Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Gathering momentum: forget the shakedown, here’s the breakdown

Despite Gabriel Byrne’s scathing attack last year, attitudes about the Gathering appear to have softened, and many people are now planning mini-gatherings here, writes Ciara Kenny

The Gathering Ireland 2013 gets underway on New Year's Eve in Dublin. photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Fri, Jan 11, 2013, 05:19


Despite Gabriel Byrne’s scathing attack last year, attitudes about the Gathering appear to have softened, and many people are now planning mini-gatherings here, writes Ciara Kenny

The Gathering Ireland 2013 gets underway on New Year's Eve in Dublin. photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

As PR headaches go, the one that befell the organisers of the Gathering, when Gabriel Byrne lambasted the initiative as a “scam” and a “shakedown” of the Irish diaspora last November, was a sudden migraine.

With less than two months to go until the beginning of the year-long celebration of Irish culture, designed to encourage people with Irish connections to visit and spend in the country during 2013, Ireland’s former cultural ambassador in the US said emigrants were unlikely to respond to such an invitation, as they felt abandoned by the Government, and Irish-Americans were not receptive to being “shaken down” for money either.

The reaction to his remarks, particularly online, was explosive. The tourism initiative, which had attracted little if any controversy since its launch six months previously, became a scapegoat.

Those who expressed most criticism of the initiative on social media sites and comment threads were not the second- or third-generation Irish whom Byrne insisted were being “shaken down”, but Irish emigrants who had left Ireland in search of better opportunities over the past few decades.

Some complained that the Government had previously failed to reach out in any meaningful way to the Irish abroad other than this attempt to reap a financial reward from them. Recent emigrants expressed anger, as one reader who left a comment on put it, at being “forced out of the country by a bunch of inept politicians, who . . . want us to come home and spend our money to help subsidise the salaries and pensions of our glorious elite”.

But all this negative publicity shone an international spotlight on the Gathering, bringing the initiative to the attention of many of the Irish abroad who had been unaware of or uninterested in the concept of the Gathering up to that point.

As more details emerged about individual Gathering events, which officially began with a concert at College Green on New Year’s Eve, attitudes appear to have softened, and many first-generation Irish living abroad have signed up to take part or organise “gatherings” of their own.

Gathering project director Jim Miley believes there has been a renewed emphasis on the importance of community and family since the demise of the Celtic Tiger, of which emigrants are all too well aware. He hopes the fact that so many Gathering events are being organised at a local level will appeal to recent emigrants and give them “an extra-special reason to visit home in 2013”.

“Recent emigrants may not have the capacity to return, their focus may be on carving out a new life for themselves in a new country, and that is a fact that everyone recognises,” he says.

“But as the numbers coming through the airports over Christmas showed, many do have the opportunity to come back, and the extra events organised this year could add a different dimension to their visit. The welcome is as warm for them as for anyone else.”

Miley says the emphasis should be shifted away from the financial aspects of the initiative towards the lasting impact it will have on Ireland’s tourism reputation overseas, as well as the enhanced experience on offer to visitors this year.

“Our call to action is to tell people to come home because there’s an opportunity for them to have a good time and reconnect with family and friends, or to visit if they have never been here before. The economic benefits are ultimately what results from that.”

Mini gatherings

Cairin Conway is coming home from Melbourne to celebrate her 30th birthday

More than 2,500 “gatherings” have been pledged on the event’s website so far, ranging from small family reunions to large charity fundraisers, such as the Irish Redhead Convention, or corporate conferences, such as the Silicon Valley Comes to Ireland gathering of executives, entrepreneurs and investors in Cork later this month.

More events are being added to the list every week. While about one-third are existing annual festivals, such as the Temple Bar Trad Fest or Cork Jazz Festival, which have added a “Gathering strand” to attract more visitors, the remainder have been specially conceived for the Gathering.

Sporting events are likely to hold particular appeal for younger emigrants, who may have recently played for some of the many local GAA, rugby and soccer teams hosting gatherings.

Brian Elliott, who is organising a reunion for Terenure College Rugby Football Club, is hoping many of the younger players who have emigrated in search of work in recent times will come back to meet their former team members, as well as older club members who played for teams as far back as the 1960s.

Hundreds of younger emigrants who now play for GAA teams abroad are expected to return to take part in the three international football, ladies football and camogie tournaments in Croke Park in July, and the international hurling tournament, which will take place in Galway in September.

