|Illustration by Caty Bartholomew|
Here's a bit of advice similar to what the actor Gabriel Byrne recently said in relation to the much hyped Gathering project due to kick off in Dublin on New Year's Eve and run forever afterwards.
I want to approach the subject laterally, if I may, and that means going all the way back to my teenage years, my very first pair of jeans and very first tenting holiday without the family and with my best friend, a teenage apprentice barber who could play the guitar middling well and drink pints much better. We had a mighty few days until our cash ran out in Ballyvaughan near Black Head one Wednesday. Only two shillings left between us! So we did what thousands did over the years back then and went busking at the Cliffs of Moher.
The fabled Cliffs were a truly elemental sight back then. There were flocks of tourists arriving every hour, almost no facilities to cater for them, no car parks or cafes or anything like that, but the sheer majestic stark beauty was compulsive.
And there were always buskers like us and a few stray characters selling trinkets and ash plants and things like that. We began busking near the bare cliff edge, our backs against the big flagstones, and we had a great day altogether. A spontaneous thing.
He strummed the guitar and I sang ballads like "Clare's Dragoons" and "Matt Hyland" and "Will You Come to the Bower," and we collected more cash in four or five hours than we'd had in our pockets when leaving home.
I only busked once more in my lifetime as a journalistic exercise in Athenry, but the episode at the Cliffs was uniquely memorable ever afterwards. It happened out of the blue, out of our needy youth, and it was beautiful.
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You could not repeat that today because today all the activities around the beauty spot are bureaucratically organized to the hilt. There is an expensive car park. There is an expensive visitor center. And, believe it or not, all the few musicians in action on the site are licensed operators who have undergone an examination of their skills.
It is becoming harder and harder to get a glimpse of the Cliffs at all with all the workings of bureaucracy now laden on top of them. That's a little bit hyperbolic, but not that much.
What has been done was necessary, I suppose, to serve today's tourism demands, but sadly a lot has been lost forever.
And that element is the alchemic thing, especially in the West of Ireland. When a government and its tourism agencies launch a marketing drive at the 70 million strong diaspora market across the world, but especially in the U.S. and Britain, and fund it generously, and deploy all the promotion devices, then the very heart and spontaneous soul and spirit of the Real Ireland...the Hidden Ireland...could get lost right from the beginning.
The Gathering is a drive to attract more international tourists and their spending power at a time when we need every penny we can raise. The Gathering, attempting to spread its media umbrella over about all our festivals (that will occur anyway!) will actually have the effect of making the real Ireland harder to discover.
Especially in the West from which so many of our lost generations have had to flee, right up to this very day, because of the failures of successive governments down all the years. There is a cruel irony here.
Government Minister Michael Ring sharply criticized Byrne's remarks calling The Gathering a scam. Ring called Byrne "unpatriotic." I strongly disagree.
Ring, from Mayo, who will never serve as a cultural ambassador himself for sure, is a member of the body politic which has never treated the citizens of the diaspora with any kind of respect or affection. Ireland is almost unique in the developed world in not allowing overseas citizens the right to vote in their beloved homeland, for example. That is a scandal.
The naked message now, as Byrne properly pointed out, is "come home to Ireland, come back for a Gathering and spend, spend, spend."
I got a couple of postcards (free!) from The Gathering organizers yesterday. I'm supposed to send them to family and friends overseas inviting them to partake of The Gathering next year.
When the state and its bureaucracy organize something like The Gathering mistakes are always made. Take our world-famed Irish music for example. It was always the folk music of the plain people. That's important.
In small country pubs the men who played the cheap fiddles and old timber flutes played them with broken, toilworn hands that looked a decade older than their owners. They were sometimes gifted and sometimes only adequate, but always the music expressed their real soul, real dreams and hopes, their deep-rooted love of their own place and, indeed, those who'd had to leave it behind of necessity.
And then, out of nowhere, the change of mood that shakes the foundations of the house with wild craic. The musicians of The Gathering will invariably be the nimble-fingered professionals of the modern era. They will have all the skills, they will hit all the notes on their expensive instruments, they will even "Yip" at the right point of the reel, but they will never reveal the true soul of the real Ireland I (and you?) so dearly love.
All of you are always welcome home of course, and you know that, but the reality is that any of you who visit in 2013 will have to work harder to find that genuine genetic thing that makes us different from the
rest of the world.
I'm not quite able to articulate the totality of my point of view that agrees with Byrne, but I have done my best.