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Ireland calls the diaspora home with The Gathering

Tuesday - 6/4/2013, 5:08pm  ET

In this May 13, 2013 photo, Marie Theresa Gill, center, poses with her friends Kathleen Greenhough, right, and Mary Murray at the pier in Dun Laoghaire in Dublin Co., after a wreath-laying ceremony to honor the so-called "Forgotten Irish" _the thousands of young Irish who emigrated to Britain during the 1950s and 1960s. Gill and Greenhough were among those emigrants. They returned as part of The Gathering, an effort by Ireland to bring its emigrants and their descendants home to honor them and their heritage. (AP Photo/Helen O'Neill)

HELEN O'NEILL
Associated Press

DUBLIN (AP) -- 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 who claim Irish descent worldwide 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.

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