Thursday 27 October 2016

Brendan O'Connor: Shaking Uncle Sam and US cousins for a dig-out

Next year's Gathering is a money-making exercise, so why the outcry after actor Gabriel Byrne called it as it is?

Published 11/11/2012 | 05:00

IT is interesting that when people lined up to attack Gabriel Byrne for his criticism of the Gathering, no one really took issue with his central point. Byrne was slammed for being "negative" mainly, which is of course a major crime these days (because positivity and exuberance did so much for this country, and for the world).

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But you will notice that no one seriously claimed that the Gathering was anything other than a money-making event. Sure they couched it in all kinds of talk about new ways of reaching out to the diaspora and whatnot but they couldn't really credibly say that the primary purpose of the Gathering wasn't, essentially, to shake down the Yanks.

They couldn't flat out deny the shakedown theory, because that is precisely how the Gathering has been presented here since the idea first came up. It was presented as part of a series of original measures to try and help our economic recovery. It was never presented as a way for us all to reach out to the diaspora and make them feel more connected to fill a void in their souls. No, the Gathering was always less about what we could do for the diaspora than what the diaspora could do for us. It was talked of in terms of extra tourist numbers and revenue and jobs and suchlike, not in terms of healing the diaspora's sense of displacement and making them feel welcome here.

Now, there's nothing wrong with that. Commercial ventures are not a sin. It is perfectly legitimate for us to launch a massive tourist initiative aimed at getting people with a connection to Ireland to come home and spend their holidays, and their money, here. We have always relied on the ex-pat and diaspora community to boost our tourist numbers, and indeed they have usually obliged. For many years they came here purely because it was Ireland. We never bothered much with inventing tourist attractions for them. We just felt they should come because we are the Old Country and we are great and we are the crack and isn't it beautiful to drive around the Ring of Kerry in the rain?

As time moved on and we needed to attract a new generation we built the Guinness Storehouse and Tayto Park. And then, in our hour of need, we came up with the Gathering because we essentially do believe, underneath it all, that the diaspora has a duty to come home and help us now that we are in trouble; that the diaspora, to put it in financial terms, is an asset we should be tapping.

It's probably a bit much then to get up on our high horse and get insulted when someone calls us on it and tells it like it is, albeit in his own words. And suddenly then Gabriel Byrne is the cynical one while the Gathering is a beautiful, pure, initiative about reaching out selflessly to the poor old emigrants.

In a way though, you can see why we were all a bit taken aback when Gabriel Byrne pointed out that not every one of the diaspora might feel like giving us a dig out here. We just expect it as our due and we didn't even realise how cynical the Gathering could look to some of the diaspora. The fact is, we are so used to our grabby attitude to the diaspora that we somehow don't even see it for what it is.

Our relationship with the emigrants and the second generationers is a kind of a complex one, but it is essentially one in which we always felt they should give us things. We, in return, make them feel like part of the family. So back in the day, when distant relations would come home, we would, in fairness, feed them and water them and bring them to the old homestead, and the kids would be lined out to sing and dance for them. But all on the understanding that the Yanks would be useful some day; that when the adorable singing and dancing kids grew up there might be a job or a connection or a place to stay for them Stateside. And there's nothing wrong with that either, but let's not pretend it's something it's not.

We have always felt, too, an innate entitlement to stuff and money from the Yanks. Traditionally the deal was they were better off than us so they were expected to help us. And they used to be better off than us. "Emigrants remittances" was always an important part of the calculation of GNP in this country. And then of course there were the clothes, the snazzy gear they would send home -- shiny bomber jackets and jeans the like of which you'd never see here. You always knew anyone who got the clothes in a package from America when I was growing up. Nowadays it's a bit different, but we still expect them to maybe pick us up an iPad because they're so much cheaper there, or stuff from Hollister or whatever. Nowadays it's a bit different too because they don't necessarily have more money than us anymore.

As Byrne pointed out, many members of the diaspora are in the US or elsewhere abroad because there was nothing here for them, and many of them are not exactly part of the one per cent out in the States either. But, as Byrne says, many of them -- emigrants and the broader diaspora -- do feel a deep spiritual connection to this place. Every year, instead of heading to Florida golfing, or up to Lake Tahoe or down to Mexico, loads of our Yanks spend a fortune on flights for them and kids back to rainy Irish summers, to see family and friends and to be among their own. The trek from Oz is even more costly and difficult. But every Christmas the crowd from Oz give up the opportunity to be out golfing and enjoying fine weather to come home here and sit cramped in Mammy's houses looking out at the cold, just to be home. And the broader diaspora clearly does, as Byrne says, find it a very deep and enriching experience to come here and find their roots.

They feel that connection. And do we? Well, they seemed to be feeling it in Moneygall the other night when they couldn't hide their delight at getting four more years out of the Obama racket.

And when the Yanks came home for the first taste of the Gathering, the Notre Dame match, we certainly entertained them.

We put on our best diddley-idle music, sold them pints, delighted at the bit of business around town, and we sniggered up our sleeves a little bit at them as well, as we have always done with the Yanks.

You could call this some form of a spiritual connection, I suppose. But the reality, as Byrne pointed out, is that the diaspora takes its spiritual connection with their homeland much more seriously than we take our connection with them. You see, we take Ireland for granted in a way they can't afford to. And indeed it's one of the reasons we laugh at them -- how they revere and romanticise the old place. And in a way, we have become so cynical and so grabby and so convinced that everyone owes us a living that we didn't even see ourselves how the Gathering might look to some of them, as a way to get them over here and shake them down. The bottom line is that there is no harm in the Gathering. We need tourists and anyone who has ever been to Puck Fair or any of those great events around the country that all the local emigrants time their holidays to come home for, will know that it can work both for the locals fumbling in the greasy till and for the returned diaspora. There is much warmth and merriment and everyone is happy to see each other and the pub does well with the exemption.

But we shouldn't castigate Gabriel Byrne for telling us, in his own words, what the Gathering is all about. Making a few quid. We never denied it. But perhaps we just didn't think to remember that the emigrants and the diaspora have feelings too, and that its not all about us, and that maybe this relationship means more to them than it clearly does to us.

But then, there'd be nothing new in that.

Sunday Independent

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