The Gathering Storm


Following Gabriel Byrne’s dispute over the authenticity and value of The Gathering, Aaron Barry examines whether the event truly engages with the Irish diaspora

The Gathering Ireland 2013, a year long event aimed at celebrating Irishness and connecting the diaspora with their Celtic roots, was brought into disrepute last week when Gabriel Byrne labelled the initiative “a scam”. As a former cultural ambassador of Ireland to the US, the respected actor can speak with some authority on the subject. Byrne argues that we are exploiting the already-neglected diaspora only for economic gain. But can we not treat our diaspora well, respect them and also gain tourism revenue? Why should these things be mutually exclusive?

Speaking on TodayFM, Byrne explained his disillusion with this government after a cut in funding led to his acrimonious exit from his role as cultural ambassador. He also took issue with the fact that they are asking our emigrants to come back home to help the very ailing economy that they were forced to leave in order to find work. There is little doubt that this initiative demotes our estranged fellow Irishmen to mere tourists who we are to “shake down for a few quid”, rather than an attempt to understand and strengthen the spiritual connection between the diaspora and the island.

This relationship with the diaspora has been neglected by a society where emigration has been so prevalent for over 160 years. So can we call the Gathering a tourism strategy masquerading as an attempt by a government to connect her nation to its children abroad? Another Irish expat Terry Wogan offered his support on BBC Radio 4 when asked if the event was a “tourism wheeze”, Wogan responded: “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”

One area of contention in the debate regarding the Gathering 2013 is its ambiguity. Forming part of Byrne’s rant was the suggestion that Irish-Americans were unhappy to fork out large sums of money for plane tickets to attend ‘egg-and-spoon’ races in Ireland. The Gathering relies on grassroots networks to provide the events to attract an estimated 325,000 of the 70 million people of Irish descent back to Ireland. Fáilte Ireland said it was not an event but a “movement” and that it was up to everyone in Ireland to “do their bit”. Surely this will lead to inconsistencies in both funding and the quality of the events which are hoped to bring home the diaspora.

Sean Moriarty, a journalist with the Irish World community newspaper in London, takes issue with this structure, stating that it does little for those emigrants wanting to return home on a regular basis and, therefore, will not much strengthen the relationship between the nation and its emigrants: “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”. This further intensifies the widely held belief held by critics of the Gathering that it simply does not work for, or even respect, the diaspora which it is designed to attract.

Project Director Jim Miley’s conviction that the Gathering respects the diaspora has remained strong, utilising the example of the Notre Dame versus Navy game at the Aviva Stadium, attended by about 35,000 people, mostly Americans. “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.” Another steadfast defender of the Gathering is the founder of the US-based Irish Voice newspaper, Niall O’Dowd, who described the initiative as “genuine, not shamrocks and shillelaghs”, whilst also insisting that the connection between Ireland as its emigrants is very strong.

O’Dowd defended the much-disputed motivations for the conception of the Gathering, conceding that “there are people, and some politicians, who see the diaspora as a kind of money grubbing enterprise,” before adding that after 30 years at the forefront of the Irish-America connection, the Gathering was one of the more genuine initiatives he had come across. Miley also presented the motivations for the Gathering as more than economic, as the purpose of the project was to get the nation thinking of its emigrants and to create a new template for interacting with them.

Question marks have also been raised over the competence of the Gathering’s organisers, after it emerged that they co-funded a visit to New York by the Today FM Last Word programme, the same show on which Gabriel Byrne branded the initiative a “sham”. This scoff-inducing news should further erode the public’s confidence in the initiative. As part of the initiative, schoolchildren are being encouraged to send postcards to relatives abroad inviting them to visit, and every home in Ireland will be sent an information leaflet encouraging them to take part. Perhaps this ongoing debate can only harm the Gathering as an initiative which relies so heavily on public support, which is now clearly divided.

So it will be fascinating to see where it goes from here. Can the Gathering operate at the intersection where it can boost tourism whilst creating a palpable connection between the island and its lost children? Perhaps it is how the Gathering unites these motivations which will determine its success.