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The Gathering: Ireland's Cynical Play For Irish-Americans Money

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For years America has viewed Ireland through a veil of fond remembrance. This is the sentiment fueling The Gathering, Ireland's 5-million-euro scheme designed to get tourism rolling.

But this plan and the view of Ireland through rose-colored glasses is as dated as the sentiments expressed in "Come Back To Erin," a song my father used to play on St. Patrick's Day.

Even as a child, I thought this "come all ye" claptrap. I'd cringe as Bing Crosby crooned its mournful lyrics imploring a girl named Mavournine, to "come back aroon to the land of your birth." Yet in the 50's, "Come Back To Erin's" appeal to those who fled Ireland for lack of work was strong. The US was flooded with immigrants, all hoping to find that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

After years toiling in cities with "streets paved with gold" they yearned return to Erin for a visit so they scrimped and saved -- like my Mother did -- depositing ten dollars here and five there, in savings accounts called Christmas Clubs.

Their yearning accounted for the popularity of films like The Quiet Man and Carmel Quinn, a regular on Arthur Godfrey's popular TV show, who along with Crosby sang sentimental songs like "Galway Bay", "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen".

With sentimental tunes like these flooding the airways, how could America view Ireland any other way but through the veil of fond remembrance?

Sixty years ago, returning to Ireland was a big event. Travel was by ocean liner and in poor conditions. But that's all changed now. Children of the Irish diaspora travel easily and often.

This may be a reason for The Gathering. To bring back to Erin the diaspora, with cash-filled wallets ready to help bail out the wrecked economy from its rendezvous a few years ago, with the Celtic Tiger.

Irish homes received post cards to invite to friends and relatives to gather. Yet the idea for this child of diaspora who has had a home in Ireland, to invite long forgotten cousins, or friends who, if they haven't visited by now, aren't going to, is as ridiculous as the concept of gathering because the Irish are not gatherers.

In our seventeen years in Ireland, my husband and I have been invited to only two homes. That's it. Even though we have invited many to ours, inviting people to dinner for no reason other than to socialize is strange.

With that in mind, consider some of the proposed activities Bord Failte prays will entice tourists: The Left Hand Festival, The Elvis Tribute Act To Celebrate His Birthday, A Samba Fest, The Irish Red Head Convention and Freckle Counting Competition.

Viewing the island of Ireland through this hokey prism reduces its 32,600 square miles (about the size of Indiana) to one large entertainment park suitable for the whole family.

Though there are fine events like Listowel Writer's Week, Bloomsday and Belfast's Titanic Museum, the concentration of 'dumbing down' activities boils my blood.

Gabriel Byrne, Ireland's former cultural ambassador, shocked the nation when he said The Gathering was "a scam to shake down the diaspora for a few quid." That Byrne unapologetically spoke the truth pissed everyone off. Though the Irish know Byrne spoke the truth, they are loath to have anything bad said about the country that might tarnish its reputation forever stuck in a veil of fond remembrance.

Yet when I'm traveling around and I ask the Irish what they think of The Gathering, everyone heartedly agree with Byrne by saying "Americans don't want to bail us out."

Oh if only Ireland could only do it right! If only they could de-emphasize stereotypical twaddle. Like Ireland's green. Like the people are oh so friendly. Like everyone drinks Guinness. Like everyone's Catholic. Like all little girls have red curly hair and step dance beautifully. Like everyone speaks in a brogue.

Were I running The Gathering, I'd ask the airlines to lower prices for 2013. I'd provide tourists with a good map and various driving itineraries so they could explore freely, letting their hearts and eyes lead the way.

I'd point out Ireland's restaurants featuring fresh, locally sourced food -- lamb stew forbidden! I'd emphasize churches, both Protestant and Catholic for their beautiful architecture. I'd have a full roster of literary festivals, drama festivals, poetry festivals and Theatre -- theatre with a capital "T" -- with locals performing plays all over the island.

I'd urge them to drive the length and breadth of the country. The North/South boundaries of "The Troubles" ingrained in imagination no longer exist. One feels a sense of Peace.
Let serendipity be your guide. Dare to get lost. And you will on Ireland's twisty roads, when you go it alone to explore what you didn't know was there.

Why bother counting freckles when you can walk the length of the Giant's Causeway, where on a fair day you can see across to Scotland. And afterwards, gorge on fresh lobsters and oysters and brown bread. Now that's Ireland! A new Ireland for the 21st Century.