After the Gathering . . . What’s next?
Minister for Tourism Leo Varadkar is seeking suggestions for new tourism initiatives. Some entrepreneurs believe living history should be the next big thing
Gathering at the maypole: children re-create happy memories for visitors to the Bayno, or Iveagh Trust play centre in Dublin, where they and thousands of others spent time after school as children between 1913 and the 1970s. Photograph: Alan Betson
Message to the State: “Hands off our Gathering.” While Minister for Tourism Leo Varadkar was saying this week that the Gathering, as successful as it has been, won’t occur again for a few years, Damien Stack in Listowel was already planning 2014’s Gathering II: smaller, perhaps, but building on the seeds planted this year.
“I want my town to survive, and I can’t depend on the Government to do everything,” says Stack, who drew 60 international visitors this summer to help him stage re-enactments of the second World War, with 30 men dressed as German soldiers invading the Co Kerry town and hundreds of spectators snapping up fundraising T-shirts with the slogan “Once you go Stack, you can’t go back.”
Representing six generations of Stacks going back to the 13th century, Stack reckons he already has it figured out. Listening to him, you might well wonder, Who needs Fáilte Ireland at all?
What we’ve learned this year is that you have to use ancestry-related events to give people a reason to come back, according to Stack.
Like Napoleon moving armies, the historian and author Steve Dunford also believes that lessons can be learned from his staging, over four days, of In Humbert’s Footsteps, a series of 18th-century battles at Killala, Co Mayo, where the cannonfire and gunshots still echo.
“Living history should be supported. They could also make it easier to bring in all the antique weapons,” he says. This summer Killala had visitors from Russia, Hong Kong, France, the US and Britain, all immersing themselves in 1798, as soldiers in costume took over the town.
Stack and Dunford define the sort of movement that Alex Connolly of Fáilte Ireland means when he talks about “the incredible amount of social capital” created by the Gathering. “Networks that did not exist 12 months ago will continue to be active,” he says. “The challenge for us now is how to continue on and not squander that social capital. You can’t do the Gathering every year, but you can continue the ethos. The organic nature of communities coming together can be harnessed.”
Some Gathering organisers, off the record, were bemused that the Minister was already in postmortem phase, considering that many Gatherings have yet to take place. These include Galway Oyster Festival, which National Geographic named as one of 10 international “must-do” events this month, and for which bookings are already up 50 per cent.
The Minister put an exhaustive questionnaire on the Department of Tourism website this week, intended to gather intelligence about what we have learned this year about attracting visitors and how we can improve on it. It’s a thorough and complicated document to read, never mind fill in, so how many of those grassroots and organic social capitalists that made the Gathering happen will be able to contribute is debatable.
Connolly muses about what “the next big thing” in boosting visitor numbers will be, likening the challenge to a band’s “difficult second album”. It could be called the Wild Atlantic Way, he suggests. The driving route from Cork to Donegal will be launched soon, directing travellers to points of interest along the route, but will it give the sense of connection to Ireland and its history that many foreign visitors appreciate?