Back in the late 1990s, Dermot McMahon, a Clare businessman had an idea to put together a book about the county’s emigrants. Called The Scattering, the book tracked 78 emigrants and sent a team of photographers around the globe to snap them in their adopted environment. In 2000, the late President Hillary launched The Scattering at Shannon Airport. It was a fitting and poignant venue, as most had left home from there.
A few of those featured in the book were back for the launch, including Martin Hayes and myself. There was much hand shaking and curious looks from well wishers. There was music, tea and sandwiches and the proceedings were broadcast live on ClareFM. I remember having quiet chat with Martin and we recalled the first time we left SNN and wondered how many more times we would walk under the departures sign. I figured we were the last generation that would leave, emigration was at a standstill and Ireland was doing well…
I was wrong, very wrong. Fast-forward a decade and Ireland had boomed, burst, was on the ropes, reeling from shocking changes. The country was in crisis — financially, politically, spiritually and culturally. The Irish were emigrating again and everyone was broke.
To help the country out of the fix, in July 2009 the government convened The Global Irish Economic Forum at Farmleigh House in Dublin and invited the brightest Irish minds and others who had a Midas touch. It was the brainchild of David McWilliams, enfant terrible of economists and author of a few books on Ireland’s rise to fall. One of the elements that came to the fore most strongly in Farmleigh was the ‘potential for leveraging our cultural identity in support of economic regeneration‘. With this in mind, on March 2, 2010, Taoiseach Brian Cowan appointed Gabriel Byrne as the first Cultural Ambassador for Ireland. Probably Cowan’s most enlightened decision, this was a pro bono job, with expenses and would be for three years.
Byrne was a popular choice at home and abroad, and he set to work immediately. He played a central role in Imagine Ireland, a year of Irish arts in America sponsored by Culture Ireland. He organised several events that explored Irish identity, including a retrospective of Irish films at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and a series of documentaries about Ireland at the Lincoln Center. The Irish government invested €4 million in Imagine Ireland. Byrne did background work as well — he spoke with studios and filmmakers about making films in Ireland, and with Liam Neeson he produced ‘James X’, a play by Mannix Flynn about clerical sexual abuse in Ireland. By this time, Ireland had a change of government and when the new Taoiseach, Enda Kenny had harsh words for the Vatican, Mr. Byrne praised him for his courageous stance.
In June 2011, while Imagine Ireland was making waves in the US, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs announced that Certificate of Irishness would be available to applicants in the autumn. It was estimated that there were 70 million people of Irish heritage scattered all over the globe and the certificate would be a moneymaker. It would be aimed at those whose Irish ancestry went back beyond their grandparents, those Irish who are not eligible for an Irish passport. The new identification would grant them special tourist and travel deals as well as being a concrete acknowledgment of their Irish heritage. FEXCO, a Kerry-based company would provide the certs in association with the Department of Foreign Affairs.
While we were digesting this news, wondering would the idea fly or flop, a bigger announcement was made. At the Global Irish Economic Forum in July 2011, Tourism Minister Leo Varadkar unveiled The Gathering and told us that: “The Gathering will be a year-long program of events, festivals and fun designed to bring record numbers of visitors…an invitation to the world to come and join in Ireland’s renewal.” (Renewal, Leo? Remember what happened to the last New Ireland?)
The Gathering was predicted to generate an extra $399 million for the Irish economy and would cost $5 million. With an 80 to 1 payback, the government was home and dry. Every town and village in Ireland would be asked to participate in the events, aimed primarily at the Irish Diaspora, as well as people with an interest in the country. Fáilte Ireland CEO Shaun Quinn said, “There are a lot of people with Irish connections or a fondness for Ireland who have a vague plan to get here some time — we want to light a fire under them and get them here in 2013.” (Right Shaun, you mean burn them…even before they arrive?)
