Words that behave differently in US English have long been a source of trouble for us: do not, under any circumstances, tell an American who’s feeling down in the dumps to keep his pecker up. So when a US researcher recently gave me his business card and asked me to “reach out to” him, I was flummoxed. Was he offering some kind of therapy? Or asking for an emotional lifeline?
Neither, it turns out. He was just saying “contact me”. Apparently AT&T ran ads in the US in the 1980s urging people to use their phones to “reach out and touch someone” and the phrase has been seeping steadily into everyday speech since then as a synonym for “get in touch”.
Which is why the Ireland Reaching Out project is so cleverly named. North American ears hear something like “Ireland Making Contact”, while to us it has strong emotional overtones of solace, help, homecoming.
The project itself (see irelandxo.com) is also both clever and worthwhile. It consists of a network of country-wide volunteers, grouped around local parishes, who provide orientation for visitors descended from those who emigrated from their area. They also actively seek out those descendants. As those involved have found out in recent years, such reverse genealogy can be very hard, not least because it moves against the grain of history – you can find out lots about your great-great-grandparents, but not about your great-great-grandchildren.
Despite this problem, it has flourished. For one thing, it indulges our genuine pleasure in being hospitable. It also strengthens local community bonds. And it offers authentic day-to-day recognition of the unique moral and economic relationship that Ireland has with the descendants of those who had to leave.
So it’s not just for the Gathering. Though it may have tourism spin-offs, the project is worth a lot more than a few extra bed-nights.