An Irishman's Diary
On balance, I think Gabriel Byrne was being oversensitive about the prospect of us shaking down the Diaspora next year. But maybe because I grew up on a farm, I do share some of his unease about The Gathering. Or at least its title.
Yes I’m sure it was only the social aspects of the term the organisers had in mind. Even so, whenever I hear the word “gathering”, I still think of potatoes, and turnips, and sheafs of barley. Implicit in the title, therefore, is a suggestion that our emigrants are a cash crop, ripe for harvesting.
On the other hand, it is a fact that many millions of people born overseas do voluntarily describe themselves as Irish; even though they don’t have to. In the melting pot of America, there must often be a variety of other available ethnic identities in the family closet.
Yet for whatever reasons, the Irish label does seem to be unusually popular. Among other things, perhaps, it lets people know that your family had humble origins, so that any success in the interim was all your own work. And the beauty of the arrangement, for second or subsequent generation emigrants, is that they only have to be Irish when it suits.
Those of us who do it full-time, by contrast, know it can be very hard work. I speak as a (by job definition) professional Irishman, who may feel the strain more than most. But if it were an option, in these grim times, I’m sure we’d all like to take a career break and be something less demanding for a while, like Norwegian.
If Ireland Inc ceased trading, however, our Diaspora would be somewhat bereft. So it’s hardly unfair that they be asked to contribute something to their identity’s ongoing upkeep. Maybe we just need to be more businesslike about it.
There was a term much used at the recent F.ounders conference which I think could be helpful. It refers to a method of raising money for good causes by harnessing social media, so that large numbers of sympathetic people can each pay a little, to great combined effect. This could still be a model for next year, I suggest. Less “Gathering”. More “Crowd-funding”.
If only the Diaspora could all be as generous as Sidney Nolan, whose Ned Kelly exhibition has just opened at Imma. Although several generations removed from Clare and Tipperary, he so treasured the link that late in life he donated six paintings to Ireland (also on display at Imma) and promised to add more every subsequent year before, sadly, he ran out of time.
He also once hoped to build a house in the Burren, whose landscape so inspired him. It would have been no ordinary structure and it too would have gone to the State eventually. But of course, planning was problematical. And for good or ill, it never happened.
In any case, I was reminded this week of the role played in the Nolan donations by an Irish diplomat called Con Howard. Con is no longer with us, as of three years ago. Which is doubly sad, because however you view next year’s harvest of the emigrants, it was the sort of thing at which he would have excelled.
His charm offensive as embassy press attaché in London during the 1970s – not an easy time to be an Irish diplomat in England – remains legendary. And by creating the Merriman Summer School 44 years ago, he set a much-copied precedent without which many Irish academics now wouldn’t know what to do with themselves for large parts of every year.
That in turn led him to organise bicentennial celebrations of both the US and Australia. And it was through the latter event that he tapped into Nolan’s generosity.
I was reminded of Howard’s role by Mary Caulfield, who earlier this year published a collection of essays celebrating his life, written by his multiple admirers, including Seamus Heaney and the late Maeve Binchy. Such a book (it’s available from hotpress.com/hotpressbooks) is yet another thing for which, apparently, only Germans have a word. They call it a festschrift, or – if presented posthumously – gedenkschrift.
Those words’ nearest English relative occurs exclusively in a less generous phrase: “short shrift”. “Shrift” used to mean “confession”, especially one made by a condemned man before execution. As such, it must have been a protracted thing sometimes. But these days, the term only comes in one size. And we better hope that, when the Diaspora is asked to celebrate Ireland next year, short shrift is not what they give us.