And so the show was on the road. The Irish Diaspora was the market and Irish-America was the main target. It’s not known if the mandarins in Dublin had any contact with the Irish Cultural Ambassador, Mr. Byrne about the project. As the year wore on, we heard that: ‘The Gathering is the people’s party. It will kick off in spectacular style at the New Year’s Eve Festival in Dublin and will be celebrated through gatherings of the people and Ireland’s major festivals during 2013.’ (WTF? The people’s party? And the country up to its nose in debt? Was this some sort of ‘pack up your troubles and smile, smile, smile’ routine?)
Gabriel Byrne’s resignation as Ireland’s Cultural Ambassador was a surprise. In an interview with The Irish Times on December 11, 2011, he announced that he was stepping down at Christmas. He had been almost two years in the job and said,
“I just don’t have the time between my career and that.”
The Minister for Arts, Jimmy Deenihan said Byrne made “an outstanding contribution to the country” in his role. “His inspirational leadership of Imagine Ireland is helping to restore Ireland’s reputation at a critical time, breaking new ground for the next generation of Irish artists and helping them to find new audiences for their work in the US…The doors he has helped to open for Ireland and Irish artists in America this year offer huge opportunities for the years to come.”
That was the last we heard about Gabriel for a while.
The Gathering preparations went full steam ahead in 2012. Jim Miley, former general secretary of Fine Gael, was appointed as Program Director on a €168,000 salary. An ad agency was commissioned to spread the word and ads began to appear like spring snowdrops in newspapers and magazines that might be picked up by The Diaspora. On the ground, communities were encouraged and cajoled to create events, invite long-lost cousins home from Texas. 2013 would be The Year of The Irish. We were told that the world was coming to Ireland and urged to be a ‘part of it.’ Discover Ireland crooned: “Irish roots. Tall tales. A love of everything about the Emerald Isle, from Molly Malone to fields of green. Whatever the reason, come to our fair land for The Gathering 2013 and you’ll be part of something special.” (Something special? A heat wave?)
The first time I saw The Gathering logo I was reminded of a light show at a Mr. Floppy rave in San Francisco, late 1980’s. I thought the thing was alive and quickly looked away. But it became ubiquitous. The online edition of The Irish Times had several on its home page, same with other publications. Using this retro-techno version of our sacred triple spiral as a branding tool is distasteful at the very least…it may not bode well for The Gathering. Bad vibes from the ancients…
The Gathering campaign was officially launched in the US on September 22, 2012. Táiniste Eamonn Gilmore and Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar came to New York to do the honours and to give out a few Certificates of Irishness. Irish-America was invited back to Ireland for a big hooley. You could come anytime of the year, it didn’t matter because the Irish were up for the craic 24/7. There was no sign of the former Cultural Ambassador at the event. And the bad news about the Certificate of Irishness was kept under wraps. In one year, just over 1,000 of the potential 70 million clients had forked out €40 to have a framed computer generated page on their wall. Did the government get it wrong about the Diaspora? Is the Diaspora smarter than the government thinks?
During the run up to the American Presidential election, TodayFM was broadcasting The Last Word with Matt Cooper live from New York. On November 5th, Gabriel Byrne was a guest on the show and dropped a few bombs. He said The Gathering was ‘a scam’, a ‘shakedown’ of the Irish Diaspora. Talking about his work as Cultural Ambassador, Byrne went on to say the he was “really disappointed the way all those contacts, all that hard work was just dropped and it really made me disillusioned and disappointed with this Government who go on about their love for culture, for arts and actually really don’t give a toss about it.”
The former Cultural Ambassador had gone rogue.
The Government and The Gathering heads and the tourist handlers went nuts. Project director Jim Miley denied the plan was a shakedown, and said while Byrne was “a man we all know and love, and he has his opinions — they are one man’s opinions”. Tourism Minister Leo Varadkar said: “the response to the Gathering has been really great in America” and then described Byrne as “popular with women of a certain age group” (WTF, Leo?) TD Michael Ring called Byrne ‘unpatriotic’. The only politician who came to Gabriel’s defense was President Michael D Higgins. He said Byrne was a “magnificent Irish person” who merely wants the Government’s flagship tourism initiative – which he branded a ‘scam’ – to have a deeper connection to the diaspora. Then somebody leaked Byrne’s expenses to The Irish Times. During his term, Gabe chalked up €15,845 for hotels, flights and chauffeurs. So what? He was doing the digging for free. I know a former county councillor who ran up twice that amount in a year and all he did was go to cattle marts and funerals. The expenses ‘leak’ overshadowed news that the government was pumping another $5 million into the The Gathering.
