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Minister of State Cannon T.D. remarks at the Commemoration of Immigrant Ship, Mountbellow

Thank you for welcoming me here this afternoon.

We are here today to remember and celebrate the amazing story of 33 young Irish girls who left for Australia in 1853 on the Palestine ship.

I know that events like today do not just happen on their own so I want to thank today’s organisers and everyone involved in the Mountbellew Workhouse restoration and commemoration for their hard work and dedication to a fascinating piece of Irish history.

Too often events like the emigration of people from Mountbellew Workhouse can go unnoticed and the weight of the unique piece of history can go under appreciated. It is therefore fitting that we’re here today to remember not only the 33 young Irish girls who left in 1853 but all the people who passed through Mountbellew Workhouse during the many years it was open.

I believe that the group of 33 young girls transported to Australia are however the forerunners of waves of Irish emigration that continue to this day. I can only imagine the choices that these girls faced and their journey, of what was essentially forced migration, was a sad and common occurrence of the times.

Their legacy however is unparalleled and I have no doubt but that many of the some 2 million Australians that are of Irish heritage can trace their roots back to places like Mountbellew and back to the years when Irish people faced unprecedented difficulties and hard choices.

Subsequent waves of emigration allowed for more freedom but still I know that for many, many years people emigrated because they had no choice.

Thankfully, I think this era has passed us and in today’s emigration we actually see some of the most educated and skilled people in the world, travel the world – to further their career, to gain new experiences and skills and to work at the forefront of their fields.

What also marks this modern emigration out is that many of these people are also returning to Ireland. This is a modern phenomenon and one that is hugely welcome. These emigrants are bringing back new skills and experience and are contributing to the economic recovery that has spread throughout the country.

I have seen this first hand, here in my own community in Galway but also in my work as Minister of State for the Diaspora.

Indeed, last year I launched the Back for Business programme which is an entrepreneur mentoring program for returning emigrants. The program has 45 participants coming from all regions of the country and participants have spent an average of 6 years outside of Ireland.

This programme is soon to conclude and all the participants have stated that in five years’ time they expect to be employers and half expect to be employers of ten or more people.

The final event for this programme will take place next week and I am very pleased to see the change in the trends in migration, with Irish people returning home and enriching the country, rather than sadly leaving as in the past. The Back for Business programme is one example of how far emigration has come in Ireland and how the emigrant experience is very different and more positive now than it has ever been in the past, and we must work to ensure that it continues.

I know that those involved in the Mountbellew commemorations have sought out a positive note through tracing the ancestors of those 33 girls who left in 1853.

I am sure that you are using the latest technology to reach out and connect with people and this too is a hugely welcome development. New technologies are making it easier than ever to find and connect with people abroad and I would urge you to continue to tap into the Irish diaspora and to forge even greater links with Irish communities around the world.

I have been fortunate to have spent time with Irish communities in many different locations and I know that they are organised, ready to connect and willing to work with any other Irish organisation or group.

This has clearly been the case when tracing the ancestors of those who left all those years ago. For instance, finding and tracing the lineage of Ken Labalestier as the great-grandson of Ellen Hansberry, who left in 1853, has clearly opened up engagement that could not have been possible even a few years ago.

I hope, therefore, that you will continue to tap into this ready built network of global Irish and that you will be able to expand your engagement to even more locations and communities in Australia.

The work of so many skilled genealogists around Ireland, many of them working in a volunteer capacity, has been hugely rewarding for many people of Irish heritage abroad. What you are doing here to trace the ancestors of those who left is commendable and as I am sure you already know, there is something special about knowing you have a tangible connection. Whether that be a DNA link, a shared surname or an ancestral connection of time or place.

I hope that you will continue to grow your work and your engagement with the Irish diaspora.

I know that you have done much already, but with a potential audience of 70 million people who claim Irish ancestry, including many millions in Australia, I know there is much more that can be done by all of us.

It remains only for me to thank you again for inviting me here today and to wish you the best of luck in your continuing work.

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