DUBLIN — It was an infectiously festive afternoon in the city. Strolling along the streets of the Northside, Dubliners dashed around for last-minute holiday shopping, all doused in a seasonal mix of merriment and mist. A few streets away at Áras Fáilte, the nerve center of Irish tourism, a different countdown was nigh. The Gathering 2013, Ireland’s greatest ever tourism initiative was about to take flight.
“We’ve been counting down to January 1st for over a year now,’’ said Áine Kavanagh, press officer for the event. “We wanted to create something inspiring — like Homecoming Scotland,’’ she added, referring to the 2009 festival that encouraged people of Scottish ancestry to return to the Highlands.
The resultant Gathering bears an unapologetically simple mission: to welcome the Irish diaspora home for a yearlong cultural celebration while fortifying the nation’s ailing coffers. In theory, it may prove a lucrative formula, with 70 million people worldwide claiming Irish heritage, half of whom are Americans.
But it isn’t just clans who are being invited to Ireland, rather anybody harboring an affinity with the Emerald Isle. “We’re calling all Flynns, O’Malleys, and Schweitzenburgs to visit us,’’ Kavanagh joked.
In the grand run-up, every household in the nation (my own included) has received a blank Gathering postcard, intended as means to invite family, friends, and colleagues, from Cambridge to Canberra, back to Ireland in 2013. Meanwhile an eclectic reel of celebratory events has been mushrooming across the Republic, and although it’s not officially involved, Northern Ireland.
To date, over 2,500 so-called “Gatherings’’ have been confirmed. The Irish Redhead Convention is taking place in Cork, the Hooley in the Heather dance festival is billed for Monaghan, and in Dublin, 1,000 international air traffic controllers are gathering for a soccer league tournament. Yet amid an apparent air of joviality, being Ireland, it was inevitable that cynics would surface.
In October, Gabriel Byrne,
Irish actor and former Irish cultural ambassador to the United States, embarked on an anti-Gathering push on Irish radio, labeling it as “a scam to shakedown the diaspora for money.’’ Many Irish aired their support for Byrne, highlighting their personal preference for meeting mortgage payments over a national call to dust the Belleek and Waterford for an international homecoming.
Last month, however, in the fertile farmland of East Cork, a mellowing mood seemed to be emerging. I traveled to Ballymaloe House, considered the genesis of Ireland’s slow food movement, which is playing host to a Lit Fest of Food and Wine Gathering next May. “We were happy to come on board,’’ said owner Hazel Allen, as we chatted over tea and scones in the manor’s drawing room. “It gives us the opportunity to attract top international food writers, bloggers, and chefs to Ballymaloe while also inviting overseas food lovers to come and visit.’’ The Allens are predicting a four-figure guest list for their festival, while nationwide The Gathering is hoping to lure an added 325,000 visitors to our land of lore.
For now, the number remains unknown. But while naysayers were initially skeptical, with the first planeloads of tourists already touching down in Dublin and Shannon, it may simply prove too difficult for us Irish to ultimately resist the festivities.
Perhaps it’s high time for me to air-mail off some postcards.