The Gathering, the five million Euro tourism initiative which started last night outside the site of Grattan’s Parliament, touched a nerve in the country. Some people said Byrne was a begrudger. More said it was sour grapes on Byrne’s part that he wasn’t the head buck cat of the whole show himself.
But maybe the reason so many people remember Bryne’s attack in November, and why so many people are apprehensive about this whole Gathering project, is that it touched on a deep need and yearning in the soul of the nation.
What do the Irish want more than anything else? It used to be an Ireland united, Gaelic, and free, but at some stage in the past fifty years the twenty-six counties embraced partition as the natural order of things. We all would like to see a deal on the banking debt but we are now in the fifth stage of our fiscal grief – acceptance – and will be simply grateful for any easing of the yoke that our diplomats can wrangle. And at the personal level, we all have our own individual aims, from parents that want their kids to go to college to those poor souls who pray that their kids can somehow stay out of jail.
But the one thing that unites the nation is this: we all want to be proud of Ireland and of being Irish. A people who invented the notion of the hunger strike have nothing to learn about pride and how pride can be more important than life itself.
That’s why there was such a row over the singing when Ireland were getting slaughtered at Euro 2012 this summer. The Singers thought the signing reflected the spirit of the Indomitable Irishry, while the Silent thought the singing shamed the nation by portraying the Irish as happy victims instead of a warrior race raging to the last at cruel fate. But both sides of the argument were motivated by love of country; the only thing that divided them was how that love would be perceived abroad. The patriotism itself was never in doubt.
Which brings us to The Gathering. The idea itself is laudable, both as an acknowledgement to our huge emigrant population (which An Spailpín still insists should be described as a “deoraíocht” rather than a “diaspora,” by the way) and as a much-needed revenue source for one of our few indigenous industries, tourism.
But what’s worrying Gabriel Byrne and a lot of other people is how Ireland is being portrayed abroad by this particular jamboree. Does The Gathering portray an Ireland that is, in Pearse’s words, “august, despite her chains,” or an Ireland of hucksters and gombeens that is a cross between The Irish RM and Killnascully?
The early signs are not promising. The website is badly designed. The idea of a website as a venue for users to take over and make their is a good and modern one, and very much of the zeitgeist in terms of the social web. But it’s badly expressed and it’s not at all clear that that’s the purpose. The first language is also notable by its absence – there’s a little bit there, but certainly not of sufficient quantity to frighten the horses or suggest that we’re all that different from Bradford, Boston or Brisbane.
The chief worry about The Gathering is that it’s going to be cheap and make the nation look cheap in consequence. There’s a troubling section on the website called “I Love Ireland,” that contains a list of things that are meant to cause us to swell with pride. Your faithful narrator swelled with something else entirely on reading “25 things you never thought you’d miss about Ireland.” If that’s what Ireland is like, give me Syria every time. Horrible.
That list of twenty-five things is not who the Irish are. It can’t be. That’s the Irish as seen by the sort of pond life that buys those awful “Little Book of Your Mammy's Bloomers” books. Your correspondent wants no part of them, and doubts he is alone.
In 1916, an IRA battalion took command of St Stephen’s Green, which includes buildings owned by UCD. Liam Ó Briain describes the rebels’ forlorn attempts to barricade their position in his memoir of the Rising, Cuimhní Cinn, using materials found in the surrounding buildings. At one stage, a soldier found some big, old, thick books and suggested they be used in the barricade. Ó Briain recognised the books as copies of the Annals of the Four Masters. “We can’t use them,” he told the soldier. “If we’re fighting for anything, we’re fighting for those books.”
Tourists come to Ireland to have fun, not to read about long-dead monks or the works of those long-dead monks themselves. Of course they do. But at the same time, we should present ourselves as being more than the best little country in the world to get drunk. We should have it within us to realise it’s not all about money, and show some little bit of pride.