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McWilliams praises diaspora project

A South-East Galway project could bring hope to people in a time of recession, according to leading economist David McWilliams.

He, along with more than 150 team leaders and project volunteers from local parish communities, gathered for the second project update meeting of the Ireland Reaching Out (IrelandXO) programme in the Lady Gregory Hotel, Gort, last Thursday. While the tone of the meeting was upbeat, IRO project chairperson Mike Feerick stressed the need for more volunteers to help the concept come to fruition.
The IRO project is a programme encouraged by the Farmleigh Diaspora event organised in September 2009 by the Department of Foreign Affairs.
It seeks to enable parish communities to reconnect with those who have left the area and their descendents worldwide, bringing social, cultural and economic benefit to the country. The national pilot project, which was launched in Loughrea on October 28 last, is being rolled out in South-East Galway.
Despite wintry conditions, parish members, including many newcomers, turned out in force in Gort to experience what was to be a hugely inspiring and thought-provoking evening. The general consensus was that it was a most positive and uplifting meeting for all in attendance and a tremendous antidote for the despondency of the testing economic times the country is facing.
Above all, the event showed how local communities can proactively respond through innovation and community organisation to the current times. In his presentation, Mr Feerick outlined the progress of the project and immediate plans in 2011. He reported that 46 parishes and sub-parishes had organised themselves into 26 working groups and have so far compiled and submitted over 1,000 surveys of people who left the area. The project is now entering its second phase and reaching out to people with South-East Galway connections across the world, inviting them back to a formal Week of Welcomes in June 2011.
The large crowd was treated to a strong line-up of speakers representing national and international tourism, heritage and business interests. Two important initiatives were also announced by the IRO project team. In partnership with Galway County Council and the Galway County Heritage Forum, an innovative training initiative to up-skill local people on the region’s heritage was announced.
Dolores O’Shea, IRO’s project administrator, presented an overview of the proposal that will see local experts providing courses and associated field trips on the local genealogy, folklore and history of South-East Galway. Graduates of the programme will be enabled to provide high-quality information and guidance to returning diaspora within South-East Galway parishes.
A major objective of the Ireland Reaching Out initiative is the creation and development of a database of the Irish diaspora worldwide and building a ‘virtual global Irish community’. To this end, the first phase of the website, www.irelandxo.org, was launched by Michael Furey, IRO’s IT coordinator.
Each participating parish has its own profile section highlighting both the people and place that make up the community.
Each parish presents an invitation for people around the world to research any ­connection they might have with the parish and to get in contact. Mr Furey also emphasised that the highest standards of data protection and privacy standards will be applied.
In contrast with the December 29 meeting when the parishes of Fohenagh, Clontuskert and Ardrahan presented details of their project work to date, this time two towns in South-East Galway where highlighted. Team leaders from the parishes of Gort and Kiltartan, Sr de Lourdes, and Muirne Goode from the parish of Portumna, Boula and Gortunumera, addressed the meeting.
Sr de Lourdes enthralled the audience with her genealogical expertise, tales of research and experiences of helping people to reconnect with their place of ancestry. She spoke with great passion and feeling about the touching encounters she had with grateful visitors that she had reconnected locally, reducing many of them to tears.
Ms Goode highlighted the tourism amenities available in South-East Galway that are not being exploited and the potential for all parish communities in the region to gain from the opportunity afforded by this national pilot project.
The meeting was subsequently addressed by two successful businessmen with local connections. Speaking first, Pat McDonagh, Supermacs founder and IRO team member from the parish of Kiltullagh, told the meeting about his experiences of working in the USA and the usefulness of the Irish link. Known for his deep interest and commitment to local development, he engrossed the audience with ideas of how far the powerful idea behind Ireland Reaching Out could go and what it could achieve.
“What if?” he asked, introducing a list of initiatives that he thought could be developed from the IRO project, ending with the suggestion that the project could even operate its own charter flights into Shannon.
Paul Michels, IRO advisory board member and project sponsor then spoke, having flown in from Brazil that morning to be at the meeting. As a successful Irish-American businessman based in the State of Virginia, Mr Michels spoke with great passion about what his Irish connection meant to him and the very great extent to which successful American businessman like him were keen to assist Ireland. Remembering poignant lines of poetry written by his daughter Kelly when summarising why her Irish roots meant so much to her, Mr Michels eloquently told the meeting the “blood always returns to the heart”.
Joe Hackett, head of the Irish Abroad Unit at the Department of Foreign Affairs, who plays a key role in how the Government relates to Irish emigrants and diaspora abroad, addressed the meeting.
He relayed how impressed he and his colleagues were with the innovative approach of the IRO project in developing the Irish diaspora for the benefit of Ireland and its people, at home and abroad. Mr Hackett told the meeting that he hoped that Ireland Reaching Out would be rolled out nationally and looked forward to working with the IRO team in making that happen.
Conor Newman, chairman of the Heritage Council, committed the council’s full support to the project and emphasised the value it would bring to both emigrants and local residents. He said returning emigrants would act as a mirror in challenging us to look at and value our own heritage.
John Concannon, head of market development, Fáilte Ireland, spoke of his organisation’s growing commitment to the IrelandXO project, committing both funding and his organisation’s resources to the project. Mr Concannon told the meeting Fáilte Ireland is very excited to be involved and they hoped to learn a lot about how the “micro-diaspora” approach being pioneered by the IRO project could be developed in partnership with the IRO team as it expands nationally.
The final speaker of the night was David McWilliams, the well-known economist and broadcaster and one of the earliest and staunchest supporters of the IRO programme. In an energetic contribution, he related how the project can give great hope in this time of recession and urged everyone with a commitment to local community development in parishes across South-East Galway to engage with their local IRO parish teams.
The meeting was also well attended by representatives of the GAA, both local and national, and well-known Irish organisations, both commercial and non-profit, interested in working with the IRO project as it expands.
The evening concluded with a plea from Mr Feerick for more volunteers to become engaged with IRO parish teams.
It was particularly important, he said, that details collected included as many contact phone numbers and email addresses as possible to expedite the reaching out process to the local diaspora abroad.
He also encouraged those present to sign-up for the IRO heritage training programme and asked them to invite anyone within their parishes interested in becoming involved in the project to take advantage of the excellent education and training opportunity.
Mr Feerick encouraged all present to publicise the Week of Welcomes event to potential interested parties, including family abroad, as early as possible. Finally, Mr Feerick stated the IRO project is a long-term one that could be transformative if enthusiastically and optimally embraced.
However, like every great journey, he reminded everyone that it started with one step. Despite the huge excitement and engagement the project has awakened to date, it is a pilot project and there is much for everyone to learn and patience and persistence would be required all along the way.
Anyone who would like to get involved is asked to contact Dolores O’Shea, project administrator, South-East Galway Diaspora Pilot Project, Ireland Reaching Out, 085 1925466; doshea@irelandxo.com.


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