Our 2022 tour was the first one back after the Covid pandemic of March 2020. We were glad to be back! Being back on the road gave us the chance to meet more wonderful genealogists interested in discovering their Irish and Scots-Irish ancestors.

Report by Fintan Mullan

Arriving into an eerily quiet (for the USA) Philadelphia airport, with many shops and concessions not just mothballed but permanently closed, and then standing outside an Avis rental office in grey drizzling rain waiting on my rental car, I thought, ‘this is one stupid idea’.

My outlook did not improve much as I drove in the gloom of a late afternoon of early March towards the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania (GSP) offices to collect boxes left over from our abandoned lecture tour of 2020 (members will recall we had to fly home after accepting the inevitable when the GSP event had to be cancelled). Spurred on by the cheery good wishes of Jim Beidler, our GSP contact, my mood did not lift much in the now driving rain towards Elizabethtown PA and our friend Gary Hawbaker’s home for a much-needed overnight stop.

But a steak dinner, a long night’s rest and pancakes and eggs on a sunny morning tend to cure many of life’s ills, and so I set off for Virginia with something more of a spring in my step. On that drive I gradually became more comfortable about restarting our lecture programmes, and in fact we are pleased to say, despite the initial trepidation, it was a complete success.

In March this year (2022) the Foundation undertook the first complete tour delivered in USA since 2019 (due obviously to the pandemic). Many were surprised to learn that this tour was going ahead, but in fact it was our hosts in America who asked if we would consider returning. Thus, it was at their request we decided to stick our toe back into the proverbial lecture circuit water.

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While the itinerary was not as crammed as tightly as those before Covid (to allow more time to drive between venues) and thus might not be described as ‘full-on’, ‘full-off’ it definitely was not. We delivered 11 activities in nine locations (doing 1.5 days in both Green Bay WI and Bolingbrook IL), including:

Fairfax VA, Green Bay WI, Chicago IL (Newberry Library), St Charles MO, Memphis TN, Pittsburgh PA, Charleston SC, Houston TX, and Bolingbrook IL.

Plus, we undertook a separate virtual programme, by way of ‘warm up’, with GSP on 19 February.

Obviously, we had concerns about going ahead with this tour. Could we travel across the USA and stay safe from Covid (nay, could we even make it across the ocean safely), especially when potentially we would be meeting so many different people in a range of locations; would people feel comfortable attending an in-person event again, could they be weaned off Zoom after two years of virtual events; could we drive as much as of the route as possible to stay clear of busy airports; and could the hybrid format for the majority of the programmes work?

As a first step back, the tour was not exactly a return to ‘normal’. First, the itinerary would be a mix of in-person and hybrid (i.e. allowing for in-person attendees and virtual attendees) events, with the majority being hybrid.

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Second, the speakers would be ‘hybrid’ too. Fintan Mullan travelled to the USA in person, while Gillian Hunt remained in Belfast and delivered her presentations virtually. It was a format that worked surprisingly well throughout the whole tour, with hardly a single technical glitch.

And the hybrid format demonstrated its versatility, adaptability and practicality. Two apposite examples will suffice. I arrived into Fairfax VA on Friday with the sun shining and the temperature in the high 60s. I got up on Saturday to deliver the first programme with about 5 inches of snow on the ground. Arriving at the venue we learned that many of those signed up to come in person were switching to virtual. There was probably less than a third of the original expected crowd in the room. Thankfully, and in contrast, the virtual audience had mushroomed as a result.

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What is more as the snow began to gradually melt the audience went on increasing until by the middle of the afternoon probably 80% of the originally intended in-person audience were in the room. Pre-Covid and pre-Zoom the unseasonable snow shower in Fairfax could have put the kibosh on this whole programme. Or resulted in a very small and unprofitable attendance for the organisers. Hybrid programming saved the day and made it a great success.

Second, in Houston TX during lunch we met a lady at the venue who had signed up as a virtual attendee. Over the lunch break she and her husband decided to run some local errands and realising they were actually very close to the venue decided to stop by and say hello. Not only that, she bought an armful of books from the sales table. One of the hosts suggested she might like to stay for the rest of the programme, but she replied, ‘No, I’m fine. I am more comfortable at home and can get things done while I am listening to the presentations’! And home she went. Hybrid triumphs again.

As an aside, and in contrast, it is interesting to note that the two venues that opted not to include a virtual offering (Green Bay and St Charles) both attracted the largest in-person audiences of any of the locations on the itinerary.

It would be invidious to pick out highlights of the programme as all our hosts were gracious, warm and welcoming and the very persona of hospitality. And the people we met in the audiences were appreciative and good humoured. We so enjoyed the return to our overseas programmes.

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That said, it was lovely to feel the warm sun on our backs in St Charles MO, where I also got to take part in (and hold the O’Dea banner) for the first St Patrick’s Day parade in that city to be held on the saint’s day itself. My host, the delightful Joanie, was a member of the O’Dea clan who regularly return to Co. Clare for their reunions (she would be going again in June). Also, breaking with tradition, I actually drove into Green Bay in warm spring sunshine, something of a novel experience for our fourth visit to a location that long likes to wear its winter coat. And it was wonderful to finally get to visit Old St Andrew’s Parish Church, Charleston SC and the splendidly welcoming host, the Rector, Rev. Marshall Huey. We delivered our programme in the actual sanctuary of the oldest Episcopal church in the South on a very rainy day in the Holy City.

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While an unqualified success the tour was not all plain sailing: there were snow storms, freezing temperatures, flat tyres, unreliable cars, long journeys, some en route accommodation choices you’d rather not remember, and against it all the worry – could we stay out of Covid’s way on this trip? Members can read more on this story in a full account to be published in our next edition of the Directory of Irish Family History Research.

Finally though, we must pay tribute to our hosts who made the tour happen and helped to ensure its success, and to the many hundreds of people who came in person or virtually to take part in the events, including many members of the Guild. This support from everyone involved helped to prove that undertaking a tour (as we hopefully emerge from this ghastly pandemic) is not only possible but could be a rich and rewarding experience for all, especially us the presenters

USA Lecture Tour 2022 - Photo Gallery