Monday, March 9, 2015

Opinion: Ireland's Diaspora Policy And Genealogy

The Irish government released their first diaspora policy document last week. Global Irish: Irish Diaspora Policy reads for almost sixty pages and outlines a number of aims and objectives under five broad thematic areas: support, connect, facilitate, recognize, and evolve. I've read through the document and offer observations on how using genealogy in the U.S. to help Irish Americans find their ancestors' place of origin can contribute to some of these areas.

Connect: in an inclusive way with those, of all ages, around the world who are Irish, of Irish descent or have a tangible connection to Ireland, and wish to maintain a connection with Ireland and with each other[1]

To put it simply, it's as if genealogy and this statement should go hand in hand. Probably the greatest way that this connection can happen for many such people in the U.S is through discovering where their ancestors came from in Ireland. For me, this involves a two-strand approach. Recent Irish government policy has fully recognized one strand and has made strides in the last few years to make it happen: digitizing genealogy records and putting them online. This was first seen with the phenomenal success of the 1901 and 1911 Irish census. Further efforts have included the website and the digitization of Catholic parish records, coming online later this year. However, probably through a lack of understanding, they don't realized the second, and equally important strand: helping people in the find where their Irish ancestors came from by finding that information in U.S. based genealogy records. If Irish Americans don't first achieve this, then all the searching in the world through Irish records will not help in the majority of circumstances. I discuss how this can be achieved at the end of this post.

One effort that has not been successful is the Certificate of Irish Heritage. The diaspora policy says as much, "uptake of the Certificates has been disappointing, with fewer than 3,000 having been produced to date. We will continue to work with FEXCO to promote the scheme around the world to drive interest. Before the end of 2015, we will undertake an evaluation of the operation of the Certificate of Irish Heritage scheme, in partnership with FEXCO, to plan effectively for the future."[2] While it might look nice on a wall, I would wager a sizeable amount that members of the Irish diaspora in the U.S. would much rather have a genealogy record that tells them what parish their immigrant Irish ancestor came from.

Facilitate: a wide range of activity at local, national and international level designed to build on and develop two-way diaspora engagement[3]

Within Ireland, successful genealogy events such as those organized during the 2013 Gathering (e.g. Relatives of Ned Kelly gather in Tipperary, May 2013) and by the Ireland Reaching Out organization show the positive impact on local communities when people are able to find where their ancestors are from in Ireland. This benefits all involved: the diaspora member through a closer connection to the part of Ireland their ancestor emigrated from, the local community and its inhabitants through increased visits to the area, and the county as a whole through genealogy-driven tourism.

Recognize: the wide variety of people who make up our diaspora and the important ongoing contribution that they have made, both individually and collectively, in shaping our development and our identity[4]

Without trying to get up on too much of a high horse, a moral argument can be made for helping the diaspora to find out where their ancestors came from due to the sheer economic return they have provided to Ireland. From the remittances in the 19th and 20th centuries through to the millions of tourist visits to Ireland, the economic capital that has returned to Ireland is in the billions.

A much more down-to-earth economic argument can be made too. Irish Americans who have ideas and capital to invest in Ireland are probably more likely to do so if they know where their ancestors are from. From the report: "Henry Ford’s father, William Ford, was born in Ballinascarthy, West Cork, in 1826 and emigrated, initially to Canada and then to the United States. On a trip to Ireland in 1912, Henry Ford visited the area to reconnect with his roots. In 1917, Henry Ford established a factory manufacturing tractors in Cork. This was to become the first Ford plant in Europe, which at its peak employed 1,800 people. The plant, which ceased production in 1984, had an enormous impact on the life of Cork city and county both economically and socially."[5] Chuck Feeney, too, springs to mind. A descendant of a Fermanagh emigrant who ended up in New Jersey, he has donated over $1 billion to universities in Ireland, of which a large portion went to my alma mater, University of Limerick.[6]

Where can the money come from to provide funding for such genealogy efforts in the U.S? Luckily, there is money earmarked for such ventures, it just needs to end up with the right organizations. The Irish government's Department of Foreign Affairs administers funding each year through the Emigrant Support Programme (ESP). Almost $13 million will be allocated in 2015 and any organization who thinks they qualify can apply.

