Friday, December 21, 2012

The land of a thousand welcomes

The Gathering - celebration or shakedown?

As a child there was nothing more guaranteed to cause mayhem in my house than an unexpected visitor. “Who's that?” “I don't fuckin know, we'll have to answer it to find out won't we?” “Tell em I'm not here whoever it is”. But it was too late. In they came, unannounced, wrecking any notion of a quiet night in. Match on telly? Forget about it. The biscuits – which you'd earlier been told you couldn't have – were brought out, artistically arranged on a fancy plate, and those fuckers got their feet well and truly under the table. You spent the rest of the evening trying to gauge the conversation for clues as to when they'd piss off; before finally they'd rise from their chair – your chair – and begin the lengthy 25 minute goodbye. When the door eventually shut behind them you all breathed a sigh of relief, let off a few farts and returned to bickering about what to watch for the night.

But at least you knew those uninvited guests, you might not have relished their arrival but you knew what to expect. Thinly veiled barbs from that auntie who, for some reason, never really liked you, an inquisition from your uncle who had taken it upon himself to mentor you through those difficult teenage years, fulsome praise from a grandmother who appeared content to just sit and bask in your brilliance – you accepted this behaviour, after all they were family. Occasionally you got lucky and it turned out to be just a “family friend” at the door, these people rarely offered up gifts or guff and so were treated with the neutrality they deserved.

In 2013 we're all going to have some unexpected visitors. Who invited them? I certainly didn't, did you? No, the Government did. I'm not sure how they came to this decision but perhaps it went something like this: “Hmm I see tourism is down over the past twelve months lads”, “What? You're telling me the world's population isn't drawn by the lure of overpriced Guinness and renovated ruins any more?!”, “Tis true, something will have to be done”, “How about we organise a big, mad session and tell all those feckin American eejits that they can come and meet their long lost cousins?”, “Genius, lets go on holidays to celebrate”. Thus The Gathering was born.

So what exactly is The Gathering about? It has been entitled a “Celebration of all things Irish”: as if we didn't have enough of that shite already. It looks like we can expect an entire year of revelry akin to the annual piss up that is St Patrick's Day. But this will be much worse than any average Paddy's Day celebration because in addition to the pissed up natives we can expect another “70 million people claiming Irish heritage to return to their roots”. 70 million? 70?!? How is it that even possible? Is being Irish considered so cool that there's 70 million people out there willing to claim allegiance to this rainy, windswept outcrop?. There's only five million of us living here and half of them are from fuckin Poland.

Yes, yes I know, immigration was a necessity because all the spuds ran out and the lads had to go to America, I'm not here to quibble. But you have to admit, 70 million is a pretty high number. Where will they all stay? Even if only one in ten of these proud Son's (and Daughter's) of Eireann returns to the Motherland that's still seven million beds to be found, and like I said previously they are not staying with me. I don't care if my long lost second cousin Bernadette Bourke from Lincoln, Nebraska arrives on my doorstep with a head cut clean off my beloved, late nanny, she's not bloody staying. Piss off Bernadette I have enough cousins thank you very much. I'll be happy to meet you on neutral territory for some perfunctory chat about how I remind you of your dearly departed Uncle Huck but that's as far as it goes.

I'm sure Enda would have me extradited if he knew I had such a frosty reception prepared for the poor, seafaring Bernadette, but my rancour is not without grounding. The Gathering may seem like a chance to reunite long lost loved ones but its true meaning is far less sentimental. Gabriel Byrne had his sense of patriotism questioned when he labelled the year long celebration a “shakedown” of the Irish diaspora, but I can't help but side with him on this one. Even the title description appears intentionally vague, 'A Celebration of all things Irish', what exactly does that mean?

And that's the main problem, I don't think anyone really understands what The Gathering is. From what I can gather (ho ho) it has given the townspeople of Ireland carte blanche to host field days, fêtes, agricultural shows, ceilidhs and jamborees to their hearts content. Which basically means your local do-gooder organising countless mind-numbingly dull events that they believe represents the real Ireland. Have you ever attended any of these aforementioned field days et al? I have. It's like being present at the end of days as all those present attempt to squeeze every lost drop of joy from your soul until you're as eternally miserable as they are.

Oh I'm sure some of the events will be worthwhile, the big ones sponsored by alcohol brands eager to cash in on this sorry affair will be a riot. Yummy pints of warm American beer at only €6 a go, mmmm Irish. The New Year's Eve Dublin Festival (€25 + plus booking fee) is sure to set things off with a bang. But if you don't fancy paying that kind of money there is a “free fireworks display”, it warms the cockles of my heart to note that we haven't yet figured out a way to charge people for looking up at the sky. A bit closer to home on New Year's Day is the Castlecomer Wellie Race, which is exactly how it sounds, a bunch of gobshites running 5km in wellies. Now I'm no historian but did our forebears ever compete in long distance cross country events wearing such hilariously unwieldy footwear? I very much doubt it.

It's all so typically Irish, which you might think is a good thing, but it's typical of the modern Ireland – a country where the onus is on charging as much money as is humanely possible and providing as little as you can afford to get away with in return. Hoteliers, publicans, restaurateurs and every peddler of cheap bric-a-brac in the country are already rubbing their hands with glee and wondering just how high they can go. But why should I care? If this 'shakedown' can provide a much needed shot in the arm for our tourism industry then it's surely a good thing, if these visitors are stupid enough to pay the going rates at their expense then let them come. I suppose what rankles me more than anything is the sheer commercialism of it all, the insatiable desire for the Dollar, Pound, Euro, Yen or whatever currency these poor fools are packing.

Maybe it won't be so bad, maybe I'll hit it off with my cousin Bernadette and we'll chat regularly on Facebook. She'll show me pictures of her uncle Huck and by Christ wouldn't you know it I'm the spit of the handsome bastard. We'll bring her to the local alehouse and sing songs about the 'black and tans' till the wee hours – never once mentioning that I'm nothing more than a blow-in and not a true Son of Eire – and she'll feel all warm inside until she's found round the back puking up that Jameson she was so determined to knock back. We'll wave her a tearful goodbye and promise to visit her and all the folks back home in Nebraska before instantly forgetting about her and returning to our respective mundane existences.

But even if the whole thing is a roaring success, even if this time next year we're toasting the return of the Celtic Tiger thanks to twelve months of frivolity, I still find the whole thing so downright patronising. As a nation we're not renowned for venting our spleen when things aren't to our liking but this is another level entirely. We're now being told to be Irish, being told to celebrate that fact and worst of all being told to invite other supposedly Irish relations over to celebrate it as well. The Dáil has become one big, huge party planner and everyone has to attend the party, solemnly playing pass the parcel like the well behaved children that we are.

What I propose is an alternative Gathering. Never mind all this shite about our heritage and mythology, its all a load of boring bollocks anyway. Instead gather all the family and friends that you do have, the ones that you love and cherish, the ones that you haven't seen in ages, and even the ones you don't particularly like, gather them all. And then when you've done that embark on a celebration of all things Irish. No, not a ceilidh at your local dance hall, just a big, traditional Irish knees-up the likes of which you haven't had in years. Wreck the place, go mad, be unashamedly Irish, wake up in bed next to a stranger or in a prison cell covered in your own vomit. Be Irish, be spectacularly Irish and while you're doing so spare a thought for poor, misfortunate Bernadette and her yearning desire to be part of a nation that doesn't even exist.