them in direct contact with living relatives. We’ll be able to bring them out to the parishes and show them the houses and fields they came from. They won’t be alone.”
This is just one of many Irish diaspora projects or concepts, as in this Irish Times op-ed by Baroness Detta O’Cathain, member of the House of Lords and of the leadership council of the Irish International Diaspora Trust:
We are a diaspora who can hold our heads high. We contribute to the best of our ability wherever we go.
We must make every Irish person feel the same. It is appropriate and fundamentally important to celebrate the global imprint our diaspora has made and continues to make.
As a child I often wondered if I had some Irish blood, since it seems so many do. I’ve yet to find any, though I have since learned that my Martin line out of Cornwall is considered to hail from a Celtic culture, and are not “just English” as I’d always assumed. Most likely Reach Out Ireland will have nothing in store for me.
But everyone’s from somewhere – and learning more about culture is an enriching activity. It’s also instructive to see new ideas for economic revitalization. Will this one make a big difference? Time will tell.
Meanwhile, if you happen to be Irish, this might be a good road to explore.