Emigrants can hook up online, but meeting in person is so important that the Government funds get-togethers and organisations that provide support

By Ciara Kenny
The Irish Times

For previous generations of emigrants, Irish pubs, community groups, pastoral centres and sports clubs were often the first port of call when they arrived in a new place, providing information about accommodation, job opportunities and social events.

The internet has revolutionised the experience of moving abroad, allowing emigrants to research their destination, apply for visas and jobs, view apartments and even establish a social network before taking flight. But no amount of socialising and networking in the virtual world can replace traditional support systems.

Welfare organisations that have been serving Irish immigrants for decades still play a vital role in assisting new arrivals, and the financial support they receive from Ireland is essential.

“While online networks are really important, there is something about knowing there’s a physical place you can go to connect with others in person and have a face-to-face conversation,” says Jennie McShannon of Irish in Britain, which represents almost 100 Irish organisations across England, Scotland and Wales.

“When something goes wrong it is really important people have somewhere to go, and online can’t cut it in that way. Irish organisations also help young professionals who might otherwise be getting on very well here to find a sense of place and a sense of community that are not always available online.”

Although the vast majority of such organisations are not for profit, it costs a lot to rent premises and provide staff when volunteers are not enough. The Department of Foreign Affairs has provided €115 million for the work of groups serving Irish communities across the globe since it established the emigrant support programme, in 2004.

Even though its budget has shrunk since peaking, at €15 million, in 2008, the department has provided about €11.5 million a year throughout the recession, in recognition of the rising number of people leaving the country and the increasing needs of elderly Irish abroad. Last year 182 organisations in 15 countriesreceived funding for more than 350 projects under the scheme.

Although most funding still goes to organisations in the UK and the US, organisations in Australia have received about €380,000 annually in recent years – about double the grants given before 2008. The Irish Canadian Immigration Centre, which opened two years ago in Toronto to support newly arrived Irish people, has also been funded primarily by the programme.

Emphasis has shifted towards heritage and cultural projects, as well as towards organisations that foster connections between Ireland and its overseas communities, particularly in business. Irish Network USA and the Irish International Business Network were among the few organisations granted funding for the first time last year.

Recognising the importance of Irish sports clubs in helping migrants to create social networks and retain cultural ties to Ireland, the emigrant support programme also gives money to the GAA; in 2012 the figure was €370,000.

Social networks that originated online but are now arranging meet-ups and events for new arrivals are also being recognised. In Australia, more than 400 people have signed up online for the Irish Brekkie Club, which says it gets emigrants together for a fry, a “fix of Barry’s and a quick chat with their fellow expats whenever they feel the need”. It received almost €5,000 last year.

McShannon says funding from the programme is a lifeline for Irish organisations around the world. “The Irish abroad have sent home remittances for generations and are still doing so today, especially through business interests and philanthropy, so this is the way Ireland can give back to its overseas communities and make sure those who are most vulnerable are supported, including the newly departed.”

Next Wednesday 19th is the closing date for this year’s applications to the emigrant support programme; see dfa.ie

The following are an example of some of the organisations which have received funding under the Emigrant Support Programme in recent years:

The Irish Mashonaland Association, Zimbabwe

Dorothy Vahey, treasurer:  “The Irish Association of Mashonaland prides itself on keeping the Irish living in Zimbabwe in touch with one another to celebrate the land of their birth. It also strives to promote the Irish culture among all who call Zimbabwe home. We were established in 1891 and believe we are the oldest Irish diaspora association in the world.

“Our primary charity is Emerald Hill Children’s Home, and we use our gatherings to raise funds for this worthy cause which is still vibrant and thriving. We are also there to support the Irish and their descendants in Zimbabwe who find themselves in time of need.

“Since 2009, we have received between €15,000 and €24,000 per year in funding under the Emigrant Support Programme. These funds have been a lifeline to our association and its members, particularly when inflation in Zimbabwe soared between 2006 and 2009, wiping out the life savings of residents here, leaving the elderly particularly vulnerable.

“We use the ESP funds to subsidise events and help bring some cheer to those elderly Irish and elderly Irish religious, in addition to assisting them in times of need.

“The committee is voluntary and organises approximately 20 events per annum. These are advertised by way of a mailing list which has close to 600 names of Irish, Irish descendants and friends of the Irish.”” mashonalandirish.com

The Australian Irish Welfare Bureau (Melbourne)

Marion O’Hagan, administrator: “The Australian Irish Welfare Bureau is a non profit organisation formed in the early 1970s by a group of community minded people who saw the need for an organisation that could assist Irish people in Victoria who might find themselves in need or  distress. Confidentiality, respect and client dignity is guaranteed.

“The service is open to Irish Australians, the elderly, infirm, new settlers and backpackers who may require help with anything from hospital or prison visits, to immigration information, employment advice, funeral arrangements, or food parcels. We also arrange language and cultural activities. The Bureau has a drop-in centre open four days a week, and we hold a lunch every Tuesday, a card game and computer classes on a Thursday and a parent group on Friday.

