Sunday 28 August 2016

Karen Coleman: Maybe I'm naive, Gabriel, but I think diaspora still has a bit of a grá for us

Published 07/11/2012 | 17:00

GABRIEL Byrne's blistering attack on The Gathering 2013 project must have gone down like a lead balloon among those in the Irish tourism industry organising next year's massive Irish diaspora bash. They should all listen back to the compelling Today fm interview to get a sense of Byrne's anger at how Ireland is treating the very people it wants to attract back home next year.

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The erudite actor described The Gathering as a sham when he spoke to Matt Cooper on Monday's 'Last Word' show. He derided the notion of Ireland inviting its emigrants to come back home to help the very ailing economy they had to leave to find work.

His blunt declaration that Irish Americans are fed up of being shaken down 'for a few quid' was another punch to the national pride. So too was the suggestion that they are sick to death of being treated as 'tourists' who should fork out large sums for plane tickets to attend 'egg-and-spoon' races in Ireland.

Byrne's anger was palpable when he slated the Government for 'abandoning' new Irish emigrants struggling to survive abroad. He mentioned one Irish man he had met recently who was living illegally in the US and who could not come home for his father's funeral. The man told Byrne he felt abandoned by Ireland and that it was a country he could not go back to.

It was a fascinating interview and the actor came across as an intelligent, no-nonsense kind of guy who tells it as it is. He raised sobering points about how we view and treat the 70 million people of Irish descent living across the globe, especially the Irish Americans. It made me feel embarrassed to be Irish.

As he rightly said, we used to ridicule the busloads of 'Yanks' who came to Ireland to investigate their ancestral links. We happily took their money with one hand while we used the other to hide our derision at their endeavours to discover their Irish roots.

But I had a hard time accepting his nihilistic view that the bridge between Ireland and its diaspora in the US has been broken and that the Irish Americans are sick and tired of us turning up on their doorsteps looking for money.

Maybe I am being foolishly naive here but I don't think our relations with our American counterparts are as bad as Byrne makes out. If they are, then we really have made a mess of a very crucial asset -- our people abroad, and particularly the millions of Americans who claim Irish descent.

Not every Irish person who travels to the US to generate business and contacts or to raise funds behaves like a grubby gombeen man with his cap out. I know several Irish people who are doing great work generating links with technological, academic and medical institutes, companies and other organisations in the US and they are smart, sophisticated people who are being taken seriously.

These Irish people certainly appreciate the doors of opportunity that continue to remain open to them whenever they visit the US. I came across this generosity myself many times during a visit there this summer. I was astonished at how gracious the Americans were when they discovered I was Irish. I did not get the impression they saw us as a money-grabbing nation of luddites who have no respect for them. But then, I was a tourist and not someone professionally engaged in deepening the ties between Ireland and its American diaspora.

To be fair to Byrne, he seems to have good reason to be cynical about official Irish support for US-Irish initiatives. During the radio interview, he discussed his role as Ireland's cultural ambassador to the US -- a position he stepped down from in 2011.

He said it was a 'tremendous achievement' but that he was 'really disappointed' that the 'hard work' and 'contacts' were dropped. He slammed the Irish Government for not supporting Irish culture and the arts, which he said they 'don't give a toss about'.

I wanted to hear more about why Byrne felt so disillusioned with the Government but unfortunately this riveting interview came to an end. However, the publicity it has since generated gives us an opportunity to dig deeper into that story and to explore our relationship with our diaspora and the way we treat them.

They are precious assets who need to be nurtured and respected, whether they are wealthy Irish Americans or invisible emigrants struggling on the margins of foreign lands.

Irish Independent

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