We're not alone in hosting a global homecoming
The Gathering is inspired by similar schemes in Israel, Scotland and India. Have they worked there?
The idea for the Gathering dates back to October 2011 and the Global Irish Economic Forum, a two-day brainstorming session in Dublin Castle at which delegates considered the country’s economic revival.
The “festival of festivals” for the diaspora is an ambitious concept – and, following Gabriel Byrne’s comments this week, a controversial one – but it’s not unprecedented. A number of countries have reached out to their diasporas through initiatives designed to encourage tourism and foster international connections.
India hosts Non-Resident Indian Day, and tens of thousands of young Jews travel to Israel each year as part of the Birthright programme. But the Irish initiative is modelled most closely on the Homecoming, Scotland’s 2009 celebration to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’s birth.
Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, said at the time: “The year of Homecoming is about reuniting Scots and friends of Scotland . . . allowing them to share the pleasure and pride of our culture and heritage.” The programme revolved around five main themes: whisky, golf, great Scottish minds and innovations, Burns himself, and the country’s culture and heritage. The Scottish diaspora is estimated to number 50 million people.
Plans to repeat the Homecoming in 2014 indicate, to some degree, its success. Barbara Clark from VisitScotland, one of the organisers, says the festival generated an additional £53.7 million (€67.3 million) in tourism revenue and attracted more than 95,000 visitors from an initial core budget of £5.5 million (€7 million).
With a core budget of €5 million, Tourism Ireland hopes the Irish festival will attract 325,000 extra visitors and bring in about €200 million.
Clark says the Scots “learned a lot in terms of working with our diaspora”, and certain aspects will not be repeated in 2014, in particular a two-day Edinburgh-based centrepiece event, incidentally called the Gathering, which the Scotsman newspaper described as a “fiasco”.
Rather than stage a similar extravaganza, Ireland’s Gathering will instead attempt to group various existing festivals and events under the one banner.
But some are unconvinced that Gathering 2013 amounts to anything more than a gimmick. Earlier this week the actor Gabriel Byrne, Ireland’s former cultural ambassador, dismissed the initiative as a “scam” that amounted to a “shakedown” of the Irish diaspora.The project’s director Jim Miley, however, rejected the claims, saying the festival was aimed at a bigger target group than first-generation Irish exiles. “There is a vast diaspora of 70 million people, with connections with Ireland that are very complex. We have not reached out to them in the past.”