August 6th, 2012

Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey

I just heard about this organization in Ireland that is using genealogy to try to reinvent the Irish economy. It is so cool I just had to share it with you, and even if this project doesn’t help the Irish economy, it’ll do a lot of good. In fact, the organization, Ireland Reaching Out (IRO), is saving a lot of people the trouble of tracing their family trees and doing it for them, all in the hope that they will come to Ireland by invitation, and think about returning to their ancestral home to help boost the economy and Irish morale. It may seem a bit far fetched, but some of those who were invited to the first of IRO’s Week of Welcomes have been quite affected by their experience.

It all began when people around the United State began getting mysterious text messages stating that the sender was trying to connect with members of a particular family. Each text contained genealogical data linking the receiver to their Irish heritage. All together, around 30 people who received these texts ended up travelling to Ireland this summer to experience first hand the towns and villages their ancestors came from. I think this is a really unique endeavour, and those who participated confirm that with their sentiments.

A lecturer at Fordham University in New York, James R. Kelly, suspected that his family had originated in southeast Galway, but he wasn’t sure of the exact location. On arriving in Galway, he was introduced to Michael Fahy, a retired teacher and local historian. In no time at all Mr. Fahy had unearthed evidence that James’ grandfather (also James Kelly), came from a village near Abbey in Galway, where he owned a small farm. Mr. Kelly was overjoyed with the experience, and spent much of his time meeting and embracing people he feels may be long-lost relatives. Of Mr. Fahy he said, “He was like my guardian angel the whole week, he took me down to Abbey and found my ancestral home.”

James Kelly was but one of the many people affected by the efforts of IRO, whose motto is simply “Come Home.” The organization spent a year tracking down and preparing for the return of the initial descendants of who they refer to as the Galway exiles. There is a Gaelic word for those who left Ireland – deorai – and it means exile or wanderer, as though they had no choice but to leave, and really could never put down roots anywhere but their homeland. That idea lies at the core of Ireland Reaching Out.

IRO Board Member Mike Feerick, one of the founding members of IRO says this of his project; “The project is based on a very simple idea: Instead of waiting for people of Irish heritage to trace their roots, we go the other way.”  An economist from the University of Limerick, Steven Kinsella, who is involved in the project added; “The people who left Ireland were in some sense the best part of us, they were the most dynamic, the most ambitious, the most willing to succeed, and we did not give them the conditions where they could succeed.”

Once again success is proving elusive to Ireland, especially since the financial crisis. Five years ago unemployment was a mere 4%, today it has risen to over 14%. Unfortunately that has led to another mass migration of the Irish, as again they head for places like Australia and New York. Talk about history repeating itself – but no one is more aware of that than the Irish. The numbers of Irish leaving today are much smaller than they were of course during the Great Famine, but the fact that net emigration has quadrupled in the last couple of years evokes memories of Ireland’s barren past in those old enough to remember it.

The goal of IRO is to establish itself as the central database and web-site for other such reverse genealogy centers which they hope to establish around Ireland. They have enlisted a number of local historians whose knowledge of their communities, local and regional histories, and even the destinations of many emigrants from their area, make IRO quite a formidable Irish genealogical resource. Of course Ireland Reaching Out wishes stimulation of the economy to be a beneficial side effect of helping people trace their Irish Ancestors, but anything that brings together families, and puts bread on their table at the same time, is alright in my books!