A Cork man had a woman in tears recently, yet it was a joyful occasion, one of many facilitated by local volunteers who welcome people of Irish ancestry through Ireland Reaching Out. The community-based, not-for-profit organisation provides three services, all without charge, and, this year, they aim to double the number of people availing of their meet and greet service.
Presidents Joe Biden and Barack Obama are just two high-profile figures who have travelled to the Emerald Isle to walk the lands of their ancestors. However, every year there are many more who come to trace their roots, and even to meet distant cousins.
A large number of these visitors are assisted by Ireland Reaching Out’s network of 220 local volunteers. The organisation was established 14 years ago with the goal of establishing links between the Irish diaspora and their places of origin. Its meet and greet service is unique.
THREE FREE SERVICES
Programme Coordinator Denise O’Leary explained:
“We offer three services for free. We have message boards where anyone of Irish heritage can go and ask a question. Our volunteers will search the records for them and they’ll help them with their family tree.
“The second thing is anyone of Irish heritage, if they’re visiting Ireland, can register their trip on the website. And they can reach out to local representatives living in the town or village their ancestors lived in.*
“The third thing we offer is a free ancestry repository where anyone can add their ancestor’s story, and that’s free to search by anyone in the world. Most ancestry repositories are behind a paywall, so that’s quite important for some people that it’s free.
“We also have a newsletter. We work with a huge team of academics, historians, librarians, genealogists, and we send out newsletters twice a week,” she added.
REBUILDING AFTER COVID
The meet and greet programme is becoming well known. The year before the pandemic lockdowns, the volunteers welcomed 600 visitors to Ireland.
“During Covid we did no meet and greets for two full years. So we’re just building it back up. Last year we welcomed 100 visitors. This year we’re hoping to double that again,” said Denise.
“There’s nothing like meeting a local person. It’s so important to them. It’s all done by volunteers, there’s no money changing hands. This is all done on the back of local volunteers actually wanting to say: ‘Look, your ancestors did live here, you’re part of this community, just like we are’. It’s really nice.
“Their Irishness is of huge importance to them. But it’s not recognised. So meeting with a local, and a local seeing them as a local, that is hugely powerful for them. And our volunteers often introduce them to family members,” she said.
Ireland Reaching Out previously received funding from the The Heritage Council and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Today it is self-funded, relying on income from Google AdSense and voluntary donations from those who avail of its free services.
PEOPLE IN TEARS
Kieran Jordan, a Fermoy, Co. Cork-based meet and greet volunteer with Ireland Reaching Out, told Changing Ireland about his role:
“I had been doing family research myself for about 30 years or so, and I’d learned a lot about the different sources. I retired in the last couple of years, so I have a bit more time, and I like to help out and to meet people.
“There are two types of people who use the meet and greet service: some want to just walk the ground that their ancestors walked on, and others want to find out a bit more about their ancestry, and I can do both of those. I don’t mind knocking on doors and asking people if there’s a certain family around the area.
“People are very pleased to be able to walk in the same place their ancestors were. Last week, the woman I met was in tears. We went out to Inch where her father was from, and it really meant a lot to her,” said Kieran.
Ireland Reaching Out (aka Ireland XO) regularly takes on new volunteers: to meet and greet people, to serve as family history advisors, and/or to serve as digital content contributors. Some people volunteer for all three roles. All receive a volunteer handbook and online training and have the support of the volunteer co-ordinator.
Role: Meet and Greet Volunteer
Description: Meet and greet volunteers welcome visiting diaspora to the local community. They spend between one and three hours with the visitors, helping them to understand more about the local community and its heritage.
On a typical meet and greet, the following may happen:
–A meeting in a local library, tourist office, post office, or heritage building.
-A visit to a local graveyard to find family headstones.
-A visit to the local parish office to enquire after baptismal and/or marriage records.
-A meeting with any living relatives still in the community.
Ireland Reaching Out has structured its programme so it is organised and managed at a local level, by locals and descendants from an area and every parish in Ireland has a dedicated page on the its website. Check out ‘Parish Toolkit’ on the website. Most volunteers give between one and three hours per week.
The organisation’s own history is interesting. Ireland Reaching Out was founded by tech entrepreneur Mike Feerick. It began as a pilot in south-east Galway with support from Galway Rural Development, among others, and it soon made its presence felt, winning recognition at the Pride of Place Awards and Local Authorities Members Awards.
In advance of President Joe Biden’s recent, partly genealogical visit to this country, Mike tweeted about “the local knowledge” of volunteers with Ireland Reaching Out, describing them as “a national asset”.
Many thanks Kieran & and congrats Jenna! The local knowledge of #Irelandreachingout #Volunteers is a unique national asset of #Ireland north & south. @MichealMartinTD @LeoVaradkar @Failte_Ireland @TourismIreland #Cork @dfatirl @IrelandEmbUSA @SenatorMarkDaly @USEmbassyDublin https://t.co/QDsDxtJmwa
— Mike Feerick (@MikeFeerick) April 6, 2023
*It is simple and straightforward for visitors to make an enquiry about setting up a meet and greet via this link: https://www.irelandxo.com/meet-and-greet