The Gathering's special quality: Leo's smugness
While Today FM’s The Last Word was in New York last week, its ad breaks were repeatedly bookended by stings from its sponsor, the Gathering. Actually, in that cloying modern marketing speak, in which the arrival of everything from a slightly larger pack of rashers to a new odour of athlete’s-foot ointment must be “celebrated” as if it were the cure for the cold, The Last Word was there to, yes, celebrate the Gathering. The fun, and relief, was that it will be remembered for doing something else.
On Monday Gabriel Byrne did us all a favour. He punctured the bubble of hogwash surrounding the Gathering and articulated an unease and confusion that many people have about the project.
What’s a Gathering, its radio ad asks, before telling us that whenever two people are together, that’s a Gathering.
And across the country, families gathered around their wirelesses, looked at each other and raised quizzical eyebrows. “Are we having a gathering now?” “Will that be one in bed later on?” “Does one of us need to be American?”
Whether accurate or not, Byrne’s anger was at least driven by a sincerity separate from politics, and from his useful experience as a cultural ambassador. He had left that role prematurely, and we can now guess that his diplomatic language when he did so concealed a deep frustration. He was certainly undeserving of Leo Varadkar’s small-minded response, in which the Minister for Tourism demeaned Byrne as being popular with “women of a certain age”.
Even if Byrne’s language was inflammatory – most obviously in his remark that the Gathering was a “scam” – Varadkar’s quip was a measure of the Government’s refusal to entertain dissent for this most glorious idea.
Until now the Gathering has been expert at spreading its wealth across media outlets, not quite buying assent where there might otherwise be suspicion but at the very least planting the seeds of patriotism in everyone’s garden.
To its credit Matt Cooper’s The Last Word avoided becoming little more than an annex of Tourism Ireland’s marketing department, unlike RTÉ, which this week rounded off the six-part Government corporate video that was The Gathering: Homeward Bound. Now that it’s over perhaps RTÉ might broadcast a series that follows celebrities as they head home to discuss the benefits of the Government’s fiscal policy.
Byrne also did everyone a favour by sweeping aside the facade that this is about something other than money. To express otherwise is disingenuous. Sentiment is only used to grease the till.
Even on the Gathering’s website, which appropriates a variety of upbeat videos and articles often unrelated to the project itself, the language can be fairly blunt. To qualify for a community-fund award, for instance, initiatives must “deliver a minimum of 10 incremental overseas visitors per €500 fund awarded to the individual Gathering (where incremental overseas visitors are those additional visitors over and beyond those which would normally visit the county).” That’s the language of headage payments.
The only other capital involved is political. Each event must also “have the capability to promote the event and provide a potential for media coverage”. It’s not good enough to have a Gathering. The glory must be reflected on to the Government.
It is not that grand ideas aren’t unwelcome, or that Ireland shouldn’t be growing our tourism industry through innovative leaps, but the antennae have become rightly sensitive to the bunkum that regularly pours even from well-meaning or profitable schemes: the televised concert for the Notre Dame versus Navy American-football game; the trumped-up tourist tat of the Certificate of Irishness Heritage (yours for €40, unless you want a frame), which was taken up by barely 1,000 of our 70 million-strong diaspora; the €500,000 spent encouraging Londoners to visit here while the greatest sporting event on Earth was in their front garden (unfortunate result: fewer British visitors).
The Gathering has one special ingredient, though: Varadkar’s self-satisfaction, which seeps into everything so that it’s pretty hard to wash it out no matter how much you clean it up. Perhaps that’s why it was particularly satisfying to hear Byrne inject a few hard questions into the Government’s soft-soap language.
But his intervention on the Gathering was more important than that. About €12 million is being spent on this project alone, and it at least allowed some honesty in the discourse around it.
Plus, Byrne’s equally valid criticisms of cultural policy were subsequently backed up by Fiach Mac Conghail of the Abbey Theatre. That’s two of them. That’s a gathering.