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Column: So, we have recognised Tom Cruise's Irish roots... where's the harm in that?

Those who are cynical or opposed to the efforts of The Gathering should ask themselves why, says Larry Donnelly who questions what ignites such hostility to seemingly harmless endeavours like that of certificates of Irishness.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

LAST WEEK, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore presented Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise with a Certificate of Irish Heritage in Dublin. These government-issued certificates are available to all people around the world who can establish Irish ancestry at a cost of €45. Cruise was here for the premiere of his new film, Oblivion. His visit attracted significant media attention and adoring fans greeted him at every chance during the 24 hours he spent in Ireland. Many were also amused, or bemused, by the news that Tom Cruise is of Irish descent.

Tom Cruise’s ancestry

Indeed, Tom Cruise’s Irish ancestry, which goes all the way back to Strongbow, was confirmed by expert genealogists commissioned by Tourism Ireland as part of The Gathering, the now well-known initiative to attract the far-flung Irish diaspora back “home” in 2013.  I suspect that most Irish people regard The Gathering as a well-intentioned, relatively benign idea – or at the very least say “why not?”

The Gathering has the potential simultaneously to help reconnect those who left with those who’ve stayed and to provide a badly needed boost to the local and national economies. A not-insignificant and rather vocal minority, however, are exceedingly cynical about and/or outright oppose The Gathering. Related doubts and critiques were expressed in a variety of different ways last week after people saw Tom Cruise beaming with his new certificate of Irishness.

What ignites hostility to seemingly harmless endeavours like issuing a Certificate of Irish Heritage or inviting people of Irish extraction (or who just happen to like Ireland) to come and experience, again or for the first time, the wonders of life here?  In my view, three primary factors are behind the negativity that’s manifestly out there.

Money, enmity and cultural snobbishness

First is a genuinely held belief that the government is wasting a lot of taxpayer money on The Gathering that could be much better spent on far more pressing needs in the current difficult climate. But the reality is that only about €5 million is being spent, and every cent that is spent to assist those organising a wide range of events around the country must be accounted for. Furthermore, even if The Gathering is quite a limited success, €5 million will easily be recouped. The argument that The Gathering is a frivolous waste of money is doubtless linked to widespread criticism about the current government’s fiscal priorities. It doesn’t withstand scrutiny though.

Second is a profound enmity that so many emigrants – both those who remain overseas and those who have returned – have toward the Irish government and political class who they hold responsible, with some justification, for their having to leave the country of their birth in search of a better life. Growing up in Boston, both older Irish emigrants and my contemporaries voiced their hatred for those who “call the shots” in this country time and time again. They never thought the Celtic Tiger was anything other than illusory and aren’t one bit surprised about where Ireland now finds itself.

Actor and former cultural ambassador Gabriel Byrne, who called The Gathering a “scam” and a “shakedown” was admittedly influenced by similar comments he’s heard from fellow emigrants in New York. The bitterness they feel is regrettable and understandable. Yet if anything, The Gathering could be a great vehicle for re-engaging with the aggrieved.

Third is a smug and snobbish view that a small number of outspoken Irish people have about the diaspora – in particular, the Irish America of which I am a proud product. This view was most prominently articulated in a deeply offensive screed, “Americans, if you want the full Irish, take it,” by Donald Clarke in The Irish Times last year. In the piece, Clarke termed it a “myth” that an American with a “wandering ancestor” has any claim on Irishness; defined the typical Irish American as an “eighth generation O’Hara;” and, unsurprisingly, cited his experience of conversing with a barstool IRA supporter in an Irish pub in Queens.

There is a huge global diaspora

There are, of course, Irish Americans whose behaviour is over the top and whose “paddywhackery” is embarrassing. The vast majority of Irish people can laugh off the occasional nonsense and cherish the relationship they have with their American cousins. These Irish Americans love and often act affirmatively on their heartfelt connection to this country. But a small number of people here have no use for Irish America. Initiatives that are likely to lend credence to or to enhance any, in their minds, tenuous sense of Irishness that Irish Americans enjoy are simply too much to contemplate.

Notwithstanding the negativity, commendable work in communities across Ireland continues in the year of The Gathering.  It’s not just about giving heritage certificates to movie stars. Literally thousands of community-based events will have taken place in every corner of Ireland before 2013 is over.

The people who are so cynical about or actually opposed to these efforts really should ask themselves: Why?  There is a huge global diaspora with an extraordinary affinity for Ireland. And considering this country’s long and tragic history of forced emigration, it’s fairly myopic to posit that only the people who were born and raised here have a claim to Irishness.

I believe most Irish people respect and understand the complex identity of the diaspora, and don’t mind that millions of people around the world regard themselves as part of this small island.  They’re right.  Given the good will it generates, the opportunities it creates and the access it allows, Irishness is incredibly powerful.  Most countries would kill for it.

Larry Donnelly is a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with IrishCentral.com. To read other articles by Larry for TheJournal.ie click here.

Read: Tom Cruise: From action hero to… famine hero>

PICS: Irishness, pints and craic: Tom Cruise’s 24 hours in Dublin (pics, videos)>

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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