Come home this year.
That’s the message from The Gathering in Ireland, a yearlong program inviting the estimated 70 million people across the world with Irish roots and the millions more with an interest in Irish food, drink, literature, poetry, music and dance.
Irish tourism experts and people of Ireland are hoping that the invitation will lure many first-time visitors, who will venture beyond the usual high points – the Book of Kells, the Ring of Kerry, Killarney, the Cliffs of Moher, maybe the Giants Causeway. Those remain must-sees for any trip, but this year’s offerings stretch the length and breadth of the island and packed the calendar with family, clan and town reunions, festivals, celebrations and exhibitions of every kind.
Some events included in The Gathering happen every year – the world-famous Galway Oyster Festival from Sept. 27 to 29, or the variety of horse and pony shows in Connemara every summer.
But what about the “Town of 1,000 Beards” get-together in Ballymoe, County Galway, on June 28? (Women and children are allowed to participate with false beards, including knitted ones!) What about an attempt to set a record for the most people in a Riverdance-style Irish dancing line on the banks of the Liffey in Dublin on July 21?
Or how about a Redhead Convention, to include freckle-counting contests, fire-eating demonstrations and a redhead parade from Aug. 23 to 25 in Crosshaven, County Cork?
Those are just some of the more unusual get-togethers planned for the year across the country, which can range from members of a now far-flung family sitting down to dinner together to events that organizers hope will set world records.
“The Gathering started as a government idea, but it has become a people’s project,” said Jim Miley, project director of The Gathering, at the launch of County Galway’s official Gathering in late March in Galway County Hall. The colorful ceremony, which included stilt-walkers, a traditional fishing boat and samples of local cuisine, spotlighted more than 200 events planned for County Galway, an artistic and cultural center of the west. But every county in the nation has multiple large and small events scheduled and listed at thegatheringireland.com. Events can be searched by date, by place or by time.
Dozens of events across the country through the rest of the year have been organized for people with an Irish last name in their lineage. Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, where 1.5 million people have been buried since it opened in 1832, will host family name weeks through the end of September. For a list of the name featured each week, go to glasnevintrust.ie. Many informal “clan gatherings” across the country will allow visitors to mix with people who may share their heritage and possibly allow them to connect with cousins in Ireland.
No Irish celebration is complete without music and the arts, and The Gathering features plenty of opportunities to perform, listen or learn everything from choral singing (across the country at various times, ending with the Sligo Internatiponal Choral Festival, Nov. 7 to 10) to landscape painting (July 6 to 13 in Donegal). Events scheduled around dance, theater, traditional music of the harp and the bodhran drum, film and even comedy are planned.
The official Gathering has made a push to get residents of Ireland to invite their friends and relatives home this year with official invitations. A flier promoting The Gathering includes two postcards with the saying “Welcome home” and “Follow us home” that can be detached and mailed.
The Gathering is also printing many “Certificate of Presence” to be given to those who visit the country this year, even if they don’t attend any specific event related to The Gathering. The certificate declares that the visitor whose name is written on the form was present “to bear witness of a gathering from the four corners of the globe for the purpose of celebrating Ireland … and that my presence be observed and recognized by a resident of these lands.” That resident, who signs the certificate as a witness, “can be anyone … postman, busker, barman, politician, even a complete stranger you meet on the street!”
The Irish give a legendary warm welcome to visitors, which is why “Céad mile fáite,” or “A hundred thousand welcomes,” ranks right up there with “Erin go bragh” (Ireland forever) as the best-known phrases in the Irish language. So there’s a good chance that the “stranger on the street” won’t be a stranger for long. After all, you have to sit down to fill out that certificate … and you can’t do that without a pot of tea or pint of Guinness, can you?