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David McWilliams: Reaching out to our global tribe taps a deep well of opportunity

Looking out over from the battlements of the 13th century Cloghan Castle at Kilchreest in east Galway across the lush flat fields towards the Burren, it is not hard to see why the Normans fought for and then protected this land.

There are more than a dozen Norman keeps visible from here, dotted as far as the eye can see. This was the network of fortifications from which the Normans kept control of the area.

According to locals, the flat land explains not just the reason the Normans stayed here so long, it also explains why this is a hurling stronghold. After all one quipped, you can't play hurling in the mountains or the rocky terrain of Connemara or Mayo -- "sure you'd lose the sliothar".

This piece of wisdom was imparted on Sunday night at the bar of Harney's in Loughrea, where Ig'nus Harney pulled pints under the watchful eye of his father Ignatius Harney. Ignatius Harney played in the 1923 Galway All Ireland winning hurling team and his photo hangs proudly over the bar at Harney's.

But that's only a piece of the deep GAA tradition of this formerly Norman part of the country.

According to legend, the GAA was founded in Thurles on November 1st 1884, but this is not, in fact, true. The first GAA meeting was held on August 15 of that year, when Michael Cusack met with a group of nationalists in John Sweeney's house on Dunkellin Street, Loughrea, to discuss the foundation of a sporting and cultural organisation.

Cusack realised that he needed the church on his side and approached the Bishop of Clonfert, Dr Patrick Duggan. Duggan understood straight away the potential of the nascent GAA but signaled to Cusack that he was too old and that the GAA needed a younger patron and he recommended an approach to the then Bishop of Cashel -- Dr Croke -- and so the seed of the Gaelic Athletic Association was sown.

Today, the same John Sweeney's house in Dunkellin Street is home to an organisation which has the potential to change the game in the same way the fledgling GAA did in 1884.

The organisation is called Ireland Reaching Out (http://www.irelandxo.org). It aims to connect our entire diaspora with not just the country, but with the very parishes and townlands from which their ancestors left years ago.

In a world where millions of Americans, Australians and British people are trying to find their Irish roots, the aim of IRO is for the roots to find them! By tracing, using technology, genealogical records and local enthusiasts, the IRO team in east Galway have created a link to the past for hundreds of members of the Irish diaspora.

Having contacted them all over the world and invited them back to the parish of their ancestors, the IRO team have created something very special which has the potential to transform genealogy as we know it and more importantly, it could totally change the relationship between Ireland and the Irish tribe.

This week the first of the tribe came "home" to east Galway from all over the world to find out exactly who they are. They had responded enthusiastically to the invitation from their long-lost relatives.

On Sunday, they gathered for what is termed the "Week of Welcomes". It was an extraordinary event. Third generation Irish people from America, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Canada and Australia came back to their ancestral home in Loughrea.

In the great hall of Cloghan Castle, I witnessed an extraordinary homecoming where people whose great grandfathers had left small places like Kilconieron, Ardrahan or Woodford, were reunited with some of their living relatives. It is amazing how family resemblances remain even after three or four generations.

As this builds, and it will, it is impossible to know where it will end. But actively reinventing Ireland from being a small, humiliated country on the edge of Europe depending on IMF handouts to the proud homeland of a global tribe has to be worth pursuing. Fusing the diaspora's need to belong, with our immediate need for an economic/tourist kicker is not hard to see.

Take, for example, the individual case of the man who is this week driving Loughrea's diaspora around and taking them walking in the Burren. Walter McInerney is a local man whose passion is walking the beautiful hills around the Burren and who knows every track, boreen and road in this part of the world.

Walter worked for years in the construction industry until he, like tens of thousands of others, was laid off last year. After a few months on the dole and countless failed leads, he decided to do something for himself. So he set up www.celticcompasstours.ie to take visitors on walking tours of this most historic corner of the country. This week's gig is his first.

So here we can see the returning descendents of Irish people who left over 100 years ago, coming back and generating the first chance for a local man to rebuild his life. The diaspora means business. For Walter McInerney, this is the first opportunity to get back on his feet, using his knowledge of the locality which was passed down from his father to him and amazingly, the first gig he has is being paid by people who are possibly long-lost blood relations.

On Sunday evening, as I sat under the photograph of Ignatius Harney, Ig'nus Harney pulled a pint and laughed with a young Irish American woman Cameo Wood whose great grandfather was the gardener in Lady Gregory's house at Coole Park, up the road. She is now a successful internet entrepreneur based in San Francisco and was intrigued when contacted by the Ireland Reaching Out team.

Here in Harney's she was being told about relations she'd never heard of, chatting about local history and her place in it. You could see that this was part of her personal jigsaw, but interestingly -- as a net-savvy businesswoman -- she constantly referred to the business potential of Ireland, a country she had not set foot in until a few hours earlier.

This is the potential of the diaspora; it is a deep well of knowledge and talent, which can be tapped if only we can see its promise. They have something to give us and we have something to give them.

Ireland Reaching Out's Week of Welcomes is just the beginning. Given its enormous potential, it is fitting that it is housed in the building where a young, idealistic Michael Cusack first conceived of the organisation, which we now know as the GAA.

www.davidmcwilliams.ie

Irish Independent