Seanad debates

Thursday, 20 October 2005

2:00 pm

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter on the Adjournment, which I am sure he will agree is important to people providing a service in genealogy. Genealogy is the key that unlocks the mysteries of our past and in doing so makes sense of our present. As Aristotle said, if you would understand anything, observe its beginnings and its developments.

With an estimated 60 million people worldwide claiming Irish ancestry, there is no shortage of quests to find Irish roots, allied with a natural curiosity about the role of Irish families and a deep-rooted wish to know what a particular family has contributed to our history or the reason ancestors left their original birthplaces. We are not on opposite sides here in saying that such projects provide an invaluable service and open pathways to our past but a difference of opinion may arise in the way the service is assisted and the provision of funding opportunities, which are not equitably distributed.

I have been contacted by a constituent of mine in County Longford, Noel Farrell, who approached the Irish Genealogical Project last summer assuming it would promote and encourage all valid genealogical projects. This man, whose project entails months of data entry and indexation similar to the work undertaken by the IGP, expected that his proposal would be met with a clear affirmative or rejection. However, he was informed that it was not in the remit of the IGP to help genealogical projects other than its own. Appeals for funding to the Heritage Council, the Leader programme and the Arts Council, as well as the IGP, met with rejection.

My concern is that if all other genealogical projects are ignored in favour of the Irish Genealogical Project, the promotion of Irish genealogy as a whole suffers. That leads to an indifference or distorted competition in the genealogy market and also raises questions about the main objective of the IGP and its role in promoting Irish genealogy. How many other projects have met with refusal and been required to compete in an imbalanced market? This question is perhaps answered in part by the lack of other genealogical projects such as that of my constituent because they could not survive in a market where one project is granted annual funding and has the added advantage of using FÁS subsidised workers to help with its data entry work while others must struggle to survive.

The local project being undertaken by a Longford man, Noel Farrell, entails helping people in Ireland search their family tree without a cost to the taxpayer. Mr. Farrell has already published 27 books covering 30 towns in Ireland and plans to publish 25 more covering a further 25 towns but with a small return and no funding to provide for essential day to day living expenses that work becomes increasingly difficult. Funding for my constituent's project should be sourced from the national development plan and Tourism Ireland or FÁS, which finances the Irish Genealogical Project. The amount of funding required would be performance related. For coverage of an additional 20 towns, the total requirement would be €40,000, averaging €2,000 per town, which would cover the time needed to complete all research for the individual areas.

I call on the Minister to provide the necessary funding for the project I have highlighted and also for other similar undertakings in this specified field to allow genealogical projects to survive and to maintain competition in an increasingly expensive market. The funding of the IGP at the expense of other valid projects will inevitably breed an ESB style monopoly where the people of Ireland will have no option but to pay a large fee to the State's genealogical centres while every other genealogical project collapses. I have two or three copies with me today. I gave one to the Cathaoirleach earlier. Mr. Farrell is doing an exceptional job and for a small amount of money he would do a great deal for Irish society.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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The Irish project is doing an exceptional job.

3:00 pm

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Minister of State, Department of Agriculture and Food; Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I am replying on behalf of the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, who is unavoidably absent due to departmental business.

The position in regard to the Irish Genealogical Project providing funds to genealogical projects is simple. The Irish Genealogy Project is a genealogical project funded by the State. It has no funds for, and was not established to, fund genealogical projects. It is a project in its own right that is funded through Irish Genealogy Limited, which is itself funded through the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism. The project evolved from the task force on roots, genealogy and tourism in the late 1980s.

The primary goal of the project is to generate economic activity and employment throughout the island of Ireland by boosting roots tourism. The assumption underlying the strategy is that the availability of a world class, country-wide genealogy service, with the potential of pin-pointing the exact point of origin of emigrant families and supplying on-the-ground orientation in Ireland, will represent a powerful attraction for ethnically Irish visitors from America, Argentina, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Britain. The intention is to attract these visitors to the various genealogical centres, which will provide a marketing or sales opportunity. The centres could provide an opportunity for individual genealogical researchers or authors to market their wares. The diaspora is variously estimated at between 50 million and 70 million people; however, the ties between the diaspora and Ireland may well be weakening.

The business plan for the project envisaged the establishment of a central agency that would be responsible for market research, marketing and the development of a range of common products and prices across the network of genealogical centres. It was also expected to create and operate a central computerised index of the records held in local centres, which could be used to direct potential customers to the specific local centre or to a professional genealogist. In 1993 a company, Irish Genealogy Limited, was incorporated to act as the required central agency. The company represents diverse interests in genealogy, including the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland, the Association of Ulster Genealogists and Record Agents, and the Irish Family History Foundation. In 1996, after some delay, a chief executive and administrator were appointed. IGL is the umbrella organisation for genealogy in Ireland and is charged with completing the Irish genealogy project. The company's primary aim, as set out in its mission statement, is "to promote and foster quality local genealogical research services in Ireland to enable those of Irish descent and those at home to research their family histories with the objective of boosting tourism and cultural and economic activity in the local communities."

Following a value-for-money report from the Comptroller and Auditor General and the project's transfer to the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, a full review was undertaken by an officer of the Department. That review was completed in early 1999. Copies of the report were given to the Committee of Public Accounts and the Department of Finance and placed in the Oireachtas Library. The recommendations were accepted by the Minister and the board of IGL. The project called for the recording of 29 million records, drawn from church and civil records, the 1901 and 1911 censuses, Griffith's valuation and the tithe applotment books. A central signposting system would be established utilising data fields drawn from the database records. IGL has now decided to limit itself to working on church records only since the Ulster Historical Foundation has placed all the data from the tithe applotment books onto compact discs available to the general public; Griffith's valuation is available from the National Library of Ireland and over the Internet; access to the census data from the 1901 and 1911 censuses is available from the National Archives, with a joint Canadian-National Archives project digitising those data; and access to the civil records of births, deaths and marriages is available through the General Register Office. Some 76% of the 13.7 million church records have been indexed and inputted into the computerised databases while some 2.7 million records in 11 counties may be accessed through the central signposting system.

The Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism has supported the project, with funding of €2.5 million from 1998 to 2005. In addition, FÁS contributed €32.2 million in the period to 31 December 2004 through the payment of wages to staff inputting records into the databases. The countrywide genealogical centres, in co-operation with FÁS, have delivered a most successful training programme for that funding, of which thousands of citizens have availed and which has achieved placement success rates of up to 90%.

While there have recently been difficulties between the Irish Family History Foundation and Irish Genealogy Limited, the two sides have entered into discussions to resolve them. It is also true that the attachment of the Irish diaspora to Ireland appears to be weakening. Accordingly, the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, has arranged for the project to be examined to determine its future.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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My concern is that other genealogical projects are being ignored in favour of the Irish Genealogical Project. The man to whom I have referred provides a very important service, and the Cathaoirleach has been given one of his books. He does so at very low cost, and perhaps the Minister might consider forcing funding through the aegis of the national development plan, the tourism budget, the Leader programme, FÁS or the Heritage Council. There may be an area where funding could be provided for him to continue his very valuable project.