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David McWilliams: Harnessing diaspora will help us rebuild economy

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A couple of days after the Global Irish Economic Forum at Farmleigh last year, I received a call from Galway-based technology entrepreneur Mike Feerick. This man had an extraordinary idea. Instead of waiting, he said, for Irish Americans and the like to come back to Ireland to trace their roots, how about we go the other way?

How about we organise and enable, using the latest online communications and database tools and resources, 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 them reach out across the world?

As soon as I heard and understood this idea, it wasn'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 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 get together to work in national competitions like the Tidy Towns.

After Farmleigh, the penny dropped for me. This is where the real strength lies in Ireland. Why not use this energy and local enthusiasm to build a vast network of local communities reaching out to their diaspora, to their ancestors' kin?

Together with Mike Feerick and his international advisory board, we have worked on developing this concept over the past year.

Our efforts thus far culminate in the launch of the 'Ireland Reaching Out' South-East Galway Diaspora Pilot Project tomorrow night in Loughrea, Co Galway. What started as a few phone calls and a notion over a pint is now sponsored and supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Atlantic Philanthropies, the Heritage Council and Galway County Council, the GAA and a number of Irish-American funders.

More than 30 parishes, including the towns of Loughrea, Gort and Portumna and all neighbouring parishes, are being targeted for the launch, although the project will start only in those parishes that make clear they wish to be part of this initiative.

We have developed the technology to enable every parish in Ireland to participate in this initiative and over the next nine months we are going to fine-tune it, to see where we can improve it and what the pitfalls are by using the east Galway district as our pilot project. Once the glitches and problems are ironed out, it will be available to everyone. The company is set up as a charity, so that we can all benefit equally.

Over the next nine months, the project has three main aims. First, to identify and engage 44,000 people outside the country who have direct links with the parishes in the Loughrea electoral area. We will do this using oral records, online genealogy and the latest technology to assemble all these data. The figure of 44,000 is the same number of people who live in the area today. So we want to trace one member of the Tribe for every one of us living in the area.

Second, the pilot project will attempt to attract 25 or 30 of these people home to their parish or townland of origin in June next year. The proposed 'Week of Welcomes' is similar to Israeli programmes that invite young Americans of Jewish heritage to come to Israel to learn more about who they are and how the state of Israel can be part of their lives.

Many years ago, I lived in Israel for a short while and was always amazed at how the Israelis used their Jewish diaspora. They seemed to have a forensic knowledge of who was who and where everyone was. They told me that these records were assembled by people like retired teachers, policemen and local enthusiasts. Ireland has the same resource here in every village and town just waiting to be tapped.

For the Week of Welcomes, these returning members of the local diaspora, many newly identified, will attend several days of lectures in the local school on Irish history, literature and so on, visit a local GAA match and attend a local Comhaltas session. Obviously, each parish will have its own particular programme.

The third goal is to identify, among the 44,000, approximately 500 enterprising members of the Tribe who can be buyers, advisers, investors and influencers for the benefit of not just the locality but the Irish nation as a whole.

The project's real power is the sheer practicality and scalability of it all. Through the Ireland Reaching Out pilot project funding and the guidance of the promoters, parishes across Ireland will have the online tools to create their own databases of contacts and organise the international 'Reach Out'.

It will then be down to local voluntary effort for each to make the best of the opportunity given. More than any element of the project, the secret to success will be how the local parishes respond and engage not just in the research of historical records, but in how the programme is carried on through the Week of Welcomes and beyond.

The 'meet and greet' element of welcoming the Irish diaspora has been a key missing ingredient in making sure people of Irish heritage return. Now this element can be introduced in a most profound way, opening up an Irish phenomenon that could perhaps even change Ireland as we know it.

In the past we didn't have the technology to do this; now we have.

Last week on the train coming back from Galway, looking out at the fields and rivers, I thought about how many stories each of these fields hides when we consider that five million people born in this country emigrated -- and most were born in smallholdings in these exact fields.

Now we can trace these people to precisely the fields they left. We can do this now. Can you imagine an Irish American getting an invitation to come back and see, not just Ireland, not just the county her great grandfather left, but the very fields that her ancestors farmed?

Today we have the means to do it. Micro-diaspora is the opportunity. So let's go to work.

For more info email info@irelandxo.com The launch of the 'Ireland Reaching Out' South-East Galway Diaspora Pilot Project, Loughrea Hotel & Spa, October 28 at 7.30pm

Irish Independent