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In case you didn’t know, 2013 is the year of The Gathering, when Tourism Ireland hopes that throughout the year at least one million Americans and another 6.6 million people from the UK, Europe and elsewhere will arrive at airports and ferry ports to take part in a celebration of all things Irish. And the organisers are keen to let everyone know that you don’t have to be of Irish descent to attend: anyone is welcome to come and join in the mother of all craics.
Last year, Irish actor Gabriel Byrne threw a spanner in the works by claiming that The Gathering was less about the emotional authenticity of diaspora, and more about extracting much-needed foreign currency for a country that has been in trouble since the once much-lauded Celtic Tiger was shot and seriously wounded in 2008.
“How can we get these people here to boost our tourism, and how can we shake them down for a few quid?” asked Byrne, who now resides in Manhattan.
Thankfully, putting a positive spin on negative news and turning it around is part of the national skill set. Tim O’Connor, chair of The Gathering 2013 and a former New York-based Irish consul general, went into damage limitation mode by welcoming Dublin-born Byrne’s intervention, as it was “starting a conversation”. He went on to say that The Gathering could act “as a catalyst for a better understanding of how Ireland can nurture real and meaningful relationships that go beyond tourism”.
However, today comes news that a former beauty queen finalist, Charlene Carbery, got the surprise of her life when, on retrieving her luggage at Dublin airport, she looked up and discovered that she was the face of The Gathering. Publicity photographs of her and three other young women involved in the beauty pageant from last year’s Carlingford Oyster Pearl Festival had been used by organisers and plastered around the airport.
She later found out that they were also to be found on the backs of buses. “I thought the shots were for the local press and definitely didn’t think they were for a big marketing campaign,” said Carbery. “I didn’t get any invitation to any event, no recognition from Failte Ireland [Tourism Ireland] or The Gathering, and I think it’s really bad form, especially when will want people to come to Ireland and have a positive experience. It has left a really bad taste in my mouth.” The organisers of The Gathering have just issued a statement that they will no longer use the image of Carbery and her fellow contestants.
Nevertheless, it’s a sure bet that the controversies will soon be forgotten. Why? Well, in a few days’ time on 17 March, St Patrick’s Day will be celebrated not only in Ireland and not only in the diaspora, but also around the world. So not only will there be huge street parties in the usual places such as Dublin, Boston, Chicago and New York, but there will also be festivities in Florence, Sydney and Buenos Aires. A number of international attractions will also be “going green” this year, through either lighting or dye. Among them are Berlin’s TV Tower, Cape Town’s Table Mountain, the Citadel in Jordan, Dubai’s Burj al Arab, the Empire State Building, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Pyramids of Giza, the Sydney Opera House and Niagara Falls. There has even been a request to the Queen that Buckingham Palace should be turned green to mark the saint’s day (the answer was no).
That’s quite a list – but there is something more. Tourism Ireland has recently discovered that royal bride and mother-to-be Kate Middleton has Irish ancestry: “We have an authenticated connection, with all the certificates and everything,” said Tourism Ireland’s chief executive Niall Gibbons. He promises to reveal everything in the next few weeks. Watch out for global headlines, therefore, as journalists make a pilgrimage to the birthplace of the Duchess of Cambridge’s ancestors.