Calling all Irish

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.


‘Emigrants Leave Ireland’, engraving by Henry Doyle (1827–1892), from Mary Frances Cusack’s Illustrated History of Ireland, 1868

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.”

You can read more at the Ireland XO website, including news that President Barack Obama’s distant Irish cousin, Henry Healy, has joined the effort.

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.

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5 Comments on “Calling all Irish”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    Although I am 100% German, the only “people” I consider myself to be is a human who is now an American by decent.
    I tend to view this “where do you come from” as largely meaningless because where you are and where you are going is far more important.

  2. Lucy Martin says:

    Pete, are human so homogeneous we’re all interchangeable?
    Perhaps that’s true in a biological sense. But surely culture does influence people.

    We value diversity and species preservation in the natural world.
    What about cultural preservation – how should that be noted and valued?

    Is thinking “that stuff doesn’t matter” a new cultural marker of a modern/disconnected type of human?

    There must be pros and cons to that.

    I don’t have the answers!
    I’m still ruminating on the question of how much culture does (or should?) matter.

  3. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Jeeze Pete, go down to the Oak Barrel and have a beer or something. You’re miserable lately.

  4. Ellen Rocco says:

    While the one-time cross-Atlantic trip was certainly the case for my father and his mother when they emigrated from Russia just before WWI, the notion of a return visit neither desirable (pogroms don’t draw nostalgic visits home) nor affordable. My mother’s family, on the other hand, was a different story. Her mother was Austrian, her father Hungarian. Ostensibly a shoemaker, my grandfather actually made more money–or at least occasional large chunks of money–through his gambling. And, periodically, he’d take these windfalls to buy passage back and forth to Budapest where he’d visit with flamboyant friends and relatives. This amazed me–until I heard about my grandfather’s escapades, I always assumed the cross-oceanic journey was a once in a lifetime experience for immigrants.

    Clearly, a big factor in any return visit would be why you left your “homeland” to begin with. The Irish, in general, see their country of origin with affection. This was unequivocally not the attitude in my father’s case.

  5. Pete Klein says:

    RC, I never go to bars anymore for a variety of reason and the Oak Barrel is now the Indian Lake Tavern and Restaurant where I do on occasion go for dinner.
    I don’t go to bars because drinks are too expensive and since I am married I am not looking to pickup or get picked up, and in addition you can’t smoke in them anymore.
    As for culture, it is a moving target, constantly changing.
    No one from my family has ever gone back to the “Old Country,” probably (and this might be a German thing) because the trip would cost too much and all of the family left or has since died. I know my grandfather on my father’s side lost a brother in the first world war.
    My grandmother had a sister or a cousin who remained behind and they wrote letters to each other until sometime in the 50’s. My grandmother showed me one of the letters she received and it words and sentences deleted by the censors.
    Plus, the country my grandparents came from in 1906 and 1907 was not Germany but Romania. Their families left Bavaria in the 1700’s to move to Romania because Queen Marie Theresa offered land to German Catholics who would move there.
    They moved to this country because they saw the handwriting on the wall and realized Communism was about to sweep over the land and were tired of Europe’s never ending wars.
    Guess we blew on that score.
    You really can’t go home again. The Detroit I grew up in no longer exists and all my family has left the city.
    Nostalgia isn’t worth the price.

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