4,000 reasons why Gabriel is wrong about The Gathering
Chrissie Russell on how the controversial tourism initiative has been a huge success
In the past two weeks, nearly 300 events have been held across Ireland as part of The Gathering. When it first launched, it was billed as Ireland's biggest ever tourism initiative, a year-long programme of events backed by €5m of government funding intended to generate an extra 325,000 overseas visitors and an additional €170m in revenue.
But has it worked? According to The Gathering project director Jim Miley, not only has it worked, it has surpassed all expectations.
"There are around 4,000 Gathering events taking place, and figures for overseas visitors for the first quarter show numbers are up 7pc," he says.
"If that trend continues, and we believe it will, we'll be delivering on the predicted figures, if not over-delivering."
It's one in the eye for the cynics who started castigating the event almost before the free postcards – for Irish families to reel in relatives from far-flung locations – had hit the doormat.
Famously leading The Gathering grumblings was none other than the country's former cultural ambassador, Gabriel Byrne, below.
"People are sick to death of being asked to help out in what they regard as a scam," he told Today FM last November.
"I wish The Gathering the very best of luck, but they have to understand that the bridge between the diaspora and the people is broken. Most people don't give a sh** about the diaspora, except to shake them down for a few quid."
A survey on St Patrick's Day by Fáilte Ireland found that 18pc of the 140,000 overseas visitors at the St Patrick's Day Festival were attracted by The Gathering.
One in four were from the US, 29pc from Britain, France and Germany and 44pc were from 27 other countries, a marked increase on previous years.
Does the foreign response suggest Byrne was talking rubbish when he said the bridge between Ireland and the diaspora was broken?
"In a word, 'yes'," says Mr Miley. "I think those comments came from a narrow viewpoint, and what the success of visitor numbers shows is how wide and varied the diaspora is. Everyone has different reasons for wanting to be here."
For every major flagship event such as the St Patrick's Day Festival or the Riverdance Festival and record-breaking attempt scheduled for July 21, there are thousands of smaller family/clan gatherings, fishing tournaments and sporting events.
Ballina man Denis Strong organised a Ride Out of 84 Harley Davison enthusiasts, many of whom travelled from Scotland for the event in Mayo.
He says: "There were 72 rooms booked in the Manor Hall and visitors were astounded with the great value for money in the town."
It's these smaller events that look to be having the most positive effect on the hospitality sector, with B&B Ireland reporting bookings up 62pc.
The huge marketing campaign has also reaped rewards, with many companies inspired to hold meetings and seminars in Ireland this year.
Aer Lingus has added an additional 112,000 seats to its transatlantic schedule, and long-haul numbers were up 8.1pc in April versus 2012.
The "begging bowl" charges may have been distasteful, but there's no denying it's bringing in revenue. St Patrick's Day Festival tourism brought in €121m this year compared with the €60m generated by the same event in 2010 when the last comprehensive survey was carried out.
"The €170m figure was a conservative estimate," says Mr Miley. "It was established by assuming that each visitor would spend less than €500, but many, especially business visitors, are spending much more, so we've every reason to believe the end figure will be better than anticipated."