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Begorrah! This just might work...

It started as a joke between a redheaded brother and sister. They dreamt up the idea of having a party for redheads in Crosshaven with freckle counting and carrot tossing. Now Joleen and Denis Cronin are set to host one of the biggest redheaded conventions in the world, with 2,000 people coming to the Co Cork village as part of the Gathering.

Ginger tourism has been born. Proud redheads from across the globe will gather for a weekend of festivities, trying their hand at orange lawn bowling and listening to lectures about redheaded genetics. They will each receive "a Certificate of Genuine Foxiness".

The Redheaded convention is just one of 4,000 events in the Gathering, the controversial tourism marketing initiative that its defenders argue is now proving its critics wrong.

On the other hand, sceptics such as the boss of Paddywagon Tours Cathal O'Connell still believe that it is a "poorly marketed waste of money".

Whether they are riding Harley-Davidsons at a bikers' Gathering, comparing beards or meeting up with kinfolk from the Old Sod for a diddly-eye and begorrah-style céilidh, foreign tourists seem keen to join in.

Many visitors, including Americans that I met in the centre of Ennis at last weekend's street festival, are gleefully taking part without previously knowing that the Gathering was on.

"The Gathering? I heard about it since I came here," said Samuel Stineman, a puzzled engineer from Iowa. "It seems like a fun idea. I came along to this festival to see what was happening – and I have found it awesome."

After the first half year of the Gathering, the indications are that the tourism authorities will hit their target of a rise in visitor numbers of over 5pc.

Figures from the Central Statistics Office show that the number of visitors from abroad has increased by 6.4pc in the period from January to May this year.

In the crucial North American market, the numbers are rosier still with an increase of 13pc.

The Gathering was perhaps given the celebrity kick it needed when actor Gabriel Byrne attacked the concept last November.

"People are sick to death of being asked to help out in what they regard as a scam," said the less-than-diplomatic former Irish cultural ambassador.

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"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."

Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary was also cynical about the exercise and dubbed it 'the Grabbing'.

But without any long period of planning, and no single attention-grabbing knock-them-dead event, the Gathering has captured the imagination in many local communities.

"The organisers were pilloried early on and there was a lot of cynicism, but I think it has been a success," said Wexford hotelier and former county hurling manager Liam Griffin. "It deserves 10 out of 10 for effort.

"There are a lot unintended consequence in small rural communities. Clubs are having their own festivals and events."

Business has also got in on the act. In Ireland's greatest Gathering of convenience store bosses, the Spar International Congress was held in Killarney in May. They were able to compare their coleslaw sandwiches and spicy wedges.

As one of the organisers of the redheaded convention, Joleen Cronin does not share Gabriel Byrne's view of the marketing initiative.

She said she could not have attracted the interest from abroad without the Gathering.

"The response has been great, because people are more aware of what is going on in Ireland. We have feedback from people who have never been to Ireland before and want to come."

Big clan gatherings and events such as JFK commemorations in New Ross may have attracted the headlines, but some of the smaller, quirkier local festivals have proved to be just as successful.

In May nearly 100 Harley Davidsons created a stir when they roared into Ballina, Co Mayo, for a Gathering event organised by the local bikers' group, The Old Heads.

Half the leather-clad visitors had never been to Ireland before, and took the Easy Rider tour of Mayo.

Organiser Denis Strong said: "There were 72 rooms booked in the Ballina Manor Hotel and visitors were astounded by the good value."

Although visitor numbers have increased, particularly from North America, how much of this can be put down to the Gathering, and how much to other factors?

Jim Miley, the former Fine Gael general-secretary who was appointed to run the Gathering last year, said: "Overall in Europe visitor numbers are down, while in Ireland there has been an increase. We are bucking the trend and at least part of that must be down to the Gathering."

A survey at the St Patrick's Day festival by Fáilte Ireland found that 18pc of the overseas visitors at the event had been attracted by the Gathering.

There are some in the tourist industry who are sceptical of the effect, however, and believe the initiative has made little impact.

One Dublin tourist guide told Weekend Review: "It has hardly been mentioned by visitors. I am not sure how well promoted it was abroad."

Cathal O'Connell, who runs the popular Paddywagon Tours, was scathing about the marketing push, and he told Weekend Review there was little evidence that it was attracting more tourists.

"The fact that there are more Americans here this year has nothing to do with the Gathering. The reason why they are coming here in greater numbers is that the dollar is strong and our economy is cheaper. It's a shindig organised by civil servants to justify their plum jobs. The name is completely uninspiring. It sounds like a family get-together in a pub."

But others in the industry are more positive.

Clare hotelier Michael Vaughan said: "We haven't seen massive numbers, but it has been a stimulus to people to travel to the country.

"I have a guy staying with me from Virginia who has not been here for eight years, but came here because of the Gathering. He has come with his son and his grandson and wanted to introduce them to the spot where their great-grandmother came from."

Vaughan, who is the president of the Irish Hotels Federation, said: "One of the unexpected benefits is that areas that would never have seen themselves as tourism destinations are organising small festivals, and that will have a lasting effect."

It may not lift us out of recession, but at least the town of Durrow can now boast an International Scarecrow Festival, while Ballymoe in Galway was able to aspire to become 'The Town of 1,000 beards'.

The Gathering will stand or fall on the figures, and at the halfway stage the signs are good. If visitor numbers rise, even if they are made up largely of emigrants visiting their families, organisers will be able to say that it has been a success.


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