Diarmaid Ferriter: Last chance to get your certificate of Irish heritage

‘How should we characterise this certificate experiment of the past five years? Crass? Embarrassing? A tacky attempt to try and exploit the success of the digitisation by the National Archives of the Irish census records of 1901 and 1911?’

‘On Monday, the Government will discontinue this scheme, and with it, one of the most amusing Irish websites, www.heritagecertificate.com’

‘On Monday, the Government will discontinue this scheme, and with it, one of the most amusing Irish websites, www.heritagecertificate.com’

 

If you want a certificate of Irish heritage, you had better get a move on. On Monday, the Government will discontinue this scheme, and with it, one of the most amusing Irish websites, www.heritagecertificate.com.

Here you will learn of “the benefits of having a certificate of Irish heritage”. The rewards are awesome: “The certificate provides recognition of the recipient’s ancestry by the Government of Ireland. The certificate would also take pride of place in your home or workplace, be treasured as a collector’s edition for anyone with Irish roots, a family heirloom that future generations will cherish in years to come and a perfect unique gift that will touch the hearts of those with Irish heritage.”

For those who want a certificate with a frame – hurry now! – there are an exciting three options: mahogany, brushed gold or veneer, a steal at €120, “with free worldwide shipping”. As for the certificates, they are sublime and sophisticated, “scripted on the finest quality vellum and come in a variety of beautiful backgrounds to reflect our shared cultural experience”.

If you want to give a certificate to someone but are unsure of their Irish heritage, no need to worry: “If . . . you are unsure of the required ancestor details, you can simply purchase a gift card through our website which can include a personalised message.” Happy days.

Taking the decision to end this fabulous enterprise must have been an emotional one for the Department of Foreign Affairs, given the consistency with which it pitched the whole certificate process as an emotional experience: “The certificate is an official Irish Government initiative to recognise the continuing emotional attachment of the descendants of those who left our shores to the land of their ancestors. The certificate recognises the enduring emotional ties and sense of identity bestowed by Irish ancestry. The official certificate is a must-have for anyone with Irish roots.”

Sense of Irishness

In announcing the plan in summer 2010, the then minister for foreign affairs, Micheál Martin, said it was essential we in Ireland valued and affirmed the validity of the “sense of Irishness” felt by so many people abroad.

Speaking in the Dáil in July 2011 when he was minister for foreign affairs, Eamon Gilmore noted: “The certificate of Irish heritage is in the process of being established by my department in direct response to a strong demand for such a scheme from those members of our diaspora who are not entitled to Irish citizenship.

“I believe that the scheme will provide a practical demonstration of the inclusive approach adopted by successive governments to our diaspora . . . Those applying for certificates of Irish heritage will be required to submit comprehensive details of their Irish ancestral connections and relevant documents and certificates to show their connection with Ireland.”

Speaking earlier this summer, Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan was less emotional: “Since January 1st, 2014, a total of 524 certificates of Irish heritage have been issued, 391 in 2014 and 133 in 2015, up to May 31st.”

Connections

It transpired that no such “comprehensive details” of Irish ancestral connections were required; with little initial uptake, any requirement of documentary evidence was abandoned and all that was needed was a valid credit card. In all this, governments had little interest in listening to Irish genealogists. Claire Santry’s Irish Genealogical News blog, the leading news provider on the world of Irish genealogy, summed it up succinctly this week; the certificate was “ a bit of paper with absolutely no genealogical integrity”.

So how should we characterise this certificate experiment of the past five years? Crass? Embarrassing? A tacky attempt to try and exploit the success of the digitisation by the National Archives of the Irish census records of 1901 and 1911, one of the most important digital archival initiatives of recent times and a phenomenal example of the significance of making archives accessible and not for profit?

Take your pick.

The certificate initiative was adopted by a State that has paid nearly €1 billion to private operators to run direct provision centres for asylum seekers over the past 15 years, centres in which so many people feel humiliated and are residing in dire circumstances.

It is therefore deeply ironic that one of the “beautiful backgrounds” that is used on the “finest quality vellum” of the heritage certificates is that of Irish Famine ships, “that evoke the waves of emigration from these shores”.

These hideous vessels carried Irish Famine victims fleeing desperate circumstances to build a new life in America, a traumatic experience shamelessly exploited by those seeking to commodify and dumb down Irish heritage.

Is this the kind of state that Michael Collins died for on this day in 1922 at Béal na Blá?

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