Last Saturday, the green bunting was up and the giant leprechauns were adorning the souvenir shops on Lexington Avenue. On Third Avenue dozens of Irish pubs had flags flying in expectation of the Big Day. New York was preparing for St Patrick’s Day, when thousands will descend on Fifth Avenue for the parade.
Far from the epicentre, there will be thousands of smaller parades and parties as the particular “Irishness” of much of Irish America is on display. These are our people and for them, Ireland is not just a small country in the Atlantic experiencing some financial difficulties. Ireland for them is something much bigger. It is the mothership of a global tribe of which the Irish Americans are the main clan.
The vast majority of Irish Americans have never set foot in Ireland but they want to be connected with the place. And that is the opportunity.
Last Saturday, heading for JFK, it was clear that the majority of the traffic was going the other way. The foyer of Fitzpatrick’s Hotel in Manhattan was filling up with businessmen and politicians as I checked out. The great and good were coming to New York to attend the various functions that mark St Patrick’s Day in the Big Apple. Business lunches and breakfasts, flashy get-togethers, speeches and glad handling will be the order of the week.
These meetings are essential and are all part of greasing the wheels of the commercial relationship between the two states and the big businesses. These financial ties are deep and significant. After all, corporate America has invested more in Ireland than in China and America combined. Meanwhile, Irish companies actually employ more people in America than American companies employ in Ireland.
Important as they are, these meetings and this effort to fuse the “Diamante Diaspora” to the mother country could really be described as the top of the pyramid. At the very top of the 40 million-strong Irish American pyramid, you have the politicians and the influential business and media people. These are the focus of much of the razzmatazz, but what about the people at the bottom of the pyramid? What about the other diaspora a few rungs down from the “Diamante Diaspora?”
What about the millions of others who know they are Irish Americans, would like to visit Ireland but have no easy way of getting to know where they are from or who their people are? Imagine one of these people got an email, not just from the Ireland their great-grandfather was from, not from the county their people came from, not even from the town but from the actual parish their forefathers were from? Imagine how that would make them feel.
And what if that email invited them home for a “week of welcomes” in their home parish with all sorts of local activities laid on?
Imagine for a moment in a world of people trying to find their ancestors, that instead of them finding their ancestors, their ancestors found them?
Well, this is exactly what is going on due to a brilliant initiative which is up and running in the parishes of east Galway and could be replicated all over the country. For me, Ireland Reaching Out is the most interesting of the many diaspora- related projects that emerged from the Farmleigh conference two years back.
What makes it so exciting is that it is a grassroots project, coming up from the parishes, rather than a top-down initiative. It is the brainchild of a Loughrea-based entrepreneur Mike Feerick and a few weeks ago when I stood up to speak at the Lady Gregory Hotel in Gort and looked out at the audience of local volunteers, I realised his dream was on the way to becoming a reality.
Last year after Farmleigh, Feerick came to me and suggested we organise and enable local Irish communities at a townland, village and parish level to find out who was born in their area, where they went, and trace them and their descendants worldwide?
That way, he suggested, we could systematically reunify our entire diaspora, creating “virtual communities”, expanding each local parish beyond its own physical boundaries and allowing people to reach out across the world.
It isn’t hard to see the common sense and power of deploying local, rather than national, resources to galvanise the global Irish tribe.
So began the development of a simple idea — something we could call ‘micro-diaspora’. The idea we had was rather than build a top-down structure with experts, we should provide the platform for ordinary people to do it for themselves.
In a sense we are inverting the pyramid. Rather than working from the apex, for example networking the top 500 more important Irish Americans, we are doing the opposite — operating around the base of the diaspora pyramid.
When you think about it, the Irish diaspora may be 60 to 70 million worldwide but it can be broken down to perhaps no more than 3,000 Irish parishes north and south.
What if each village in Ireland could harness the economic power of its diaspora? What if, as a nation, we mobilised each parish in Ireland to actively research its genealogical past and identify those people who are of its own flesh and blood and reach out and engage their interest? This local-based approach is what, in another context, made the GAA one of the strongest organisations in the country. It is local pride that motivates people to work together in national competitions like the Tidy Towns.
Once the people are contacted they are invited back to their home parish for a week of welcomes. The Loughrea initiative is up and running and already the first Irish Americans have been contacted out of the blue and they have signed up to come “home” for this year’s first week of welcomes (http://bit.ly/gA6Ght).
Far from the glitz of midtown Manhattan, on a freezing cold January night in Gort, the people who will make this happen in east Galway met up. On the stage a formidable nun — Sister de Lourdes — spoke passionately about all those who had left the area. She was a mine of information. She literally knew everything about everyone, where they went, what town-land they left from and where they might be now.
In the parlance of modern business Sister de Lourdes is the “killer app” — the special, unique feature that will make this project work over and above others.
But think how many Sister de Lourdes might be out there? The country is full of people with an encyclopedic knowledge of their own parish. If their knowledge is harnessed and combined with modern technology the combination will be unstoppable.
This recovery will not come from outside. It will come locally and it will come from us. Ireland Reaching Out is part of that process.