If you're Irish, come in for an auld certificate


The Government plans to introduce a certificate of Irishness for the diaspora. What would it be, and who would qualify for it?

SHORTLY AFTER THIS newspaper reported this week that the Government was planning to introduce a certificate of Irish heritage to emigrants overseas, the e-mails started arriving.

“I was in Ireland last year and loved it. Where can I get more information?” asked one correspondent from California. “This is a great idea. I’d love a family heirloom that links to my ancestry in Ireland,” said another, based in New Jersey.

Compare this to the reaction on this side of the Atlantic, where commentators generally derided the idea or doubted the Government’s motives. A mawkish conceit, one declared, while others compared the scheme to previous efforts to hawk plots on the moon or bits of the Berlin Wall to sentimental buyers.

The gulf in views mirrors a wider gap in attitudes to Irishness. In Ireland we have the passports and the citizenship but look disparagingly at any initiative mooted to get us out of our present wretched state; those outside the country, in contrast, yearn for a connection to Ireland and are happy to admire the view through rose-tinted glasses.

What isn’t in dispute is the huge interest among people of Irish descent about their origins. Every day an average of 20 or 30 people turn up at the National Archives in Dublin looking for help to trace their family history; while some are from Ireland, many are from the US, Britain and many other parts of the world.

“There’s a huge thirst out there,” says Paul Gorry, a genealogist who assists people arriving at the archives in search of help in tracing their ancestry.

The US, as the cliche goes, is a melting pot, and its citizens can often trace their roots in many directions. “For some reason they seem to be more interested in their Irish roots than any others. People are desperate to find a connection to Ireland,” says Steven Smyrl, another genealogist.

This hunger for a link to the auld sod was picked up in a 2009 strategic review of Irish-US relations by the Irish Embassy in Washington. It noted the extent to which other countries recognise members of their communities overseas “and we cannot do so”. We have the likes of Aosdána for the arts, it said, so why not adopt a similar model for the diaspora? But since citizenship is generally available only to Irish-born people, or those with parents or grandparents born here, it proposed a certificate as a form of official recognition of emigrants’ “familial and emotional” connection with Ireland.

The review made other proposals, such as a frequent-visitor passport stamp for members of the diaspora, so they could get quicker clearance through Irish airports, but the certificate idea was the one taken up again at last year’s Global Irish Economic Forum in Farmleigh.

The forum emphasised the economic benefits that could flow to Ireland through greater exploitation of links with the diaspora, with the certificate coming to be regarded as a sort of quid pro quo. The report on its deliberations stressed the value of “come home” visitor campaigns and “born in Ireland” genealogy tourism.

“You give us your investment and your tourist visitors,” the clear message from the forum sounded, “and we’ll give you . . . erm, a certificate.” In announcing the plan, the 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.

Therein lies the first danger, according to Gorry: “What are to be the criteria for awarding such a certificate? Are we going to hand them out to people who ‘believe’ they are of Irish origin? These documents will be meaningless without proof of a person’s origins.”

“It needs to be a proper document with details of ancestry, not just a cert on a wall,” says Smyrl. “If it does nothing except note your name is Shaughnessy, it won’t amount to much.”

Family-history research, needless to say, takes time, often in Ireland and the person’s home country, which is unlikely to appeal to the kind of venture envisaged.

Surmounting the taste threshold will also be a challenge. We already fire tat at our tourists, from mock shillelaghs to Póg mo Thóin T-shirts. “If it’s not handled correctly, it could end up looking tacky,” warns Smyrl. “Heritage and business aren’t incompatible, but too often we end up with leprechauns and shamrock. This will end up as a gimmick if the only intention is to get people to visit Ireland.”

At this stage it is impossible to gauge the market for a heritage certificate. There are an estimated 70 million people of Irish descent around the world, but if you take out the six million citizens and a similar number who would qualify for citizenship through the grandparent rule, that leaves a potential pool of almost 60 million people.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has opted not to design the project itself, and, given the current chaos in the Passport Office, many would say that is a good thing. But the effective privatisation of one small aspect of Irish identity begs its own set of questions; it is possible, for example, that the successful tender to run the business could come from outside the State. The contract could be highly lucrative, with tourism businesses offering discounts to certificate holders in return for access to the database.

One member of that diaspora, Barack Obama – whose ancestors came from Moneygall, in Co Offaly – might well reflect next St Patrick’s Day that at least a framed certificate of his Irish heritage would last longer than the bowl of shamrock he gets every year from the Taoiseach.