Gathering supporters reject criticisms

Tue, Nov 6, 2012, 00:00

A claim by former cultural ambassador Gabriel Byrne that the Gathering project is a “scam” was rejected by organisers today. 

Byrne criticised the Government’s flagship tourism programme which aims to bring 325,000 visitors to Ireland next year, saying it amounted to a “shakedown” of the Irish diaspora. Byrne also said Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s speech launching it recently had not gone down well in Irish-America.

Speaking on Today FM’s The Last Word with Matt Cooper yesterday, Byrne said Irish-Americans were seen only as tourists to be milked for a “few quid”, and most Irish people did not understand the spiritual connection the diaspora felt with Ireland.

"Most people don’t give a shit about the diaspora except to shake them down for a few quid. I remember when I was growing up in Dublin, those buses would pull up and those people in Burberry coats would be laughed at because they'd say 'Here come the Yanks looking for their roots'."

This morning, Mr Kenny said the Gathering is "a very credible, national proposal for 2013 for Irish people and for those who want to be associated with Ireland to come back some time during 2013.”

Project director Jim Miley this morning denied the plan was a shakedown, and said while Byrne was “a man we all know and love, and he has his opinions - they are one man’s opinions”.

Mr Miley cited the example of the Navy versus Notre Dame game at the Aviva stadium in Dublin, attended by about 35,000 people – mostly Americas. “The one thing you couldn’t find in [that] city that week or weekend was an ounce of cynicism or an ounce of people feeling that they were ripped off.”

Mr Miley said he hoped Byrne’s comments would not start a backlash against the project and noted Irish people have a great history of being “reasonably" cynical.

“I would hope it doesn’t [start a backlash]. The indications we are getting on social media and elsewhere are pretty positive,” he told RTÉ's Morning Ireland. Mr Miley said it would be a mistake to “paint the diaspora as one [cohesive] unit of 70 million-plus people”.

“First generation Irish who left in the last couple of years are very different to the people who went to Argentina in the in the mid-1800s and who are seventh or eighth generation [Irish],” Mr Miley said. 

Mr Miley said the purpose of the project was to get the country to think about its emigrants and create a new template for interacting with them.

This evening Tourism Minister Leo Varadkar said “the response to the Gathering has been really great in America" and added “a huge amount of work is being done really to connect with the Irish overseas.”

He described Byrne as “popular with women of a certain age group” and said “it’s easy to knock things… but what we’re trying to do here with the Gathering is something really good.”

The founder of the US-based Irish Voice newspaper Niall O'Dowd also defended the initiative. He said Byrne had been unfair to the Gathering and insisted the connection between Ireland and its diaspora was strong.

“I was at the Notre Dame game in Dublin [when] 25,000 Notre Dame fans travelled to Ireland and got an overwhelming welcome from Irish people throughout the island,” he said. “Sure, there may have been cynics about the whole enterprise, but the genuine welcome went very deep with the Notre Dame fans.

“What I think the Gathering is doing is properly locating where people belong in Ireland.” He described the initiative as “genuine, not shamrocks and shillelaghs,” and said it goes into communities and shows genuine interest.

He admitted “there are people, and some politicians, who see the diaspora as a kind of money grubbing enterprise,” but added, “after 30 years in America” the gathering seemed like one of the most genuine Irish initiatives.

Mr O’Dowd said he disagreed with Byrne’s frustration over his role as Ireland’s cultural ambassador. Byrne stepped down from the position after two years and yesterday told Today FM he was “really disappointed the way all those contacts, all that hard work was just dropped and it really made me disillusioned and disappointed with this Government who go on about their love for culture, for arts and actually really don’t give a toss about it."

Mr O’Dowd said: “Byrne served as cultural ambassador for two years and did his damnedest to expand the cultural footprint of Ireland over here. Then the Irish Government abruptly pulled the funding, ending the experiment long before it should have.”

Sean Moriarty, a journalist with the Irish World community newspaper in London, said he agreed with Byrne and called the Gathering “a gesture”. He said his personal opinion is “what about 2014, what about 2015, and what about 2016… if you want to do something for emigrants all over the world, do something about the rising costs of flights, do something about the timing of flights.”

He added that it will probably be positive for Ireland, but will offer little for Irish emigrants who make regular trips home.

The Gathering received support yesterday from television and radio presenter Terry Wogan.

When asked on BBC Radio 4 whether the event was a "tourism wheeze", Wogan said: "Of course it is. It is an attempt to bring more people to Ireland to spend their money and enjoy themselves. The one thing that we can guarantee is that they will. The kind of welcome they will get will be like no other."

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