Tourism Ireland fed me a fine lunch yesterday; tender meat drenched in Jameson whiskey, with spinach and spuds. I don’t have to repay them by saying nice things about the Irish but, bejesus, somehow I just feel like doing so.
I’ve spent some miserable, cold, hungry days and nights in their country, and enjoyed every minute of them.
The luncheon event was a pleasant plug to Sydney travel agents and writers, promoting 2013 as the Irish Year of The Gathering.
The old country is struggling economically (the default position, unfortunately, for Ireland) but travelling there is more popular than ever.
It’s not hard to see why. It’s the ‘third cheapest place in Europe’ we were told. ‘What are numbers 1 and 2?’ I immediately thought.
The financial troubles of the eurozone make it particularly attractive for Australians; 150,000 of us are expected to visit Ireland during 2013.
It gives me a warm inner glow to feel that I’m helping in time of need. Or is it the Jameson providing the warm glow?
But it’s not just about the value for money. It’s cheaper to stay at home, after all.
The angle of The Gathering is that all those with Irish heritage, an Irish connection or an interest in some aspect of Irish life are invited to gather in Ireland in 2013 for a festive celebration.
Irish music afficionados will flock to Donegal for the Ballyshannon Folk and Traditional Music Festival in August.
Derry (or ‘Londonderry’ if you live on the other side of the river) will be UK City of Culture all year long.
Rugby League fans should gather in Limerick to see Australia wallop Ireland in their World Cup pool game in November.
My favourite promotion was the one announced by County Clare. Someone had the bright idea of organising a Gathering of everybody called ‘Clare’. When it was pointed out that this could possibly limit the pool of potential visitors, they opened it up to people called ‘Claire’ and ‘Clara’. Bobs are welcome too now, and so are Richards. What was that Clare Gathering all about – remind me again?
Maybe other Irish counties could try Gatherings by Name. County Kerry could probably get a quorum, but County Fermanagh may struggle for numbers.
The Aran Islands proudly announced that they have 1200 residents and attract 250,000 tourists each year. I pictured a crowd of 208 people craning their necks to watch someone knitting a sweater.
The truth is that nobody needs an excuse to visit Ireland at any time. Visitors don’t go there for the special events; they go for the culture, the history, the landscape and, above all, for the Irish people.
It’s all slightly romanticised of course. Every Irish tourist brochure shows a music session with fiddles and bodhrans in a cosy Irish pub. Never mind that there are probably far more Irish fans of Justin Bieber than of Matt Molloy.
The charming Irish fishing villages are still there, but most of the charming Irish fisherman are now running whale-watching trips or driving tourist minivans. Spectacular windswept landscape will have buses pulled up at every vantage point these days.
Despite this, I love the scenery, the pubs, the arts, the literature and the cheerful, friendly, humorous misery of the Irish people.
And you have to love the sound of their voices, even the ones that are unintelligible.
I’ve been practising a few new fiddle tunes, polishing up the walking boots, and I hope to gather there next year.
Even if it requires changing my name to Clare.
Have you been to Ireland? What took you there? Would you go back? Does a promotion like The Gathering make any difference to your plans?
For more on Irish travel, accommodation and events during 2013, see www.discoverireland.com/au.