For thousands of Irish emigrants across the world, this week is an historic one. Exactly 25 years ago, Liam Ferrie and his wife Pauline started what is generally regarded is the first ever e-newsletter in the world, The Irish Emigrant. This week, Liam and Pauline retired. The Boston and New York Print editions of the Irish Emigrant, which were owned by Connell Gallagher from Gaoth Dobhair and his wife Siobhan, have been sold to Niall O’Dowd of the Irish Voice. The future of the on-line edition is uncertain. There are ongoing discussions with potential buyers but about one thing there is no doubt. There will be no new on-line edition of the Irish Emigrant next Monday.
Although he was born in Scotland and has spent most of his working life in Galway, Liam has a very close connection with Donegal. His mother Brigid McLaughlin (Roe) was from Lecamey, near Moville. “We spent all our summers there”, he recalls. “It was wonderful”. Liam and Pauline have a house in Moville. “We hope to get up there more often now that we’ve retired,” he smiles. The Donegal association also extends further west. Liam’s paternal grandfather was from Dún Lúiche, a was a first cousin of the weaver Manus Ferry who lived, with his sister Sophia and brother Paddy, in the house that is now the Ionad Cois Locha heritage centre.
Those of us who are old enough to remember when DOS was a system that you still had to work with, not something buried deep inside your computer, and are still smarting from the big wave of emigration when the recession hit in the 1980s, The Irish Emigrant needs no introduction.
“People weren’t even using the term ‘Internet’ back when we started back in 1987,” Liam recalls. I was working for Digitial in Galway when a colleague in the US used an online company bulletin board to ask for someone back in Ireland to provide a summary of the week’s news by email,” Liam says. “I thought, ‘that’s two of my main interests right there: current affairs and computers,’ and said I’d give it a go. Little did I know we’d still be here all these years later, but I almost felt I couldn’t give it up. People were really relying on it.”
On February 8, 1987 Liam wrote and sent out the first edition of The Irish Emigrant. He used Digital’s in-house system to send the newsletter to 15 readers in the US and a few European countries. Just three months later the list had expanded to more than 100 Irish people in 12 countries. It eventually topped the 160-nation mark with 20,000 subscribers to five different email newsletters: The Irish Emigrant, Professional Ireland, Arts Ireland, Book View Ireland, and Sports Ireland.
“It filled a huge gap for people who wanted news from home,” he says. “It wasn’t until about seven years later that an alternative source of Irish news appeared on the Internet.”
Brian Fitzpatrick Managing Editor Irish Emigrant, takes up the story. “Stories of the Irish Emigrant’s far-flung travels are by now legendary. From readers in the South Pole to China to Northern Nigeria, it seemed there was nowhere some version of the newsletter wasn’t being circulated, often printed locally, stuck together, and distributed by hand to those craving news from home.
“The yarn is often told of Sydney-based Kerry woman Eithne Courtney, who once met an Irish couple while on a trekking holiday in a remote part of Tasmania. As they talked, the man pulled sheets from his rucksack and offered them to her, saying, ‘You might like to read this.’ It was the latest edition of the Irish Emigrant. She had already read it.”
When Digital made Liam and 760 others redundant in 1994, it was a Donegal man, Barry Flanagan from Fahan, just outside Buncrana. Barry had recently founded Ireland Online and was happy to strike a distribution deal. By now the Irish Emigrant had over 3,000 subscribers, so Liam and Pauline took the plunge and decided to make it their full time job. They set up an office in Galway and took on staff.
That same year, Boston-based Donegal man Connell Gallagher asked Liam to enquire about launching a print version of The Irish Emigrant in the town, based on the material being produced in Galway. The rest, as they say, is history. The print edition of The Irish Emigrant was born soon after, and is still going strong today, having later expanded to New York.
“I knew we had made it in Boston when I saw a copy of the Irish Emigrant lying among the litter of a downtown Boston street,” Liam later joked, before adding how he dropped it in a nearby bin, much as it killed him to do so. “Seeing your work in print gives you a big kick.”
In early 1995 recruitment specialists Merc Partners placed an ad in the ‘Emigrant in the hope of bringing some ex-pat engineers home. The frenzied response soon saw a steady flow of ads in the newsletter, prompting the launch of Professional Ireland, a portal for academics, businessmen and job-seekers alike.
It seemed ads, rather than subscription fees, were the way to go. Initially reluctant to “clutter the newsletter with ads instead of news,” Liam says he eventually figured it was time to make some money from this popularity. “There was no point in being silly about it!”
The pioneering and visionary project won its fair share of awards. In 1999, Liam was named as the inaugural winner of the Irish Internet Association’s Net Visionary Award. In 2003 Liam, and Pauline were jointly awarded a Golden Spider for their contribution to the Internet in Ireland and last year
Liam was conferred with an honorary degree by the National University of Ireland, Galway.
“The need emigrants feel to remain in touch with their homeland, to know the important news, covering current political and economic developments, sport, the arts etc. is innate and natural,” Emeritus Professor Jim Ward of NUI, Galway said at the conferring. “To meet this need in a succinct, readable manner was not possible before The Irish Emigrant. Before the World Wide Web, Skype, Sky, CNN or Al Jazeera, Liam Ferrie was there, enabling tens of thousands of Irish people to stay in touch, and in a very personal way.”
One former staffer keen to express her gratitude to the Ferries is Noreen Bowden, well-known for her Irish Diaspora work on both sides of the Atlantic and currently studying at Harvard. She worked with the ‘Emigrant in Galway for five years.
“Engaging with the Diaspora is a pretty fashionable thing now, but Liam was way ahead of everyone else, and he always did it for the right reasons: because he understood how much people wanted to stay in touch with home, and that people in Ireland had a responsibility to help them do that.
“I sometimes miss the fun we had in that office right in the heart of Galway – I don’t think I’ll ever have another job where the entire staff sits down together for a cup of tea and a chat every morning at 10:30. Liam and Pauline deserve a great break now.”
The Ferries started the Irish Emigrant in the midst of recession and are now leaving it in the midst of another recession but Liam is upbeat as ever.
“You have to see the bigger picture,” he says. “People said at the time Digital left Galway that it was going to be the biggest disaster ever, but people moved on, and Galway was soon a boomtown. We had Boston Scientific arrive, employing 3,000 people. They’d never have been here if it wasn’t for Digital.
“Yes, right now we’re in the middle of a collapse, but people learn from their time with companies like these, and they grow elsewhere on the back of what they’ve learned locally. Right now we have the likes of Google and Facebook in Ireland, and these types of companies will leave so many Irish people well equipped to do whatever they want.
“I used to always hear top executives say: ‘We can throw any product at the Irish, and we know it’ll get done, and done well.’ That’s a wonderful reputation to have.”