It is easy to dismiss The Gathering as a cynical shakedown of tourists. But if you travel to towns and villages around Limerick you will begin to grasp its true impact. The Gathering is an injection of lifeblood into these villages and towns.
Towns like Bruff. I was invited there earlier this month to launch a Gathering exhibition on the history of the area through the letters and photographs of those who left over most of the last century for places like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and England.
The exhibition reveals the story of their lives in poignant fragments of half-forgotten letters. But now they are no longer forgotten.
The exhibition gives these people back to us. And if it had not been for this Gathering exhibition many of the items would probably still be lying in attics around the globe.
Entitled The Postman is Facing the Gate, the exhibition was the brainchild of former school principal Tom Bulfin.
“It’s the stories they tell,” he said. “The details of their every-day lives, the window into their lives and our past.”
We can read in their letters about long, lonely journeys to England or Canada or America, the daunting challenges they faced and the bereft families they left behind.
I noticed that most of the letters are to or from mothers or grandmothers or aunts or sisters, so the exhibition is also a valuable insight into the vital role women played in keeping Irish families linked across oceans and continents.
It is no accident that around the world today over 70 million people still feel connected enough to Ireland to claim Irish ancestry.
This exhibition is thus a unique social archive for this corner of Limerick and an important legacy for the next generation.
Like many other towns and villages in County Limerick, Bruff has come alive for The Gathering.
It was in festive mood when I visited. The shops had been painted up. The Morning Star River was gleaming in the sun. A Gathering flag fluttered in the summer breeze.
The excitement was still palpable after the visit to the exhibition of JFK’s daughter Caroline Kennedy, who dedicated the town’s old courthouse in honour of her ancestor Thomas Fitzgerald. A stone plaque now records the historic event.
Rural Ireland has seen revolutionary changes. A recent Teagasc study found that in 1986 some 155,000 people were working in agriculture, forestry and fishing and living in rural areas. By 2011 that figure had plummeted to 90,000. But tourism is the way forward.
Tourism Ireland is predicting that by the close of 2013, total visitors to Ireland will increase by 5 per cent from the previous year.
Data from the first quarter of 2013 also shows that tourists’ spending habits have expanded by 10 per cent, jumping to a total €688 million. And large numbers are eager to explore their roots all around Ireland.
Bruff is just one story.
Other towns around the county are staging equally imaginative events to lure back the descendants of those who left. They are giving them a good time so chances are they’ll come back again for the next Gathering.
So it is right to celebrate The Gathering. It is doing much not just to lift the spirits but also to invigorate the economies of these towns and villages.
And what’s so wrong if tourists come and leave behind some euro or dollars?
As long as we make sure tourists get value for money, tourism is the best business model for these villages and towns.
So, good luck to The Gathering. The only pity is it didn’t come sooner to rural Ireland.