By Darragh McManus
The Gathering has proved a huge success this year at bringing home the diaspora, but the Ireland Reaching Out project has been doing the same thing since late 2010. Launched by Irish Independent columnist David McWilliams, this brainchild of entrepreneur Mike Feerick had a simple but brilliant idea: instead of waiting for Irish abroad to find their roots, why not proactively contact them?
IRO's "reverse genealogy" project is the subject of a six-part bilingual series, Tar Abhaile, beginning on TG4 this Sunday.
Presenter Evelyn O'Rourke explains: "The show has 12 different stories, based on reverse genealogy. IRO is a community project, with volunteer committees across Ireland, establishing family trees for people in their areas. So rather than the emigrant returning on their own, clutching a map and not having a clue, they're brought home and greeted by the community, and shown everything.
"If you're abroad and know your ancestors are somewhere in Ireland, it's tricky to get information. Records weren't great until the 20th century, and we had cases of people coming back and having very unsatisfactory experiences. Whereas these people were met by us at the airport, brought to their village and given a guided tour of their own story."
Once volunteers have gathered enough tangible information on people who left their area throughout the 1800s and 1900s, they track down living descendants and invite them back to their spiritual home and introduce them to long-lost relatives.
The show is full of heart-warming stories, with a broad cast of characters of all ages.
In Episode 1, we see Marsha Thomas, manager of a Chicago law firm, finally meet her second-cousin, 99-year-old Tommy Cooke, in Knockainey, Co Limerick, still living in the ancestral home where her great-grandfather was raised.
"Tommy told us who he knew, what he'd gone through, and it was fantastic," Marsha says. "I was bowled over. When you do genealogy, you look at a lot of dates: birth, marriage, children. Meeting a living descendant fills it all in and gives you people to go with those names and dates. Tommy's grandfather and my great-grandfather were brothers, and one left for America. There are things he brought with him that were part of that place, and I got a better feeling for that through Tommy."
Jane Halloran Ryan is Connecticut-born but living for 20 years in her ancestral home of Tulla, Co Clare. Chair of the local IRO committee, she's featured in Episode 2.
"We've had a tremendous response from people abroad who knew they had roots in Tulla and were researching. We have members from all over the world," she says.
"One example is "Blake Dickie from St Louis, who I'm actually related to myself. He made contact, and we discovered he had a host of relatives in the area. He came over and got to meet a lot of cousins. And he's adopted, so had only known of two blood relatives, his daughters. Now there were around 30 of us waiting to meet him!
"IRO has been a phenomenal project for us, with far-reaching implications; it's got us thinking about preservation, heritage, the unique features we have here."
Evelyn describes the experience of working on Tar Abhaile as "incredible, very moving. The emigrants were so sincere about the whole thing. It was a real privilege for me, and a joy to work on."