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

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

Sat, Sep 14, 2013, 01:00

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?

“I don’t think one person mentioned the Gathering,” says Gail Mulcahy, of Moloney & Kelly travel consultants, who brings in the type of visitors who pay €10,000 for “land facilities” while visiting Ireland. “We don’t have an Eiffel Tower or a Colosseum, but the friendliness of the Irish is coming back after the Celtic Tiger,” she says.

“Our mojo is back,” says Eithna Horan, a B&B owner whose visitors tell her that meeting the friendly Irish is their highlight and that, thanks to the recession, more Irish people are in front-of-house roles at restaurants and hotels. An Irish welcome that will keep them coming back is simple, by her definition: “Good home-made food and reliable directions.”

To keep the buzz going in post-Gathering Ireland there must be long-term investment in historical places, says Kate Bell. She is trying to save Hazelwood House, which was designed in 1731 by Richard Cassels, the architect of Leinster House. It was loved by WB Yeats, and a small Gathering took place there this year.

Living history
Sinéad Burke is convinced that bringing history to life is the way forward. All the hotels and B&Bs in Co Meath are booked up this weekend, she says, for the event today, which she first imagined while walking with her children on the Hill of Tara.

“Mommy, it’s just a field,” they said as she tried to describe for them all the magnificence and drama of what once existed there. Now visitors from Canada, Germany and Russia will be arriving to experience the Tara High Kings Festival, where 13 putative descendants from around the world will be competing to be crowned High King in an “elite tournament”. Costumed re-enactors will mingle with visitors at 20 attractions on the hill, with not a chip van or ice-cream van in site.

Burke, a community worker who is also involved with Fingal Historical Society, is convinced that “being transported back in time” is what foreign visitors want, and she is already taking inquiries for next year.

On, Bernd Biege warns visitors not to expect a mythological Ireland. Freckled red-haired colleens accompanied by Celtic warriors on tin whistles are not abundant, but this “saccharine Disneyfied Ireland” he describes is not what Burke and others who want to bring history alive intend to create. But she does want to give visitors just a little of what they want, by re-creating ancient Ireland, even if it’s for the weekend.

Judging by the success of re-enactments during the Gathering, living history might just be that difficult second album.

Fifteen ways to improve Irish tourism

“US visitors want the History Channel experience in Ireland through specific events to plan their trip around. To see a historical battle re-created on Tramore beach enriches the way you see Ireland. To meet members of the Power clan at Dunhill Castle makes it more than a building.”
Deirdre Woodbyrne, New Jersey

“More innovative tours. London’s 1960s gangster history is proving a hit with tourists, with the help of an actor from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Norwich is riding the popularity of Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge film, Alpha
Papa, with a 90-minute guide to the East Anglian city. And Manchester has produced the Tour of Uninteresting Objects to look at: ‘the unregarded things that make a city’.”
Mark Hennessy, Irish Times London Editor

“Promote our home-made, locally sourced food and support small food producers. Linking a B&B like ours with our jams and home-made bakes enhances the visitor experience. The French, in particular, love wandering around food markets: we need more.”
Eithna Horan , Cornerstones B&B , Connemara

“Give us funding to build on the massive success of our four-day re-enactment event, which brought 60 visitors from France, the US, Russia and the UK and was attended by 5,000 Irish people.”
Steve Dunford, historian, author and organiser of In Humbert’s Footsteps,
Killala, Co

“Encourage restaurants and hotels to pass on the VAT decrease and discourage them from upping prices during local events. Make international flights more
affordable, so you don’t have to book a year in advance to get the discount. Help visitors make local connections to give them a reason to come back.”
Damian Stack, organiser of Stack Clan Gathering, Listowel, Co Kerry

“Promote occasional all-night openings and monthly late-night openings of museums, which have proved a huge success with both foreign and native tourists in Rome.”
Paddy Agnew, Irish Times Rome Correspondent

“Make it possible to hire a car around the country, not just at airports.”
Peter Ormond, chairman of Offaly Gathering

“The funding process for local events that attract international visitors is too lengthy. Organisations need more State support, and events need promotion abroad well in advance, to give visitors time to plan.”
Kate Bell, Hazelwood Heritage Society, Co Sligo

“Build another cable car or two. We have the small one at Dursey Island, in west Cork, but at Australia’s Blue Mountains tourists pay $35 for unlimited daily rides on the two cable cars and the railway. Ireland’s not short of scenic mountain ranges, but we could shout about them more.”
Jennifer O’Connell, Irish Times columnist, Australia

“Irish music sessions need to be more plentiful during the day and not always in pubs. Many visitors want to be in bed by 10pm, and many have children.”
Michael McGettrick, traditional musician, Galway

“Hong Kong has a terrific integrated public-transport system that makes getting around very easy, and the Octopus card, a stored-value electronic card, can be used on the subway system, ferries, minibuses and trams, as well as in coffee shops, restaurants, convenience stores and vending machines.”
Clifford Coonan, Irish Times Beijing Correspondent

“Fáilte Ireland should, rather than giving grants to events for advertising, offer PR and marketing, getting articles about next year’s events into the media abroad.”
Tony Robinson, Art in the Open, Wexford

“Ads in the UK focus on Dublin and should be more about Ireland as a rural, family-friendly, comforting and safe destination with activities, walks in the rain and winding lanes.”
Mary McGuffog, Cheshire, England

“Give people a reason to come, like last January’s Tradfest and next year’s Croke Park football game between UCF and Penn State.”
John Healy, Abbey Tours

“Make it easier to navigate Dublin by bus. There’s still no bus-route map, and the app is a Kafkaesque nightmare.”
Derek Scally, Irish Times Berlin Correspondent

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