I don’t doubt the sincerity of Gabriel Byrne’s recent comments on the Gathering.
As has been well documented by now, the actor told Today FM presenter Matt Cooper on The Last Word, on location in New York, that he believes the efforts to bring American people back to Ireland represented nothing more than a scam.
“Most people [in Ireland] don’t give a shit about the diaspora, except to shake them down for a few quid,” Byrne said. “People are sick to death of being asked to help out in what they regard as a scam.”
From a lesser commentator, such remarks would be pushed out of the room like so many cobwebs cast aside by the firm, swishing broom of the media. But Byrne’s opinions carry weight – for two years, he acted as Ireland’s unpaid cultural ambassador. When I interviewed him in New York in 2011 about his role, he was miserable, snuffling from a cold. But he still carried out his media duties; still performed that evening at the Museum of Modern Art, where he was launching the Irish film retrospective he had personally curated; still charmed the Americans, many of whom who had arrived at the event – as one couple told me – purely to see him in the flesh.
Byrne put himself out for years on our behalf, and I have no reason to think he did it for any other cause than to help get Ireland back on its feet. But it’s difficult to understand the logic of his comments now, coming as they do from a man who not only thoroughly understands the nature of artifice – he’s an actor after all – but has long been complicit in such tourist-related artifice himself. Is the Gathering a tourist initiative designed to get people to spend money in Ireland? Yes. Is it any different – less substantial, more essentially fake – than the Irish cultural awareness activities that Byrne himself participated in when he was ambassador? Not really, no.
Byrne’s main point seems to be that we’re codding the Americans, being condescending to them, when really we don’t care about them at all. But when I think back to my time in America in 2011 – when I was on a trip, funded by Culture Ireland, designed to show the Irish media how tax-payers’ money was being spent – so much of what I saw from the Culture Ireland programme belonged to the realm of artifice.
The film Byrne chose to open his Irish film retrospective with, for example, was The Quiet Man, the John Ford flick legendary for pandering to terrible Irish stereotypes. The following day, we were brought to the exhibition The Ties That Bind, where we saw garish Irish dancing dresses in glass displays and old parade footage, but very little, other than some tagged-on U2 footage, that represented a more recognisable definition of Ireland.
Were such efforts any less contrived than the Gathering? Any less condescending? Culture Ireland was pandering to Americans, showing them shamrocks and shillelaghs in an effort to appeal to their sense of nostalgia. Don’t tell me that wasn’t a “scam” too.
The best comment on the subject this week came from Terry Wogan. When asked whether the Gathering was a “tourism wheeze”, the veteran presenter said: “Of course it is. It is an attempt to bring more people to Ireland to spend their money and enjoy themselves.” Simple as that. Byrne might shrug off the comparison, but he has made use of a very similar technique. It’s the pot calling the kettle black.