Criticising the Gathering
Gabriel Byrne acted appropriately in emphasising the danger of valuing the Irish diaspora only as a source of ready income. His warning that Irish Americans regard next year’s major tourism initiative – The Gathering – as “a scam” may be exaggerated, but it should be taken seriously. As a former “cultural ambassador”, Byrne is well placed to judge the disconnect that exists between many of the Irish abroad and this State.
About half of the Irish diaspora live in the United States but few have any meaningful contact with the home country. Recent emigrants may feel, as Byrne said, abandoned by Government – and with reason. Ireland is one of the few European countries that denies emigrants even a restricted vote in local and national elections. In situations of forced migration, that represents a double rejection. Some expatriates may resent being asked to help a society that failed them. If the Government wishes to value these citizens and establish a creative relationship with them, it could begin by extending the franchise.
The Gathering makes no secret of its objective to increase the number of people visiting Ireland next year and, as a consequence, to generate wealth and employment. The idea of tapping into the tourism potential offered by millions of people with Irish roots emerged from an economic forum held in Dublin three years ago.
The project has been designed by Fáilte Ireland and funded by Government. Its success will depend, however, on the voluntary engagement of individuals and local groups. The idea is that personal invitations will be issued to far-flung friends and family members and that a greatly expanded number of social and cultural events will ensure they have a good time when they arrive.
Clan reunions, festivals and various other events are being planned at local level to complement major national celebrations. A series of videos have been made for television and posted on YouTube to encourage participation. Just how comfortable Irish people will be in inviting friends and distant relatives to visit as part of such a promotional campaign is uncertain, as is the willingness of expats to attend. That said, a great many wish to return and see it as helping Ireland at a time of difficulty.
The project should be supported. In a market that is already recovering, success is likely to be measured in growth of single percentage points. Some 6.4 million tourists visited last year and about 13 per cent of those came from the US. Twice that number came from Britain, which remains our most important market. Both are being targeted.
The Gathering is not just about inviting people to come here, enjoy themselves and spend money. It is about creating a sense of community engagement in Ireland’s economic recovery.