Thursday 23 October 2014

Martina Devlin: We must spread word across the water: it's not a secret Gathering

Published 03/01/2013 | 17:00

Martina Devlin on Merseyside, where she discovered that The Gathering seems to be a well-kept secret

So, here I am starting 2013 with a wander round the Liverpool docks, regenerated as a tourism attraction, where I'm bombarded with information about how this is the most Irish city in Britain.

Excellent, I'm thinking, the locals will be all over The Gathering. Ireland is on their doorstep, couldn't be handier. Dublin to Liverpool is only 134 miles – Cork lies further away from the capital.

The Gathering, as we know, is designed to cajole our overseas children into emptying their piggybanks into the Irish economy, which means the English pound should be just as welcome as the US dollar.

Facts about the close connection between Liverpool and Ireland are drip-fed to holidaymakers wherever we go in the city. During the 19th Century, up to 25pc of Liverpool's population was born in Ireland, and today two-thirds of its citizens lay claim to Irish roots.

Fleeing famine, almost 400,000 Irish men, women and children made their way to the bustling port city by ship between 1846 and 1847 alone; while the majority used it as a halting place before proceeding to north America by other vessels, a large number stayed.

Today, Liverpudlians' characteristically colourful way of expressing themselves and open style of interaction with visitors is a living testament to the Irish influence ingrained in their DNA. The traditional English reserve melts on Merseyside.

As I walk about the city, its suitability to be targeted for The Gathering becomes compelling. It may not be the most affluent place in the world, with unemployment hovering above 8pc (rush-hour traffic rarely hits gridlock here), but short hops across the Irish Sea ought to be manageable for many.

Wherever I go in the city centre, I keep an eye out for posters or leaflets about Ireland's year-long initiative offering a homecoming. Nothing. I question people in museums and other tourist attractions – staff as well as visitors. Nothing. I make inquiries on local train journeys, in coffee shops, and among some of the Irish community. Nothing.

The Gathering does not appear to have penetrated Liverpool's consciousness. And if the message has been missed here, where else might it have fallen on stony ground?

This is nobody's fault but Ireland's – it's our responsibility to extend the invitation, circulate the word, roll-out the welcome mat.

In fact, a rather fitting initiative is planned. Except it seems to be a well-kept secret. Five tall ships are due to sail from Liverpool to Dublin in May, in a modern reversal designed to bring back the descendants of Irish immigrants. The ships will be moored in Dublin's docklands, tapping into a tangible link between Liverpool and Dublin: the sea and the docks.

The scheme is both visually appealing and culturally appropriate – but everyone to whom I mention it here in Liverpool looks blank. And it draws a more definite outline on a suspicion that's been shaping in my mind: when we reference the diaspora, we tend to mean the US – our affluent, occasionally powerful, American emigrants.

UK emigrants were never afforded the same respect. After being forced to take the boat, they were mentally written off at official levels – today, they remain the forgotten Irish.

Not the nation's overseas children, as we define our other emigrants, but Ireland's disregarded children.

Meanwhile, at home The Gathering is building up a reputation as a shakedown – a bid to put the squeeze on anyone of Irish extraction. However, it's an idea that works in principle, provided tourists aren't fleeced.

Clearly, there's a marketing disconnect when even Michael O'Leary, a man not shy about making a profit, calls it 'The Grabbing'. He could sell a lot of airfares if the initiative catches fire, and his criticism ought to be a cause for concern.

Perhaps enticement efforts have concentrated on north America. But I wonder if the UK, to which many of us are linked by close family bonds, has been passed over somewhat. Scotland is another obvious market to zoom in on.

No doubt there are pockets of Liverpool-Irish communities where word has spread. President Higgins has been doing his bit – he spoke about The Gathering during a state visit to north-west England in November, which included events in Liverpool – but the message simply hasn't reached critical mass. Surely it makes sense for the general public to know rather than only special interest groups?

It's difficult, of course, for a small country to blanket-bomb the globe with information about a tourism push. Nevertheless, marketing needs to be accelerated – as a matter of urgency.

The year of The Gathering has begun already, and people's 2013 holiday plans are being made currently. While there's a limit to the number of O'Haras and Ryans who can sail into Dublin on one of five tall ships, no limit exists to how many can book a flight and plan a trip coinciding with a Gathering event. It helps if they know about it in good time, though.

Martina Devlin gives TV presenter Anne Cassin a guided tour of her home town of Omagh on RTE1's Nationwide on Friday at 7pm. www.martinadevlin.com

Follow @DevlinMartina

Irish Independent

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