Co. Clare could attract thousands of overseas visitors to the area as part of a national project targeting the Irish diaspora but only with a long-term approach, a local genealogist has said.
Clare is ideally placed to take advantage of a resurging interest in genealogy and a growing genealogy tourism market according to the chairman of the Clare Roots Society, Gerry Kennedy.
"Clare is very well placed because of two things. The Clare County Library website has a genealogy section, which is attracting a lot of interest from people all over the world. It is regarded as one of the foremost genealogy sites in Ireland and we are very fortunate that Clare library has such an excellent site," he told The Clare Champion.
"The second reason is that Clare was one of the counties in the West of Ireland that had a lot of people emigrating over the years. There is a huge interest in Clare, particularly from Australia, because of the large numbers who left," he continued.
According to Fáilte Ireland figures, the visit of Barack Obama to the Tipperary village of Moneygall earlier, this year prompted 11,586 print and online articles and 4,416 separate broadcast pieces in the United States and UK, with 3,493 in the US alone.
"I have no doubt but the visit of Barack Obama prompted a huge interest given that if an African American president has roots in Ireland, it opens a lot of possibilities. If he can trace his roots back to Ireland then why can't you?" Mr Kennedy commented.
"I also believe that when people here start looking, they will find links to famous people. There are people out there that when we dig deep enough we will find them but it is a two-way process, the more records we put up online the more people who will trace their relatives back to a particular area," he added.
Mr Kennedy was speaking after attending the recent launch of the 2012 Ireland Reaching Out programme in Loughrea. The Ireland Reaching Out (Ireland XO) project is based on tracing descendants of Irish emigrants, proactively engaging with them and inviting them to become part of an extended "virtual" community with their place of origin. The national pilot project of Ireland XO was developed in South-East Galway from October 2010 through to July 2011, culminating with a successful Week of Welcomes event held in the area in late June.
"The project itself is quite interesting in that it is reversing the situation whereby instead of Australians or Americans tracing their roots here, that people from parishes in Ireland would identify who went from that parish to Australia or America and trace their descendents and invite them back," Mr Kennedy outlined.
"If parishes get involved, and it really is up to individuals in parishes to link in with the programme, the benefit would be that each parish would have an international diaspora that could identify with that parish and when you talk of the 70 million people worldwide of Irish descent, that could translate to anything up to 20,000 people per parish," he continued.
The Fáilte Ireland figures also show that an estimated 88,000 overseas visitors engaged in tracing roots or genealogical activities in 2010, with the greatest numbers coming from North America followed by the UK.
Dolores O'Shea, project administrator with Ireland Reaching Out is encouraging Clare parishes to get involved in the programme. "There are benefits economically, socially, as well as from an educational point of view. The pilot project in South East Galway brought communities together, within themselves and across the wider community. During the Week of Welcomes, the people involved in the project had as much craic as the visitors. We ran a lot of training courses during the year, funded by Leader, aimed at training people to interpret their own areas and become better tour guides for the visitors and now we have turned those lectures and training days into information packs for other parishes," she said.
Earlier this month Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar presented proposals for the biggest tourism initiative ever staged in Ireland. The Gathering, a year-long event to take place in 2013, potentially bring 325,000 extra visitors and provide a major economic stimulus.
Speaking at the Global Irish Economic Forum, Minister Varadkar said, "The Gathering will grow out of existing festivals, and foster many more spin-off events. Everyone has a chance to get involved, whether at local level or among members of Ireland's diaspora."
Illustrating the power of the Diaspora, Clare Roots held a conference this month, attended by 130 people, including visitors from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, America and Switzerland. The society is launching a DVD of the conference at Ennis Town Council offices. The event will feature a number of genealogy experts who will answer questions from members of the public who have "hit a brick wall in terms of their own research". It is free for members of Clare Roots but there is a fee for non members.
Anyone interested in volunteering to work on the Ireland XO project in their own area, or at project headquarters in Loughrea, can email the Ireland XO team at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 091 842013.