DUBLIN - Ireland, its scenery, its music, its hospitality… who has never dreamed of having a couple of drops of Irish blood in their veins?
That’s the idea behind “The Gathering.” In 2013, Ireland is calling on “all the Flynns, O’Malleys and Schweitzenburgs to come back home (…) no matter when their families left.” The event will kick off on December 31 with a concert in Dublin. Eamon Gilmore, the country’s deputy Prime Minister has made it clear that "the Gathering is also open to all those who love or are interested in Ireland."
Five million euros were invested in the project, including 1.5 million for advertising campaigns abroad. About 325,000 extra visitors are expected and 180 million euros in profits. As a comparison, and in the absence of statistics on tourism, about 800,000 Americans and 300,000 Germans make the trip during good years. Barry Hargreaves, a Texas resident, has decided to go to Ireland for the first time this summer. "My mother was a Murphy and all my ancestors are Anglo-Saxons. The Gathering is a great opportunity to discover Ireland."
Ceili tournaments (the traditional Irish dance), music festivals, a new show by the creators of Riverdance written by Joseph O’Connor, or even a reunion of bearded men in Ballymoe, in Galway. There will be "thousands of ways to get in touch with your Irish roots. Organize a golf trip, a family reunion or a corporate event. Prepare to bring all the members of your clan to Ireland next year": that’s what Ireland’s Transport, Tourism and Sport Ministry is proposing.
Clans are traditional kinship groups organized by name and heritage that made up the country before the 17th century and that met up during “gatherings.” Among those clans were the O’Neills, warriors that protected their land. Though they lost their power when the British took control of the island, clans have become popular again in the past decades along with renewed interest for Gaelic and the country’s history.
In May, 400 members of the O’Neill clan will gather in Armagh County in Northern Ireland. "The trip is supported by local authorities in a region that has suffered from recent conflicts," says Eoin O’Neill, a professor and member of the executive committee of the O’Neill clan association. "Foreign O’Neills want to see historical sites, take DNA tests, learn about their genealogy. These gatherings are also a way of meeting interesting people. One of my daughters is called Maire O’Neill. Well I met a Maura O’Neill who is a professor at Berkeley and works with Hillary Clinton!"
“Shaking down” the diaspora
The advertising campaign has been strong in Ireland, in the press and on social media, but also in the U.S., where about 35 million Americans claim to have Irish roots. A few weeks ago, Gabriel Byrne, a famous actor and a former Irish cultural ambassador to the U.S. where he’s been living for years sparked a controversy by calling the project "a scam." "Most people don’t give a shit about the diaspora [in Ireland] except to shake them down for a few quid," he said.
He isn’t the only one criticizing this call to return home while the country is still struggling with the fallout of the 2008 economic crisis. In October, the unemployment rate was close to 15% and tens of thousands of young graduates have already left the country in search of a job abroad.
Others say the project is too dependent on its volunteers and is just adding its name to existing events. They are also worried that it is serving up a cliché of Ireland. James O’Higgins Norman, a sociologist and the vice-president of Clans of Ireland, says The Gathering and its funding pushed clans to hold their gatherings in 2013 instead of 2012 or 2014. "But there are also those who wanted to create groups and wouldn’t have done it otherwise. We are working with some of them to make sure they give visitors an authentic representation of our heritage rather than third-rate gatherings with shamrocks and Leprechauns."
Despite the criticism, Leo Varadkar, the Irish minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport said he wasn’t "ashamed" of promoting growth. According to Gian Gregori, in charge of Ireland Tourism for Switzerland "more than 2,000 gatherings are planned in 2013 and the numbers keep growing."
In The Irish Times, Una Mullaly wrote: "The Gathering is an alright idea. It seems simple enough; (…) Maybe, even maybe, it might make Irish people realize that we are an important nation with tens of millions of people who want to feel a sense of belonging to this screwed up island."