Beyond the dramatically increased tourism figures into Ireland this year, the real success of the Irish government’s year-long Gathering initiative may yet be measured in the effect it has on the country’s pride in its history, scenery and culture, Gathering chairman Tim O’Connor told the Irish Voice.
O’Connor, the popular former Irish consul general to New York, had the opportunity to watch the initiative grow from an idea to a thrilling reality this year, and has been astounded by how quickly it surpassed his expectations.
Originally planned as a series of events to attract the diaspora to Ireland in 2013 through festivals, sporting occasions and ancestral trails, The Gathering very quickly surpassed its own remit to include a widening celebration of a nation determined to move beyond the financial challenges of recent years.
“We have demonstrated for sure that there is something very powerful in the bond that connects the global Irish family,” O’Connor said while on a visit to New York last week.
“We have brought out in a new way the centrality of the home place, which is Ireland itself. We have to understand how important that is.”
For O’Connor, the beauty of The Gathering is that it has led to a democratization of the diaspora. “It began as a government initiative but it became a people’s project,” he says. “The Irish people took it over and they were the biggest part of its success.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise, he adds. After all, the Irish emigrant journey began in the local communities, parishes, farms and houses of the Irish people. That’s where The Gathering has positioned itself too, right where those journeys start and end.
“We are the home place for 40 million Irish Americans and 70 million global Irish who are either from Ireland or descended from Ireland,” says O’Connor. “Those two communities are part of our wider family. What The Gathering has done is uncovered what was already there and animated it in a new way.”
If this relationship is to progress to a new level the key isn’t with the diaspora but with the Irish in Ireland O’Connor says, because they hold the key to what he calls the home place. They get to decide what the notice on the gate says, whether it says keep out or welcome home.
“The Gathering has been embraced by the people of Ireland themselves, underling definitively that it’s the welcome home sign that is the real sentiment here,” O’Connor said.
But that message is in need of constant renewal, O’Connor adds.
“We have to turn to the diaspora and say we invite you, we welcome you, we’ll host you, tell us your story and we’ll celebrate you. If the home place does that it will be game changing,” he feels.
Already the visitor figures have surpassed initial Gathering projections. There has been a 20 percent increase in visitors from the U.S. to Ireland this year attributed to the initiative. It’s a huge boost to the tourism sector that employs so many Irish people.
“But The Gathering is much wider and deeper than a tourism initiative,” explains O’Connor, who added that personal appeals to first time visitors have been particularly successful.
“One visitor from San Francisco told me that coming to Ireland was always on his bucket list, but he never got around to it until he received The Gathering invitation. That made him say, ‘I’m going,’” says O’Connor.
The most personal dimension to The Gathering is the clan gatherings that were planned amid all the other events taking place. That’s exactly the kind of personal invitation that many find hard to resist.
“The Gathering caught people’s imaginations because it was authentic. From our own point of view in Ireland, as a country recovering from a terrible recession, those who engaged with it enjoyed the communal experience of reconnecting with the community and the reward that comes from that. It pulled them together as part of a bigger effort,” O’Connor says.
Now the Irish government and tourism sector have a responsibility to understand what The Gathering has taught them, he adds.
“It has been a kind of x-ray into the nature of the emigrant journey. The longing to feel part of a communal effort is fundamental. By putting our arms around this initiative in a very sincere way I think we have stumbled onto something very powerful,” O’Connor feels.
There is an authentic relationship between the people of Ireland and the Diaspora, O’Connor concludes. It’s not contrived or fake at all. It’s enduring and heartfelt.
“We should take our time now to decide where we go from here with it. But there is no question that it’s been a success and that it bodes well for our future. As a completely voluntary effort we’re very grateful to everyone involved who made it a success.”