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Ireland opens its doors

Published 02/02/2013




Is The Gathering just a 'scam' to get cash from gullible Americans, as critics claim, or is it going to help the Republic reconnect with the Irish diaspora and help get the state back on track, southern correspondent Valerie Robinson wonders IT IS being plugged as the most ambitious tourism initiative the island of Ireland has ever staged - but The Gathering Ireland 2013 has divided those who believe it's just a PR stunt and those who see it as a way to celebrate our Irishness.

The Irish government first announced plans for The Gathering in late 2009 as part of its strategy to repair the Republic's damaged image abroad. After five years of recession, staggering unemployment and emigration it is hoped that the year-long event will tell people that Ireland is open for business. It is also estimated that up to 325,000 visitors will come and spend hard cash.

Organisers believe that the celebration of Irish people, music, culture, history and scenery could be worth up to €220m in extra tourism revenue in 2013, with the hope of repeat business in future years.

American presidents from Andrew Jackson to John F Kennedy to Barrack Obama have had their roots traced back to Irish soil.

Emigration that spanned many generations means that the diaspora now exceeds 100 million people worldwide - a potentially lucrative vein for Ireland Inc to tap into.

But it's no secret that the Irish love a bit of drama and are never averse to a touch of begrudgery so it should have come as no surprise when former RTE soap-opera actor-turned Hollywood star Gabriel Byrne had 'a moment' in the run-up to The Gathering getting under way.

Byrne created a transatlantic stir when he dismissed The Gathering as a "scam", and said it was simply about people in Ireland hoping to "shake down" Americans for "a few quid".

He also described Taoiseach Enda Kenny's speech launching the project as "slightly offensive".

Everyone got involved. The south's outspoken transport minister, Leo Varadkar, attempted to downplay the actor's importance by saying he was popular with "women of a certain age".

President Michael D Higgins diplomatically stepped in, describing the heartthrob as a "magnificent Irish person" who only wanted The Gathering to have "depth".

The Gathering was already making headlines in the United States, although not the ones organisers might have wanted.

Forbes magazine contributor David Monaghan wrote a story about the controversy with the title '70 Million Irish Please Come Home (Briefly): But Don't Mind Our InFighting'.

It seems the taoiseach, a Mayo TD who is leader of the centre-right Fine Gael, does not appeal to thespians. In June, actor Liam Neeson told The Late Late Show that he had received a "snivelling" letter from Mr Kenny asking him to be an ambassador for The Gathering.

"I've been an ambassador for Ireland since I moved," the disgruntled Ballymena man said.

Neeson must have been having a bad day because he's since urged everyone, whether they have Irish connections or not to visit his homeland "for a unique experience".

There has also been plenty of positive buzz about the celebration, with veteran actress Fionnula Flanagan voicing her support and former Bond star Pierce Brosnan describing 2013 as a year where we "celebrate what it is to be Irish".

And one of Ireland's favourite adopted sons, Wicklowbased Oscar hopeful Daniel Day-Lewis, gave proceedings a big boost when he hosted the Irish premiere of his new movie Lincoln in Dublin last month. Proceeds from the event, which was supported by The Gathering, were donated to the Wicklow Hospice Foundation.

Encouraging those with Irish roots to make the trip home, Day-Lewis said: "By answering that whisper in the blood and returning to the source, they shall also be investing in the future of this uniquely magnificent country."

The Gathering officially got under way with a massive party in Dublin on New Year's Eve when press officer Aine Kavanagh said the project had "moved on" from the Byrne comments and that "sentiment has shifted to a very positive place".

"This is essentially a tourism project designed to drive more visits to Ireland. People here have so much to offer and we want others to get to know Irish people and to have some fun," she said.

"There is so much here in terms of music, culture and scenery, and communities are putting a lot of energy and thought into organising events."

Developed by Failte Ireland, the initiative is focused on promoting the Republic but it is hoped that the entire island will benefit and a number of Northern Ireland groups are plugging their events on the website www.gatheringireland.com.

Organisers of the Antrim Fleadh Gathering, which takes place in Ballycastle on May 10-12, have already had interest from America, Germany, France, Spain and Britain.

Trad musician Michael Sands, who runs a bilingual B&B and is a member of Ballycastle Comhaltas, said The Gathering meant they could "show off what we have to offer - as beautiful a part of Ireland as you can get".

"We have a wonderful heritage of music, dance, mythology, scenery and storytelling and this is an opportunity to proudly show Irish culture to the world," he said.

The group is planning to get the entire community involved in their fleadh - something that's being echoed across the island - with artists and musicians travelling from abroad to adjudicate on art and music competitions run among schools in the area.

"We may be currently financially struggling but we are cultural millionaires and our Gathering and all the others are an opportunity for the world to share in our riches," said Michael, summing up the feelings of every townland, village and suburb running an event.

It's a big year for the Irish. The Republic holds the presidency of the EU Council, Derry is the UK's firstever City of Culture, the Heineken Cup Rugby Final will be played in Dublin in May, while, in August, Belfast plays host to the World Police and Fire Games.

There are obvious similarities between The Gathering and Scotland's 2009 Homecoming initiative - which was so successful that he Scots are planning to do it all again next year.

If The Gathering works it may help nudge the south, in particular, towards that elusive light at the end of the tunnel.