Irish president Michael D Higgins has defended actor Gabriel Byrne, who received criticism for his controversial remarks about The Gathering. Earlier this month, Byrne called The Gathering a "scam."

The president called the film star a "magnificent Irish person" who wants the tourism initiative to have a deeper connection to the diaspora.

“I looked at the full transcript of what he said, and what Gabriel was saying was that he wishes very much The Gathering to be a success but he wants it to have depth,” he said.

Speaking during a three-day trip to Liverpool and Manchester, Higgins called Byrne a personal friend.

“I do hope as well that the reaction to what Gabriel has said is that people are fair to Gabriel,” said the president.

“Gabriel Byrne is a magnificent Irish person who has worked for Ireland and worked beyond his own self.

“He is a star but beyond all of that I remember so clearly all he has done as cultural ambassador and how much he has done for Irish film and continues to do so.

“He’s actually making a film in Ireland at the moment and it has brought investment to Ireland.

“My own view about it is that The Gathering is a great opportunity for those who have been planning to come to Ireland. If they come in 2013 they will see a very special effort being made, not only in upgrading all of the festivals but with new celebratory aspects of Irish heritage available to them,” he said.