Each year, people from around the world come to Ireland hoping to trace their roots. But what would happen if the roles were reversed and Irish people offered these amateur genealogists an invitation to their ancestral communities and a bit of help?
That’s exactly the idea behind Ireland Reaching Out, also known as Ireland XO, an organisation which uses reverse genealogy practices to connect with the diaspora. The project was established in Loughrea, Co Galway, in 2010 and has since spread to about 500 parishes throughout the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
One person involved in sharing the goals and ideals of Ireland XO is Henry Healy, who has experienced first-hand the rewards of reaching out to the diaspora. Often referred to as ‘Henry VIII’, Healy discovered a link to US President, Barack Obama – his eighth cousin – in 2007, after his uncle began researching the family tree.
“It was just the piecing together of a jig-saw and immediately when we realised the connection, obviously Moneygall became very interested in US politics,” Healy says.
Now working as Ireland XO’s Community Activation Leader, Healy is encouraging people around the country to take part in reverse genealogy. The organisation helps communities set up their programmes so that local volunteers have the knowledge and skills needed to reach out to people with genealogical ties to the town or village.
While some people may not believe in the power of connecting with the diaspora, Healy has seen “huge benefits”.
“The only thing that anyone has to give is time and that time is well spent,” he explains. “They’re enriching and enhancing a visit to Ireland for somebody coming back. Some people might be sceptical and say, ‘Why bother?’ but you see the fruits of your labour when these people return and you see the emotion. You know, the swelling of the eyes, the tear rolling down the face.”
Another positive that comes from volunteering with Ireland XO is getting to know one’s own community better.
“The ruins of a house that we pass day in and day out, we don’t see them,” Healy says. “But when you’re there with somebody and they have an emotional attachment to somewhere in your parish, you’ll always remember that story. … And that family now becomes alive again in the community despite having left maybe during the famine times or during the 50s or 60s, whenever they had to emigrate.”
For the Gathering Ireland 2013, communities involved with Ireland XO are planning a number of Week of Welcome events, during which they will invite members of the diaspora to come home. Still, the organisation’s mission goes beyond 2013 and aims to create life-long relationships that benefit local Irish people as well as the diaspora.
“We’re seeing a lot of emigration now,” Healy explains. “Isn’t it nice for somebody in a local parish, if their son or daughter or grandson or niece or nephew is emigrating to Australia, that they’re able to pick up the phone and say, ‘Look, my son or my daughter is travelling to Australia. Any chance you’ll just keep an eye out for them and maybe meet them at the airport?’”
And with the use of today’s technology, building relationships with the 70 million Irish people around the world has gotten easier. Healy says that Ireland XO’s volunteers frequently use Skype to chat with members of the diaspora and encourage them to visit Ireland whenever they can, whether it’s in 2013 or 2030.
“We let them know that there’s a cup of tea at the door whenever they arrive, you know the simple things,” Healy says. “What we want to do is bring back a sense of community spirit, a sense of the céad míle fáilte, the hundred thousand welcomes that Ireland is renowned for.”