Gather ye people: the St Patrick’s Festival invited up to 8,000 people from around the world to march in the Dublin parade. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
As the fireworks go off at the New Year’s Eve Countdown Concert on College Green on Tuesday, there will be some justifiable self-congratulation among the organisers of the Gathering at its ultimate event.
Ireland’s former cultural ambassador Gabriel Byrne lambasted the tourism initiative last November as a “scam” and a “shakedown” of the Irish diaspora, while many people had written off the year-long celebration before it had even begun.
As the year draws to a close, though, there are clear indications of the success of the Gathering.
The year saw the head of the CIA, John Brennan, turn up in Co Roscommon with his 93-year-old father for a gathering of people from Kilteevan, and the capital was shaken when Jean Butler led 1,600 Irish dancers from 44 countries in the longest Riverdance line yet across a bouncing Samuel Beckett Bridge.
By the time the ska band Madness ring in 2014 on the College Green stage, almost 5,000 gatherings will have been held, from a “redhead convention” to clan meet-ups and school reunions.
Although domestic tourism has remained fairly flat, overseas tourism figures are up by 7.3 per cent for the first 10 months of the year compared with the same period in 2012. More than 400,000 extra visitors arrived from abroad. The US market has seen the most dramatic increase, up 15 per cent.
It is difficult to ascertain how much of the growth is attributable to the Gathering as opposed to other factors such as improved value in the hospitality sector, a lower VAT rate and increased capacity on airline routes from the US and Canada.
However, initial reports from an independent study estimate that between 250,000 and 275,000 people travelled here from abroad specifically because of the Gathering.
The figure falls short of the 325,000 target set at the beginning of the year, but the amount of money generated by the initiative is expected to be slightly higher than the €170 million originally envisaged. The Government investment was €13 million.
The initiative has been well received by the hospitality sector, with almost two-thirds of the 784 tourism businesses surveyed by Fáilte Ireland in October reporting boosted visitor volumes in 2013. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been a saviour for all, as 118 companies in the hospitality sector became insolvent between January and September this year, up slightly on 2012.
However, the Gathering wasn’t just about money. It encouraged communities to develop their own tourism product, making them custodians of their culture, as well as giving holidaymakers new reasons to visit. It helped to create a sense of pride at grass- roots level. The initiative has also got Ireland thinking about its diaspora.
Since the recession began, there has been a renewed focus on our communities overseas as emigration has soared to the highest levels seen since the late 1980s, but until this year, the “diaspora of 80 million” who claim Irish ancestry still meant very little.
By facilitating and encouraging events organised around a family name, a village, a school or an organisation, the Gathering reminded people of the personal connections we have to members of the global Irish community, even if they are long-lost descendants who have never stepped on Irish soil before.
Among those most critical of the Gathering when it was first mooted were the emigrants themselves, especially those who felt forced to leave the country in recent years.
The We’re Coming Back group of young emigrants, a subsidiary of the recently formed We’re Not Leaving campaign group, have dubbed 2013 “the year of the Scattering” to reflect the exodus of young people.
They say the Government’s efforts to attract the diaspora “home for the Gathering” serves only to highlight their failure to keep people here in the first place. However much of the initial hostility expressed towards the concept softened as the year progressed.
So will we do the Gathering again? The Gathering project team has told The Irish Times that a decision on whether it will be repeated is on hold until the final economic impact report is published, but it has already recommended that it should not be replicated for at least another five years. All eyes will no doubt be on Scotland in 2014, as it hosts the Homecoming Scotland initiative five years after its successful first run.
In the meantime, the Gathering organisers are working with the Department of Transport and Tourism, Fáilte Ireland, Tourism Ireland and local authorities in an effort to build on the legacy of the initiative.
Plans are being made at both community and national level to develop some of the gatherings that took place for the first time this year annual events.
Projects such as Ireland Reaching Out, a network of parish-centred groups of volunteers who seek out descendants from their area and provide a meet-and-greet service for visitors, will continue to welcome the diaspora “home”.
The real challenge for all involved now is to develop a framework to help communities continue their tourism efforts.