Gathering momentum: forget the shakedown, here's the breakdown
GENERATION EMIGRATION:Despite Gabriel Byrne’s scathing attack last year, attitudes about the Gathering appear to have softened, and many people are now planning mini-gatherings here
As PR headaches go, the one that befell the organisers of the Gathering, when Gabriel Byrne lambasted the initiative as a “scam” and a “shakedown” of the Irish diaspora last November, was a sudden migraine.
With less than two months to go until the beginning of the year-long celebration of Irish culture, designed to encourage people with Irish connections to visit and spend in the country during 2013, Ireland’s former cultural ambassador in the US said emigrants were unlikely to respond to such an invitation, as they felt abandoned by the Government, and Irish-Americans were not receptive to being “shaken down” for money either.
The reaction to his remarks, particularly online, was explosive. The tourism initiative, which had attracted little if any controversy since its launch six months previously, became a scapegoat.
Those who expressed most criticism of the initiative on social media sites and comment threads were not the second- or third-generation Irish whom Byrne insisted were being “shaken down”, but Irish emigrants who had left Ireland in search of better opportunities over the past few decades.
Some complained that the Government had previously failed to reach out in any meaningful way to the Irish abroad other than this attempt to reap a financial reward from them. Recent emigrants expressed anger, as one reader who left a comment on irishtimes.comput it, at being “forced out of the country by a bunch of inept politicians, who . . . want us to come home and spend our money to help subsidise the salaries and pensions of our glorious elite”.
But all this negative publicity shone an international spotlight on the Gathering, bringing the initiative to the attention of many of the Irish abroad who had been unaware of or uninterested in the concept of the Gathering up to that point.
As more details emerged about individual Gathering events, which officially began with a concert at College Green on New Year’s Eve, attitudes appear to have softened, and many first-generation Irish living abroad have signed up to take part or organise “gatherings” of their own.
Gathering project director Jim Miley believes there has been a renewed emphasis on the importance of community and family since the demise of the Celtic Tiger, of which emigrants are all too well aware. He hopes the fact that so many Gathering events are being organised at a local level will appeal to recent emigrants and give them “an extra-special reason to visit home in 2013”.
“Recent emigrants may not have the capacity to return, their focus may be on carving out a new life for themselves in a new country, and that is a fact that everyone recognises,” he says.
“But as the numbers coming through the airports over Christmas showed, many do have the opportunity to come back, and the extra events organised this year could add a different dimension to their visit. The welcome is as warm for them as for anyone else.”
Miley says the emphasis should be shifted away from the financial aspects of the initiative towards the lasting impact it will have on Ireland’s tourism reputation overseas, as well as the enhanced experience on offer to visitors this year.