It is not often I feel the need to praise someone who plays a public role in Irish life but this time I do. In an age obsessed with celebrity, where being famous is seen as an achievement itself rather than doing something notable that has the side effect of fame, keeping some space celebrity free is a necessity. Remember after all that this is a country in which last Christmas the Taoiseach Enda Kenny had a two hour meeting with the rock singer Bono to discuss, and I quote, ‘affairs of state.’ Yes, affairs of state. With a singer. I wonder did Dickie Rock get a meeting too. Or maybe that Irish fella that won Big Brother. Or Brian O’Driscoll’s wife. Or that Mullingar kid in One Direction. Though perhaps, depending on their levels of fame, their time spent with the Taoiseach discussing ‘affairs of state’ was a bit shorter. No one, after all, is more famous than Bono. So forgive me if washing up in the kitchen the other day I was only half paying attention when the actor Gabriel Bryne popped up on the radio. Not for long though.
After the Celtic Tiger years I am so used to Irish public figures from areas like the arts, from music or literature or drama, being far from the awkward, questioning characters you might imagine that I wasn’t expecting much from Gabriel Byrne. For most of the last few decades in Ireland everyone, whether they were an auctioneer or an artist, has more or less sung from the same hymn sheet. Who would have thought after all, step up Mr Bono again, that we would have a rock star praising the government’s tax structures. An accountant maybe. An economist. A multi-national corporation. But a rock star?
So it took me a while to turn up the dial on the radio but I was glad I did. Gabriel Byrne, who was recently a ‘cultural ambassador’ for Ireland in the US, spoke publicly in a way I haven’t heard an Irish artist do since, since, well, since I started listening, I suppose. His topic was The Gathering tourism project. Now as a fully-fledged member of the Irish Diaspora I thought all along that this was an extremely cynical initiative designed to get money out of the Irish abroad, the very same Diaspora to which Ireland has so often turned a cold shoulder and the very same Diaspora that the Celtic Tiger gleefully ignored. Who wants to hear about the Irish in Birmingham or Boston when you can be busy buying an apartment in Bulgaria?
Well Gabriel Bryne, God bless him, was saying just that. According to him The Gathering is a ‘scam’, it is a way of ‘shaking people down for money.’ He was quite adamant about the cynicism behind it, about a government that doesn’t give a damn about the Diaspora, about people who feel a genuine and deep connection with Ireland. And he is damn, damn right. This is not after all a scheme dreamt up as a way of healing the pain and the injustices of emigration but a scheme that has been calculated in finance offices whereby an investment of 5million euro this year and next year is estimated to recoup some 160 million euro in the years to come. The head of The Gathering project quite openly talks about ‘diaspora marketing’ and seeing as the idea first came out of the Farmleigh meeting where the celebrity economist David McWilliams first talked of the Diaspora as an untapped economic opportunity that is hardly surprising. Like Gabriel Byrne says, this is a shakedown of the Irish Diaspora, this is a sizing up of the Irish abroad to see how much coin they have in their pocket. As Gabriel Bryne says when talking about Irish society and the Irish government, ‘most people don’t give a shit about the diaspora except to shake them down for a few quid.’
So I dare say there are a good few souls out there, beyond these shores, who will be spending time in Ireland over the next year or so. I know how important that ‘coming back’ can be. But when you hear about The Gathering please don’t be seduced into thinking this is peat fires and music around the settle with a black pint. Don’t go thinking this is about bringing you back to be with your mother or your granddad. No, don’t let them impinge into your memories and your emotions with their corporate warmth. They are not interested in you. They are only interested in your money. You are already part of Ireland’s story you do not need to become part of a department’s spread sheet. The Gathering, Mr Varadkar, The Gathering. In Birmingham, Boston and Berlin, oh my how we laughed.
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