Tourism initiative a debate Gathering momentum


Right on, Gabriel Byrne! Last week, speaking on Today FM, the veteran actor said what a lot of sensible people are just beginning to think. Arthur’s Day is annoying enough, but – a month and a half before it properly begins – The Gathering is already coming across like a minor irritation. (Gabriel didn’t actually mention Arthur’s Day. Any opportunity is, however, savoured to take another dig at that ghastly event.)

We have no knowledge of the inspiration for this attempt to pick pockets in the Irish quarters of Boston, Brisbane and Birmingham. But it bears a spooky resemblance to the grating Homecoming Scotland jamboree that coated a neighbouring country in nylon Tartan for much of 2009.

Anybody who claimed Scottish heritage was invited to eat shortbread, drink whiskey and enjoy special one-off events such as, erm, the Edinburgh Festival, the Open Championship and Burns Night. Stop for a snooze in Princes Street Gardens and you risked having a Homecoming Scotland sticker plastered to your forehead.

The core of the celebration was a clan meeting in July called – you’re way ahead of me – The Gathering. There were Highland Games. Pipe bands played. Mars Bars weren’t really deep-fried.

Subsequent reports alleged that The Gathering was a financial catastrophe. According to the Scotsman newspaper, “The Scottish Government, which gave The Gathering £280,000 from its own budget and those of EventScotland and Homecoming, was . . . forced to write off a £180,000 loan agreed just weeks before the event.” It eventually emerged that The Gathering had lost close to £600,000.

It is probably safe to assume that the organisers of our own Gathering have learned from their neighbours’ mistakes. The celebration’s sickeningly jolly website – whose “about” page currently features a welly-throwing competition before some mountain or other – proudly states that “At the heart of it, The Gathering Ireland is a people-led project.”

Sounds familiar

That’s to say a great deal of the events will require little extra investment. Indeed, many of the highlighted festivals, meetings and parades would happen anyway. Among the celebrations listed on the website, we find the Dublin Theatre Festival (sounds familiar), the Mullingar St Patrick’s Day Parade (about time they had one of these) and the Corona Cork Film Festival (hasn’t this been going since 1956?).

Visitors to The Gathering’s digital home are invited to fill in a form and create their own “gathering”. If you have always wanted to stuff your house with freeloading relatives from some North American ghetto then the time has finally come.

So, what’s the problem? If The Gathering can avoid the financial losses accrued by its Caledonian forerunner then there’s no reason to complain. Right? A few more tourists – most of whom can be avoided by remaining indoors – will make their way here for boxty lunches, facial intimacy with a boulder on the outskirts of Cork and, if they’re very lucky, great deals of both (shudder) craic and (deeper shudder) gas.

A little harsh

In his splendid rant, Gabriel Byrne described the initiative as “a scam”. This is a little harsh. Nobody is hoodwinking tourists into attending. The option of not hosting a welly-throwing competition remains open to all citizens. But the enterprise is infuriatingly vague in its intentions and queasily perky in its language. The emphasis is on inviting people of Irish descent back to the land of their forefathers. But that sounds just a little exclusive, does it not? In an effort to extend the welcome beyond the immediate diaspora, The Gathering issued posters, each featuring some foreigner in national dress, emblazoned with the legend “This time they’re invited”.

It is, of course, quite correct that we offer as warm a hand to – referencing one of the posters – glamorous lady Vikings as we offer to red-haired Ryans from Milwaukee. But the central concept then begins to look dangerously flabby. What is there to distinguish The Gathering from any previous tourism initiative? We are luring home the wandering doves. But we’ll happily flog a hotel room to anybody else who applies.

“The Gathering Ireland invites anyone who has a link to Ireland or just a love of the country, to come to Ireland for a series of events throughout 2013,” the promotional material raves. Some little exclusiveness still remains. Why are we extending the welcome merely to those who have “a love of the country”? I will be honest. What really bugs me about such initiatives – and here we get back to Arthur’s Day – is the relentless propagandising for the supposed delights of “joining in”. As a pathologically joyless person who attends gatherings only at gunpoint, I would greatly resent the implication that any holiday I booked in 2013 was associated with a wider initiative organised by corporate scoutmasters.

Get used to such griping. The debate has only begun.

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