“The first grant we received from the Irish Government was in 1996. From the early 70s until that time the committee, sponsors and supporters organised fundraising activities to keep the doors of the rented premises open. The $20,000.00 was indeed greatly appreciated. The amount granted annually has increased steadily (from $20,000 in the first year to over $138,000 in 2013), enabling us expand to meet the ever-increasing demand on our services and create much-needed new projects like our Home from Home Parent Group, formed to support young emigrant families adjust to their new surroundings. Our outreach programme in 2013 grew to over 2,000 visits to the elderly, isolated and infirm. Without the ESP Grant our services would be greatly diminished.”  aiwbmel@iinet.net.au

Irish Business Network, Dubai

Bernard Creed, chairman: “The IBN was established in 2011 to provide a networking and educational platform for Irish professionals based in Dubai. This is the first official Irish business council to be set up in Dubai and is registered with the Dubai Chamber, which has 39 Business Councils and 24 Business Groups under its auspices, representing a vast cross section of the business community. Membership is open to all Irish nationals living and working in the UAE as well as to business professionals with Irish connections.

“The IBN hosts regular business breakfasts with a keynote speaker, and industry gatherings focusing on one particular sector such as construction, food or finance. We also invite members to participate in trade visits and delegations, and organise social gatherings to provide networking opportunities.

The grant the IBN received under the ESP in 2012 was used to set up the IBN website  where members can find out about upcoming events, apply for membership, pay online, and apply for and post job opportunities.

“The grant received in 2013 was used to support the “Taste of Ireland Green Box” competition which was set up by the food sector committee to promote Irish food in the UAE.  The competition is open to all chefs in the region with the support of The Emirates Culinary Guild. The Green Box dinner, which was the culmination of the competition and which involved the finalists preparing their dishes using Irish produce, was attended by opinion formers from the food industry including media and buyers from the retail and food service sectors across the UAE.  Since the event, Irish food and drink sales have increased significantly in the region.”irishbusinessnetwork.me

Irish Network USA

Co-president Steve Lenox: “Irish Network USA was formally established in 2010 to provide national level organisation, communication and support to individual “IN” chapters around the country. Irish Network USA currently includes 16 chapters.

“By providing a national framework and support, Irish Network USA and its chapters are able to offer high quality networking opportunities for Irish, Irish-Americans and “friends” of Ireland; increase business opportunities and economic development between the US and Ireland; connect newly arrived Irish immigrants with their communities and provide work and visa advice; promote Irish arts, culture and sport; and complement the efforts of pre-existing Irish organisations.

“Connect Ireland, Údarás na Gaeltachta, the GAA and Enterprise Ireland are just a few of the agencies or organisations that have benefitted from the reach of Irish Network USA.

“Irish Network USA first received ESP funding in 2013. The $50,000 went towards staff support, and the development of a national website and database which will allow members from across the country connect for business or other purposes.

“This funding, in combination with the unrelenting support of the Embassy and Consular staff across the US has been critical to IN USA’s success. As we continue to strengthen our chapters that already exist, and launch new ones in cities such as Buffalo, Houston, Stanford and Nashville, the ability to connect the Diaspora to Ireland at a grassroots level will be greater than ever.” irishnetwork-usa.org

Other organisations which received funding in 2013:

Ireland Reaching Out: A network to which allows local communities identify and engage members of the diaspora around the world whose emigrant ancestors are originally from their local area, and invite them directly to Ireland to participate in a local programme of tourism and activities. By mid 2013, Ireland XO website had 15,000 online users, 245 parish liaisons, over 2,000 volunteers and 200,000 visitors.irelandxo.com

The Dictionary of Sydney Trust: A non-profit established under the auspices of the City of Sydney (Australia) to create a freely accessible online resource that records and publicises the history of the city of Sydney and the people who built it. Funding was granted to the entity so that it could publish more details on the history of the Irish in Sydney, and to develop a walking tour of Sydney application highlighting the points of Irish historical interest trust.dictionaryofsydney.org/projects/exploring-old-irish-sydney

Brian Boru IDL Club: Founded in 1891, the Brian Boru IDL (Irish Democratic League) Club in Ashton, north west England, is one of the oldest Irish Clubs in Britain. The club promotes the heritage of Ireland through the provision of Irish language classes, dancing and music, and provides social activities and care for the elderly Irish community in the area. It also organises the local St Patrick’s Day parade.brianboruclub.co.uk

London Irish Music School: An organisation aiming to promote traditional Irish music, song and dance in London and the surrounding areas, including through running classes, workshops and concerts. londonirishmusicschool.co.uk

Farmleigh Fellowship: A Singapore-based, not-for-profit organisation, currently managing the 2013 Asian MBS programme, a degree awarded by University College Cork in association with Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. The initiative supports a cohort of young Irish talent and enables them to develop the business, culture and communication skills necessary to succeed in Asia through industry projects, academic modules, mentoring and senior-level networking. The Farmleigh Fellowship has brought 47 young Irish professionals to Asia. farmleighfellowship.com