Byrne’s comments about The Gathering were widely reported. They struck a chord, both with the Irish at home and abroad and people began to wonder about this yearlong celebration. They frowned at the ads. The campaign seemed on the sick side of slick. The photos looked odd. We were being branded. Mad men showing the world what we were not like. This was the ‘Renewal’ that Leo mentioned. Discover Ireland horsing out crap such as “Gather ’round everyone – time to talk about The Gathering. C’mere and we’ll let you in on something. We’re planning something big. BIG big.” (oh Sweet Jesus…)
The Gathering organisers are active in social media and recently a picture of a Gathering ‘trad music session’ went viral among Irish musicians. It was a cheese-smile photo, clearly staged by models and day runners. There was not a genuine musician among them. How they held the instruments showed they were from Central Casting. Although The Gathering has given funding to the Willie Clancy School and other worthwhile events, it has already riled musicians and artists.
A recent thread on Twitter about the year-long celebration brought mostly negative comments —
“Gathering feels like a grubby moneymaking racket. We’re citizens, not commodities.”
“it seems like we’re pimping out our heritage and pimping off the emigrants.” “I don’t like how the politicians are promoting it.”
“the campaign is embarrassing and outdated. This event has no connection to either Ireland or the diaspora.”
“Anybody returning for the gathering is an idiot as it shows they support the morons running this country.”
Being still part of The Scattering, I came home to Ireland for Christmas. The Delta flight from JFK to Dublin was full and almost all were ex-pats. These were part of The Scattering, a much different tribe from those expected to attend the Gathering. Entering the arrivals hall in Dublin I felt a gush of welcome. Hundreds of smiling faces, everyone there to welcome Paddy and Biddy home. A boombox played Fairytale in New York, some sang along and a guy waved a sign that read GODOT. Screams of joy and hugs and kisses, nobody has a welcome for their own like the Irish. If only The Gathering could bottle that, the Yanks would never leave.
When I got home, junk mail about the Gathering was there before me. Every house in Ireland received the same. The photos were frightening — models with horse teeth smiles and the mind altering logo spattered everywhere like bird shit. One piece included two postcards invitations which we were encouraged to mail ‘to a friend or loved one overseas to come and visit Ireland in 2013’. All one had to do was affix a stamp and drop in the mail. The mailer said ‘It’s up to you.’ so I hung it on the wall to bulk up the Christmas cards.
Last night a few of the lads came to my place for a session. It was stormy and wet and I had a good fire blazing. We sat around and played tunes for a while, then drank tea and chatted about gigs and stuff like that. Sneezer frowned at The Gathering card over the hearth and said,
“Every house I’ve been to over the Christmas has these shagging cards on the wall like fugging Post-it Notes.”
“I’ve them on the wall too,” admitted Murphy, “I got no Christmas cards this year. Email has fucked all that up.”
“I can’t think of anyone to send them to,” I said.
“Me neither,” sighed Murphy, “I was half-thinkin’ of sending one to the ex, but she might take it up wrong…”
We were silent for a while and then Sneezer took flight.
“It’s a pity that poor ol’ Hunter Thompson passed away,” he said. “If he were alive, I’d arrange that hundreds of invites were sent to him. Hundreds. You know, do a lil’ fundraiser for the postage. I mean, it’s up to us…and the government want the world to come to Ireland, why not invite Hunter? He loved a good party and was always up for the craic. He’d stay for the whole year,so he would. Hunter’d light plenty fires, drink whiskey, back horses, buy drugs, make loud noises, shoot his AK47 at stop signs, lop a few grenades here and there and frighten the crap out of politicians and civil servants. They’d probably deport him, you know…but he would make The Gathering a memorable one.”
Murphy nodded and said,
“Maybe Hunter would be the only one that showed up. I’m getting worried that nobody is posting these fuckin’ cards to anyone.”
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