Table 1: 2013-2015 Emigrant Support Programme Funding
Total Funding
Allocation to U.S. organizations
Money not yet allocated
Figures not yet published

The main focus of the ESP is the welfare of Irish emigrants abroad and the majority of funding goes to a broad coalition of emigrant support organizations. However, a sizable portion is also allocated to organizations that focus on Irish culture and heritage  The following funding was provided to cultural and heritage organizations in the U.S. in 2013, the year for which the most recent figures are available.

Table 2: U.S. Cultural/Heritage Organizations Who Received Funding in 2013[11]
Amount Received
American Irish Historical Society
New York, NY
Glucksman Ireland House, New York University
New York, NY
Hudson Valley Irish Festival                         
Peekskill, NY
Irish American Heritage Museum
Albany, NY
Irish Cultural Center of New England        
Canton, MA
Mission of our Lady of the Holy Rosary
Heritage Project at Watson House
New York, NY    
Society of Commodore John Barry
Philadelphia, PA
The University of Montana
Missoula, MT

Very few of these organizations engage in genealogy activity, but two excellent examples stand out. The Irish American Heritage Museum has a resident genealogist who is available to assist people with their research.[12] The Mission of our Lady of the Holy Rosary Heritage Project in New York City digitized ledgers that are very useful for Irish genealogy research in 1880-1920 New York City and made them freely available online (see my blog post from this time last year). Between them, they received just 11.3% of the funding.

One can think of many exciting Irish genealogy projects and organizations here in the U.S. that could put such funding to fantastic use: the Troy Irish Genealogy Society's database creation efforts, the Irish Family History Forum's parish register indexing efforts, grants to Irish genealogy groups for subscriptions to commercial genealogy websites, grants to Irish cultural centers for genealogy programs and consultation, etc., etc., etc.

There needs to be a greater effort by those in charge of diaspora policy to make the ESP better know to genealogy organizations and those very organizations also have to take it on themselves to apply for funding. Ultimately, such efforts would help Irish Americans to find where their ancestors came from in Ireland and add to three of the thematic areas of focus in the policy document - connect, facilitate, recognize.

Overall the document strikes quite a positive tone for those who make up part of the diaspora due to ancestors who emigrated for Ireland, stating that "for many, the linkages to Ireland are a significant element of their personal identity, regardless of how many generations of their family have lived outside Ireland."[13] The proof, of course, is always in the actions that come following the issuance of such a policy document. I believe that the points mentioned above show the vital role that genealogy can play in achieving the goals of the Irish government's diaspora policy.

[1] Department of Foreign Affairs. Global Irish: Irish Diaspora Policy. 2015. Available online at accessed 4 March 2015. p. 4.
[2] Department of Foreign Affairs. Global Irish: Irish Diaspora Policy. 2015. p. 50
[3] Department of Foreign Affairs. Global Irish: Irish Diaspora Policy. 2015. p.4
[4] Ibid.
[5] Department of Foreign Affairs. Global Irish: Irish Diaspora Policy. 2015. p. 20.
[6] Dwyer, Jim. Out of Sight, Till Now, and Giving Away Billions. New York Times. September 26, 2007.
[7] Department of Foreign Affairs. Global Irish: Irish Diaspora Policy. 2015. p. 26.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Dept.of Foreign Affairs. 2013 Emigrant Grant Summary. 2014. accessed 4March 2015.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Disclosure: this genealogist is Lisa Walsh Dougherty. She has written posts for this blog.
[13] Department of Foreign Affairs. Global Irish: Irish Diaspora Policy. 2015. p. 11.

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