In Feb 1995, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Irish famine, President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, made a groundbreaking speech to both houses of the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament and Senate). In redefining ‘Irish emigrants’ – a usually pejorative term – as the ‘Irish diaspora’ she opened up the possibility of re-imaging what it means to be Irish and/or of Irish descent.
In her address she sought to dispel the idea of immigration as ‘just a chronicle of sorrow and regret’ and to think of it as ‘also a powerful story of contribution and adaptation’. Her source for so thinking lay with her wide experience, as President, of meeting an ‘array of people outside Ireland for whom this island is a place of origin’ and to whom she suggests the people of Ireland should turn with open minds and hearts.
She makes the point of how acutely aware she was ‘of how broad that term the people of Ireland is and how it resisted any fixed or narrow definition.’ Her purpose in her address was to ‘suggest that, far from seeking to categorize or define it, we widen it still further to make it as broad and inclusive as possible.’
It has taken the Irish Government almost 20 years to absorb the insights presented to them in her address. But in declaring 2013 the Year of the Irish Diaspora, they have taken to heart what the former President so passionately expounded in her speech. Indeed, it would be true to say that many parts of her 1995 address to the Oireachtas could be seen as a blueprint for the Irish Government’s present initiative.
‘The Gathering Ireland 2013’ was launched by the Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore and Minister for Tourism Leo Varadkar, in May 2012. While it is essentially a tourist initiative, it draws on several key ideas in the former President’s speech. One of the most important of these is the involvement of ordinary people and communities in initiating community projects and in supporting already established events.
‘Gatherings — are being hosted by the people of Ireland. A gathering can be as little as you inviting back an old school friend to visit Ireland in 2013, or your local GAA club asking Toronto GAA to come over for a match’.
It can also envisaged that:
‘The Gathering Ireland will bring together hundreds of festivals and events throughout Ireland that celebrate the best in Irish music, art, literature, dance, culture, heritage, sport, film and food’.
Some of these events are already well established on the Ireland Festival calendar while many will be new activities supported by Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland. ‘At the heart of it, The Gathering Ireland is a people-led project. Everyone is being encouraged to create local gatherings and invite connections abroad to come and visit Ireland in 2013.’
Such expectations of the people of Ireland in welcoming exiles and the descendants of exiles, is not new. As Mary Robinson noted in 1995:
‘Indeed there are a variety of opportunities for co-operation on this island which will allow us new ways to cherish the diaspora. Many of those opportunities can be fruitfully explored by this Oireachtas. Many will be taken further by local communities. Some are already in operation.’
The Gathering 2013 is being run in conjunction with ‘Ireland XO – Reaching out’ which has the specific aim of inviting back the descendants of exiles to the home parish of their ancestors. In some cases, these descendants may not even know they have Irish connections! – or have only scant information about their ancestors’ place of origin.
‘The Gathering 2013’ is a radical and creative initiative by the Irish Government to involve the people of Ireland and the seventy million (and counting) members of the Irish diaspora to tackle the financial crisis, – which threatens every aspect of Irish life – by filling Irish government coffers with the tourist dollar. It is to be hoped that higher motives for attracting visitors to Ireland will not be lost in this pursuit. As Mary Robinson concluded in her address:
‘Finally, I know this Oireachtas will agree with me that the truest way of cherishing our diaspora is to offer them, at all times, the reality of this island as a place of peace where the many diverse traditions in which so many of them have their origins, their memories, their hopes are bound together in tolerance and understanding.’