DUBLIN -- The tall ships looked majestic as they sailed into the bay – replicas of the masted, rigged vessels that once transported millions of emigrants from these shores.
The ships had departed from Liverpool, England, three days earlier, carrying descendants of Irish emigrants in a reverse voyage billed as an opportunity to “Sail Home to Your Roots.” A crowd on the docks cheered as they entered Dublin port, and the crew unfurled a giant green banner with the words, “Welcome to Our Gathering.”
The May voyage was just one event among thousands taking place throughout Ireland, part of an ambitious yearlong tourism drive to boost the country’s battered economy by luring its diaspora home.
Billed as The Gathering, the initiative is really multiple gatherings, large and small, ranging from the cultural and historic to the sporting, the quirky and the poignant.
“Bring them home. Treat them well. The Gathering is ‘Project Ireland’. Do your bit,” Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny exhorted fellow countrymen and women when the initiative was launched earlier in the year.
In every county, town and parish it seems that some group has taken his words to heart.
Highlights include flagship events like a July 21 Riverdance extravaganza, in which 2,013 master dancers are expected to kick up their heels along the banks of Dublin’s River Liffey and attempt to break the world record for step-dancing. The last record was set in Nashville with 632 dancers in 2011.
Popular annual cultural events such as the Galway Arts Festival, the Cork Jazz Festival and the Dingle Tradfest are all incorporating “gathering” programs, as are big sporting events. Choral gatherings are huge. It seems like every little village or town is hosting a gathering and inviting choirs from Europe and the U.S. to join them.
There are busking gatherings and blacksmith gatherings, scientist gatherings and even an “Evil Eye” spiritual gathering in Donegal in August.
There are quirky gatherings to raise money for charity – for example the redhead convention in Cork in August. And bog-snorkeling, sheaf-tossing and welly-throwing (Wellington rubber boots) gatherings.
The goal, tourism officials say, is to tap into the estimated 70 million people worldwide who claim Irish descent and bring at least 350,000 additional tourists home.
From around the world, they are heeding the call.
A gang of London ex-pats has organized a bike ride from Trafalgar Square to Killorglin, County Kerry, in time for the annual three-day Puck Fair in August. Reputed to be the oldest fair in Ireland, the highlight is catching a wild mountain goat and crowning it King Puck.
Legend has it that during the 17th century, a goat broke away from its herd to warn the town of the advancing army of English commander Oliver Cromwell during his conquest of Ireland.
A group of Irish emigrants living in Toronto who, partly out of homesickness, organized a club there to play camogie, is returning as part of an international camogie gathering at the end of July. (The sport of camogie is women’s hurling.)
The event includes matches in Dublin’s Croke Park stadium, hallowed ground for the Gaelic Athletic Association, Ireland’s biggest sporting organization.
“To come home and play in Croke Park is like a dream come true,” said camogie player Marie O’Riordan, who emigrated to Toronto from Cork in 2009. “It’s a fantastic way for emigrants like us to keep the connection and be part of something positive for our country.”
But The Gathering has its share of critics too, notably actor Gabriel Byrne, who spent two years as Ireland’s cultural ambassador to the U.S. In interviews last year, he dismissed the initiative as a cynical government effort to “shake down” emigrants “for a few quid.”
Whether the effort can draw enough tourists to dent Ireland’s economic woes remains to be seen. Ireland has been in economic turmoil since the real estate boom collapsed in 2008. Unemployment stands near 14 percent and emigration is once again commonplace among the young.
Regardless of the economic backdrop, there seems plenty of good will toward gatherings – gratitude even, that they are showcasing aspects of Irish heritage that might otherwise be bypassed by tourists.
Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, for example, is hosting gathering-related “Family Weeks” urging the numerous clans (O’Neills, O’Donnells, O’Briens) to start their gatherings with a walking tour of the cemetery and a visit to its unique museum. The cemetery staff is also offering expert help in tracing kin.
The gated 1832 cemetery with its soaring Celtic crosses and lush grounds (it was designed as a garden as well as a burial place) is a gold mine for anyone interested in Irish history. It was founded by Irish politician Daniel O’Connell, known as “The Liberator” for championing the right of Catholics to vote, and a giant round tower above his crypt dominates the grounds. Visitors can enter the crypt and stop by the graves of other historical figures including 19th century nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell — dubbed the “uncrowned King of Ireland” — and founders of the modern Irish state, Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins.
The great houses, castles and gardens of Ireland are also celebrating The Gathering with additional tours and lectures like the recent “tracing your Wicklow roots” talk by genealogist Nicola Morris at the Powerscourt Estate in Enniskerry, County Wicklow.
With stunning views of the Wicklow Mountains and vast ornate gardens reminiscent of Versailles, the 18th century estate — originally a 13th century castle — is often described as Ireland’s most beautiful. The great house burned down in 1974 and much of the interior was destroyed; today there’s a gift shop and cafe on site and visitors can spend an entire day exploring the grounds – over 47 acres of formal gardens, sweeping terraces, statues, ornamental lakes and trails.
South of Dublin, the Wicklow Mountains once provided a haven for rebels fighting British rule. Morris’ lecture focused on their stories and on helping attendees trace their connections to some of the historical characters, Irish and English.
While The Gathering has been a boon for her profession, Morris views it as more than just an economic initiative.
“There is a wonderful, grass roots nature to it all,” she said. “It’s a mixture of history and culture and community spirit and just giving emigrants a great big welcome home.”
Perhaps that spirit is most evident in some of the more poignant gatherings, like a recent reunion of the so-called “Forgotten Irish” in the harbor town of Dun Laoghaire, seven miles south of Dublin. Hard times in the 1950s and 1960s drove thousands of young Irish to emigrate, catching the ferry to Britain in search of jobs. Many spent their working lives sending money to support their families in Ireland, yet unable to afford to return themselves. As part of The Gathering, a group of volunteers sponsored about 50 elderly emigrants on a weeklong visit home – a trip that included an emotional wreath-laying ceremony next to a plaque in their honor on Dun Laoghaire pier.
Huddled in the wind beneath an Irish flag, they proudly sang the national anthem, Amhran na bhFiann, and recalled painful farewells decades earlier.
“There were tears then and there are tears now,” said Mary Carrick, 70, as she remembered the summer day in 1967 when she clutched her suitcase and waved to her parents as the ferry pulled out to sea.
“The Gathering,” she said, “is a wonderful way to remember our contribution and to welcome us home.”