New perspectives from archaeology and genealogy: A prototype for innovative action in rural Ireland

The RurInno project seeks to investigate innovative enterprises in rural regions in Europe that tackle persistent structural weaknesses. But what differentiates an innovative project from a non-innovative social initiative? Although boundaries might be blurry between these attributes, an innovative approach is commonly characterised by combining existing solutions in a creative way or by applying them onto a new field of action. During a communication secondment at Ballyhoura Development CLG. in southern Ireland, IRS communication officer Jan Zwilling got to know a project that is a prototype for what the creative combination of ideas applied to new fields actually means.

Ballyhoura Development is a social enterprise that has been tackling unemployment, social exclusion and out-migration in a rural region in Mid-West Ireland for more than 25 years. It is especially apparent to the Ireland case in the RurInno project that the current challenges the regions are facing can be traced back to long-term developments and narratives. What in the case of Upper Austria is the ongoing trend of members of postmodern societies leaving rural regions and in the Polish case is the “legacy” of several centuries of marginalization between central Europe and Russia (and more currently of several decades of socialistic dictatorship), is the repetition of severe humanitarian crises in Ireland that lead to a history of emigration second to none in the world. The Great Famine in the middle of the 19th century, the turmoil of the Independence War in the years before the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 or the ‘lost decade’ of the 1950s – several million left Ireland over the centuries for greener grasses. Most recently, the financial crisis of 2008 and the following years struck hard on the accomplishments and perspectives gained from the development of Ireland within the European Union since 1973.

With two closely interlinked initiatives, Ballyhoura Development sought to turn this legacy into a virtue: the “Ireland Reaching Out” programme and the “Historic Graveyards Initiative”. Ireland Reaching Out has been a nationwide programme in Ireland from 2011 onwards and aimed at raising awareness for emigration history by proactively reaching out to the ancestors of Irish immigrants all over the world. Ballyhoura Development started a regional project connected with the “Peter Robinson Assisted Emigration Programme”, a British initiative in the 1820s to emigrate rural workers to Canada in order to prevent them from migrating to England. More than 2.000 people settled in six townships in Ontario. Ballyhoura Development conducted genealogical research on the descendants of these people, inviting them to join a series of events - the Gathering in 2013.

The historicl graveyard in Bruff, Co. Limerick. The inscriptions on the gravestones tell stories both of the local identify and the herigate of emigration.

The historicl graveyard in Bruff, Co. Limerick. The inscriptions on the gravestones tell stories both of the local identify and the herigate of emigration.

At the same time Ballyhoura development started the “Historic Graveyard Initiative” to include local communities in the venture and to create a resource for genealogical research. By the means of a volunteer training scheme, 80 people in the region where assisted in creating a digital database of graveyards. They learned to read and transcribe the inscriptions, used GPS photography to document the sites and to link data to a relational genealogical resource. The demand and interest continued after the initial three months training period and resulted in the placement of two jobsbridge community archaeologists, which enabled further training and survey. In total 110 graveyards in the Ballyhoura region have been surveyed with more than 200 people trained.

The combination of these two initiatives yielded extraordinary results: At the same time, residents of the Ballyhoura region deepened their understanding of the emigration history and learned a set of new skills, the link to Irish descendants worldwide has been strengthened or even established in the first place. These links are a valuable new resource for tourism in the Ballyhoura region. The results of the surveys have been published on various online platforms like http://historicgraves.com/graveyards and http://www.irelandxo.com/ireland-xo/news/peter-robinson-settlers.