Other recent emigrants have been prompted by the Gathering idea to organise school, college or friend reunions of their own. Cairin Conway is a communications adviser for the Cancer Council in Victoria and has been living in Melbourne for five years. She has invited friends and family from all over the world to join her to celebrate her 30th birthday in Dublin in March.

“Often, trips home are a bit of a whirlwind and it’s hard to find time to see everyone,” she says. “But having a gathering means I will catch up with friends I might not otherwise get to see. Now something special is planned, friends who live abroad [in the UK, Belgium and New York] will also be coming home to join.”

Family reunion

Áine Ní Bhreasail will join extended family for a 'clan reunion' in Galway

Áine Ní­ Bhreasail, a 25-year-old climate change PhD student who has lived in the UK since 2009, will be travelling back to Galway in June for a family reunion organised by a cousin of her father’s, Neasa Lawless, who now lives in Dubai.

Inspired by the launch of the Gathering initiative last year, Lawless set up a Facebook group to reach out to family members who have scattered to Cambridge, Essex, Boston and Seattle to see if they would be interested in taking part.

Since then, relatives from all over the world have been posting photos and videos on the page, and about 70 have confirmed they will be travelling to Carraroe, Co Galway for the family “gathering” in June.

“I’m looking forward to catching up with my close cousins as well as meet ones I would never have met before,” says Ní­ Bhreasail. “I’m particularly looking forward to meeting my childhood penpal from Seattle, who I haven’t seen for 10 years. I come home regularly, about every three months, but it’ll be different this time.”

Older emigrants

As Council of State member Sally Mulready explains, the concept of supporting Ireland financially during challenging economic times is not an unfamiliar one for older Irish emigrants, many of whom would send home cash to family during previous recessions.

Mulready moved to London in the 1970s and is now director of the Irish Elder Advice Network. She is bringing four groups of 35 elderly Irish people from around the UK on trips to Dublin to coincide with the Gathering this year.

“The visit is targeted at people who left Ireland in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, particularly those from rural Ireland who never really got to see Dublin,” she says.

“They may have travelled home to visit down through the years but might have gone straight back to where their family were, rather than taking the time to see the historical sights in the capital.”

Hunter-gatherer: Coming home to network

Declan O'Reilly with his daughters

Declan O’Reilly, an online publisher and photojournalist who has been living in Melbourne for 11 years, is bringing his wife and two Australian-born daughters Kalina (11) and Róisín (8) to Ireland for their first ever visit this summer (pictured right).

Since he came across a documentary online about the Gathering a few months ago, the family have been planning their upcoming trip around the various festivals and events taking place while they are here, including the Fleadh Cheoil Chonnacht, the Ennis Street Festival and the Kinsale Arts Festival.

O’Reilly’s wife has Irish ancestry, which they are also hoping to research, but the most important aspect of the visit, O’Reilly says, will be building networks at these events with the arts community in Ireland. The family hope to return to live in Ireland permanently in the coming years, and such networks will be important to them, he says.

“The Gathering has prompted us to investigate all the events that are planned, but also to appreciate the importance and the need for gatherings for those who have emigrated,” O’Reilly says. “I think it is an excellent initiative, and if it helps the local economy as well it can only be a good thing.”

Gathering events

Riverdance Festival, Dublin: Workshops and masterclasses will take place over three days. Date to be confirmed

The Gathering Cruise, Dún Laoghaire, Kinsale and Dingle: A flotilla of 100 yachts will visit from the UK . July 17th to August 1st

GAA International Tournament, Dublin: International football, ladies football and camogie tournaments will take place in Croke Park. July 25th-27th

Cork Jazz Festival: Over 1,000 international music students will descend on Cork for this jazz weekend. October 25th-29th

Meet to Compete, Dublin: Teams from the US, Canada, UK and Europe will compete in 25 basketball, baseball, cricket and soccer tournaments taking place throughout the year.

Wild Geese Network of Irish Scientists, Dublin: A meeting and collaboration of science, technology and engineering professionals. November 13th

Manchester-Mayo Gathering, Mayo: A festival of culture and sport celebrating the connection of Mayo and Levenshulme, home to the UK’s biggest Mayo emigrant community. August 1st – 9th

Gathering of the Clans, south Kerry: Inaugural year of an annual festival . August 24th-31st

See for a full list of events. If you are organising or attending a “gathering”, tell us about it in the comments section below.