The year 2016 was a record year for Irish tourism and the Government's investment in reaching out to our Diaspora appears to be paying off.
The latest official data on overseas travel from the Central Statistics Office has shown an increase of 11 per cent in overseas visits to Ireland for the first 11 months of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015. The key market driver has been travel from North America which registered an increase of 18.3 per cent for January to November 2016 (1,699,100 visits ). Visits from Great Britain were up by 11.1 per cent for the same period (3,620,500 visits ).
Driving this increase is record traffic of Irish diaspora returning to trace their roots, according to Ireland Reaching Out founder Mike Feerick. “Irish Government investment in reaching out to the Irish Diaspora is paying off," Mr Feerick said. "This is being driven by programmes such as Ireland Reaching Out, the legacy of Failte Ireland and Tourism Ireland’s Gathering initiative in 2013, and the wider availability of free online resources helping people abroad to trace their ancestry to Ireland. An example of this is the online release of the National Library’s historical parish records.”
There are also political factors are work, not least Brexit in the UK which has many hundreds of thousands of UK citizens researching their Irish roots. Political developments in the United States are also encouraging US citizens to research their lineage abroad. In 2016 more than 5,000 people posted on the Ireland XO message boards looking for information about their Irish ancestors. Some were already planning their visit to Ireland and were looking for a personal connection with the local community, or a piece of information that would allow them to identify the home place their ancestors had left behind. Ireland XO’s network of volunteers offers a unique solution to people tracing their roots in Ireland through the Meet and Greet programme where a local volunteer will meet and introduce them to the locality from which their ancestors came.
New Zealander Heather Maloney travelled to Ireland for the first time last August, with the hope of locating the thatched cottage that her great-great-grandmother had left from more than 100 years earlier. Ireland Reaching Out volunteer Paul Greaney from Annaghdown was on hand to show her the house, and also pointed out the headstones of other ancestors in the local cemetery.
In November of last year Julie DeFrancesco came to Galway city where she was met by Clare Doyle of Ireland Reaching Out. Together they toured the ancient cemetery of Rahoon, where her Irish forefathers would have been laid to rest. "Your organisation provides such a special service," Ms DeFrancesco said after her trip. "The more that can take advantage of it, the better. I remain greatly indebted to you."
Every week all over Ireland, our diaspora are met by Ireland Reaching Out volunteers who extend a hand of friendship to those visiting their community. The trip can be one of huge emotional significance for returning diaspora as they plan to visit the home of their ancestors for the first time. Travelling outside the main tourist destinations can be difficult for visitors to Ireland, but the ability to connect with every local parish via the Ireland XO website is an invaluable resource for both tourists and communities.
"Diaspora is a serious opportunity for Ireland, economically, socially and culturally," said Mike Feerick. “We are creating lifelong connections between diaspora and their places of origin in Ireland. If anyone wants to understand just how significant the opportunity of the Irish diaspora can be, bear in mind that Ancestry.com turned over $600m this year. With over 25 per cent of all their queries relating to Ireland, that is $125m that people of Irish heritage are spending on researching their genealogy online each year.
"As much as this is an economic opportunity, it points more to the strength of our cultural identity as a nation, one that reaches beyond borders and generations," he added. "Re-engaging diaspora with their places of origin is an opportunity to bring life and energy to all parts of Ireland, rural and urban. It aligns perfectly with the Creative Ireland theme of celebrating all that we are as a nation, not just at home, but also abroad."
One of the five pillars of the Creative Ireland initiative is the empowerment of local authorities to lead the engagement of citizens with arts and culture. The Cork Foundation recently launched a programme for targeting the county’s diaspora in partnership with Cork County Council. Similar diaspora initiatives are happening in county councils countrywide, Mr Feerick explained. “The National Diaspora Strategy, launched by former minister of the diaspora Jimmy Deenihan, is leading the coordination of Irish diaspora policy for the first time at national and local level," he said. "This strategy is bearing fruit, as is the intense travel schedules of both the former minister of diaspora and the current incumbent Donegal TD, Joe McHugh. Engaging with diaspora at a ministerial level worldwide, especially in the USA, UK, and Australia, is bearing real fruit, the sizable economic impact of which is increasingly being felt across Ireland”
Ireland Reaching Out is a non-profit organisation and is supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Heritage Council, and Google. It currently has 100,000 registered members worldwide and in recent years has become a key reference point for anyone interested in travelling to Ireland to find the place of origin of their ancestors and to meet living relatives. For more information visit www.IrelandXO.com