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Meet the Irish descendants heading back to their roots

  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 55.3 million Americans — that's 19.5 percent of the population — report having Irish ancestry
The Boston Police Pipes and Drums band marches during the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Boston on Mar. 19, 2017.
Keith Bedford | The Boston Globe via Getty Images
The Boston Police Pipes and Drums band marches during the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Boston on Mar. 19, 2017.

If you've ever been in the U.S. on St. Patrick's Day, you know just how much Americans of Irish descent love their heritage.

Even if many have never been to the Emerald Isle, they'll enthusiastically tell you about their Irish ancestors who crossed the Atlantic in the wave of emigration that followed Ireland's great potato famine of 1845.

But do any ever return to the country of their forefathers to live?

The answer is yes. And although not in huge numbers, new economic opportunities, cultural curiosity and family ties have meant these Irish-Americans are getting to discover their ancestral home is not so different from the one where they grew up.

"Coming from the Midwest, there's so much in Chicago that is Irish that I never realized was Irish," said Brian Norton, who grew up in Chicago and in 2014 co-founded Future Finance, a Dublin-based fintech startup. "The friendliness, the beer, the pubs on every corner — it all makes sense now!"

One of Norton's ancestors emigrated to the U.S. in 1849 from County Roscommon, an epicenter of the Great Famine, making his way to New York like so many others who came in via Ellis Island.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 55.3 million Americans — that's 19.5 percent of the population — report having Irish ancestry. Compare that to Ireland's actual population of 4.6 million.

Now, with the growing number of U.S. multinationals establishing a presence on the island to access its well-educated workforce, low taxes and EU market access, some Americans are moving to the country to join its bustling tech scene.

Expat entrepreneurs

"I wanted to serve the European market, and Dublin turned out to be the best place to do that," said Norton, whose startup provides private lending to university students in the U.K. where public tuition support is often insufficient.

"There's really a strong sense that workings of the corporate world are here for you. Even when you have nothing, senior partners are happy to help," he said, noting that this might be harder to find in a city like London. In 2017, Future Finance ranked 37th on KPMG's global Fintech 100 list.

"The more recent generation of the workforce, many of them have already worked for big U.S. and international multinationals in Ireland. So when they come to us, they're already well-trained," Norton added. More than 700 American companies are running operations in Ireland.

Caroline Conway grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, before moving to Dublin in the past year to found the Europe office of analytics and technology firm Control Enter, which also operates in India and the U.S.

"As a second generation Irish-American, I'd wanted to try living in Ireland for a long time," she told CNBC in an email. "What spurred me to move was the mix of multinationals, high-tech orientation, access to international markets, and a strong homegrown entrepreneurial ecosystem that's developed in recent years.

"The environment here is exciting — a lot of new companies doing innovative work alongside continuous buzz about the larger companies opening strategic offices here. I believe Ireland is in the process of making its mark as a global center for innovation and entrepreneurship, and I'm excited to be part of it."

Diaspora capital

Ireland's Central Statistics Office (CSO) recorded that 4,700 Americans moved to Ireland in 2016, up from 3,300 in 2011, though it's unclear how many have Irish heritage. The same year, the Irish consulate in New York reported issuing a record 7,205 Irish passports, closely followed by the consulates in Sydney, San Francisco and Canberra, in terms of demand.

An illuminated raised walkway connects buildings of the Google Inc. European headquarters in Dublin, Ireland, on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016.
Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg via Getty
An illuminated raised walkway connects buildings of the Google Inc. European headquarters in Dublin, Ireland, on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016.

"We're a bit of a wandering tribe, the Irish," Kingsley Aikens, CEO of Dublin-based consultancy Diaspora Matters, told CNBC in a phone call. "Ireland is an island off an island off of Europe — we want to see the world."

Aikens, who is Irish-born and spent 25 years living in Boston and Sydney, Australia, before returning home nine years ago, doesn't see the American diaspora returning in big numbers. But he said that for those who do, it's a combination of family connections, new opportunities and lifestyle choice.

"Obviously, the economy is having an effect because it's sucking people back," he said.

In 2015, after recovering from a prolonged recession, the government launched 'Global Irish,' a program aimed at bringing back some of the estimated 240,000 Irish who left during the 2008 financial crisis. By 2014, the country had rebounded to become one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe.

Other efforts included the International Entrepreneur Fund, launched by Ireland's American Chamber of Commerce, which last year provided €30 million ($35.8 million) in startup funding for returning expats.

"Countries are realizing they have value in these diasporas," Kingsley said. "Diaspora capital is made of three flows: money, people and knowledge.

"They are not lost actors anymore. Thanks to improved interconnectedness, travel and communication, they can now be national actors."

These national actors include Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, a fourth-generation Irish-American who in July confirmed that Dublin would be the banking giant's EU hub.

'A huge mindset change'

Many more Irish beyond those in the U.S. have returned home in recent years. Between April 2016 and April 2017, the CSO reported that 27,000 Irish nationals returned home from around the world.

Still, more Irish nationals are leaving the country than returning. In that same period, 30,800 moved away. But there has been an 85 percent decrease in the net outward migration of Irish nationals since 2012, when 49,700 left and only 20,100 returned. The enduring challenge, government officials say, is to keep creating the types of jobs and opportunities that attract young people.

Kieran Furlong, who grew up in Ireland, spent nearly his entire professional life in the U.S. before returning this year to launch the European office of Finistere Ventures, a U.S.-headquartered agri-tech venture capital firm.

"When I left Ireland in 1998, Grand Canal Dock, which is our 'silicon dock,' had one new building," he said. "Now Google, Facebook, Airbnb are all there — there's a well-established path from Silicon Valley.

"There's been a huge mindset change here since the 1990s. People used to take the safe jobs, but now there is this huge enthusiasm for startups and innovation. We're finally moving Ireland up the rankings of scientific R&D output."

Of course, making a transatlantic move comes with its challenges, financial and cultural. But for Norton, the transition seems to have worked out.

"My wife and I joke that It's 'expat lite,'" he said, laughing. "You're in another country, but it's pretty close. The jokes all translate, you've even got the same brands and products."

"It doesn't feel like it's far away from home," he said. "Makes it that much easier to live across the ocean."