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Biden Boom: surge in visitors tracing roots in West of Ireland

A Galway-based charity which offers free help to visitors tracing their Irish roots has pleaded for more volunteers in the wake of a tidal wave of interest among Americans following the US President’s trip here.

Ireland Reaching Out has become so successful at meeting the Irish diaspora that they cannot keep up with demand.

Programme Coordinator Denise O’Leary said typically volunteers would have several hundred ‘meet and greets’ organised for the summer.

“If interest keeps going at the rate we have seen since President Joe Biden’s visit, we could be dealing with as much as one thousand local connection requests by the end of the year. Our present volunteer base simply cannot handle that level of demand.”

The majority of volunteers only need spend four to five hours a year giving up their time.

“Most volunteers are there for their own parish or town. There may only be one visitor in the whole year – that’s why we need so many. We do have historians who would know a lot of about three and four places so they may be asked to do a bit more.”

Descendants reach out via the free genealogy message board, where volunteers will use their local knowledge to help anyone looking to track down relatives. If they arrive over, the volunteer shows the visitors the house their people were born in, the land they farmed before they went abroad, the graveyard where their people are buried, and if possible, introduce them to local living relatives.

“These reunions with long lost families are hugely emotional for the returning diaspora and often for the people at home,” said Ms O’Leary.

“I had one recently where we tracked down a second cousin. The family just couldn’t believe it. Families often stay one to two days in the village or town once they know they’re going to meet a volunteer. They may book into the B&B, eat a meal locally, so it has so many benefits.”

The organisation currently has 300 registered volunteers across 32 counties. A greater number of queries come from the West of Ireland from where the majority emigrated such as the counties of Galway, Mayo, Donegal, Kerry and Cork.

Volunteers can get training through the organisation to upskill their genealogical tracing skills. There are also short courses available to help track down people in Gaeltacht areas, which is often harder due to spelling variations.

“It’s as much for us as it is for them. Most volunteers would be family history enthusiasts, they like drawing up a family tree. Others enjoy the ‘meet and greets’. I think it’s unique to Ireland to offer a service like this that’s free.”

Founder Mike Feerick, who is based in Loughrea, explained that there are over 300 visits now registered with the nationwide service, which equates to around 1,500 people needing genealogical assistance.

“Our core group of volunteers are committed and constant – but we need to find more. All of our volunteers hugely enjoy meeting Irish diaspora coming to their local area – there are some parts of County Galway and South Mayo where we don’t have anyone – and we need to change that.”

“Essentially, we have a problem of success at Ireland Reaching Out. President Biden’s recent visit has created a new tidal wave of interest for Americans to visit Ireland to trace their roots – and we simply don’t have as many volunteers as we need.”

Also founder of the global e-learning company Alison, Mr Ferrick, an American born Harvard University graduate, set up Ireland Reaching Out in 2009 to strengthen ties between Irish communities and the 80 million-strong diaspora worldwide.

“What I witnessed growing up in a rural East Galway was Irish Americans returning to Ireland and finding their way to the very village where their people came from. Without a local contact however, it was hard to find the actual house, or meet long lost relatives.

“We show them where to go and introduce them as we can. It is about welcoming, something we Irish are very good at, and it’s a way of cherishing the descendants of those who had to leave in tougher times so long ago. It is a hugely satisfying hobby.

“Our volunteers do it for pride in their locality and to simply enjoy the joy we bring to our visitors.”

The charity has 160,000 members and has responded to over 150,000 Irish genealogical queries online.

Interested volunteers should email or call 087 365 3669.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune:

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