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Monday 1 September 2014

Obama's Irish cousin helps diaspora trace their roots

Henry Healy is the public face of a service that could link up with 70 million people, writes Ken Murray

Ken Murray

Published 13/10/2013 | 05:00

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Barack Obama
Barack Obama

HE is the young Irishman who shot to fame when a genealogical search discovered he is a distant cousin of US President Barack Obama.

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Now, two-and-a-half years on from the day when the world's media focused its cameras on the small Offaly village of Moneygall, Henry Healy is helping others connect to their past thanks to a novel way of linking up with the 70 million or so people around the globe who are of Irish extraction.

The long-lost cousin of President Obama is now the public face of Ireland Reaching Out or Ireland XO, a unique service that helps Irish people establish contact with relatives around the world in what the creators of the initiative are calling "genealogy in reverse".

According to 28-year-old Henry, the service focuses on parish and baptismal records rather than birth certs, many of which, from certain periods, no longer exist.

He told the Sunday Independent: "You could say we focus on the living rather than the dead and instead of people coming to us, our trainees go to them. Ireland Reaching Out works on the principle that a committee of local people or individuals access a name on a parish record and then seek out that person's surviving relatives overseas."

Henry said the service is "absolutely free," adding: "All we ask for is time. All we need is people to volunteer their time, be it 20 minutes or two hours a week, we just want people to commit time to the programme to try and reach out and connect to people overseas.

"(We offer) free training programmes for communities. We are working constantly on developing training programmes which are county specific. We try to keep things very localised so that, for example, if we are in Co Westmeath, the training is held there by local trainers and the hope is we can bring people back to Westmeath and various other towns and villages around the country."

In his role, Henry makes presentations to community groups around the country explaining how to access parish records and make follow-up contacts with families who are descendants of those that left Ireland in the past.

In its two-and-a-half-year existence, the Loughrea-based organisation has brought over 8,000 people to Ireland to connect with 'lost' relatives and owes its origins to the first Irish Global Economic Forum, which took place in Farmleigh, Dublin, in 2009.

Galway businessman Mike Feerick approached economist David McWilliams with the idea. He, in turn, brought it to the attention of then Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin, who approved a grant under the 'Irish Abroad' fund.

The project started out on a pilot basis in south-east Galway and has grown in popularity, helped somewhat by the momentum behind The Gathering.

As a result of its local success, Ireland XO was launched on a national basis by Taoiseach Enda Kenny last year.

The service is now up and running in 35 per cent of parishes in the 32 counties and so far has more than 480 local liaison contacts as well as 187 online global volunteers.

Henry, who joined Ireland XO as a full-time ambassador last year, said "every town and village in the country has the ability to contact and attract its people back through the service".

Already its establishment has seen major players come on board to fund its existence. They include the Department of Foreign Affairs, The Heritage Council, the Arthur Guinness Fund, Atlantic Philanthropies, the Ireland Funds and Galway Rural Development.

In the meantime, Barack Obama's Irish cousin is continuing to live a busy social life in the aftermath of the 2011 presidential visit to Moneygall.

Earlier this year, he escorted the New Zealand Rose Judeena Carpenter at the Tralee Festival.

Henry said: "It was an absolutely brilliant experience and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I'd encourage anyone to do it. I now have an invitation to New Zealand and other parts of the world. We have a reunion this weekend in Dublin and we're also reuniting in New York on St Patrick's Day. The whole thing has been fantastic."

Only last week, he received a letter and photograph from the US First Lady Michelle Obama who expressed her delight at meeting Henry in Trinity College Dublin during her visit here in June.

"It's a relationship that's still there and it's one that we hope will be maintained during the remainder of his presidency and into his retirement," Henry added.

www.Irelandxo.com

Sunday Independent

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