About an hour ago, I was listening to an item on a radio show about The Gathering, this year's initative to attract people of Irish extraction back to Ireland as tourists. There has been a lot of cynicism about the project. Gabriel Byrne famously claimed that Irish-Americans regard it as a scam, simply an effort to fleece the "Irish diaspora" for its money.
But how can we avoid being cynical? The matter of fact is that we do view the Gathering purely in financial terms.
And what other approach is possible when we pretty much only view our own country in financial terms-- when we see it as an economy rather than a nation? But now that cultural nationalism has been discredited, what other route is open to us?
Listening to the report, I had something of a revelation, one that had been knocking on the doors of my mind for some time. I had been wondering for a long time why our post-Christian, liberal, consumerist society still has to draw on the Christian festivals for its sprees-- Christmas, of course, but also St. Patrick's Day and Hallowe'en (which is, of course, the Eve of All Hallows).
And now I realized that you can only commercialize something that is not essentially commercial. No matter how much the real meaning of a festival gets buried under merchandising and hype and glitter, it has to be there, somewhere, or the thing doesn't work.
This is why nobody takes the Gathering seriously, and why Guinness have (thank God) not succeeded in making Arthur's Day, their attempt at creating a kind of day-long advertisement, an institution.
Even Mammon needs God. Commerce seeks out that which has not been commercialized, as an old rake seeks out fresh and naive young girls to corrupt, rather than floozies.
The same thing applies to sport. Manchester United and AC Milan and all the rest can only make their massive profits because, somewhere beneath all the cynicism, the Corinthian spirit of sport still survives (though more in the dedication of fans and the memory of yesteryear than in the attitude of players and managers and executives).
I think I could broaden the principle beyond commercialization. Take the case of religion and the arts. Musicians, poets, novelists, directors and artists of every stripe love to use religious imagery and religious language. If you want to inject a tone of profundity or seriousness into your music video, just throw in some Gregorian chanting or stained glass or perhaps a crown of thorns. If a director wants to evoke tragedy, make your hero a Christ figure by having him stretch his arms or be kissed by his betrayer or stumble up a hill carrying something.
In fact, it's hard to come up with any image that is more weighted with profundity than a religious image-- because natural human life simply doesn't produce them.
You might be able to expand this idea further still. John Waters (the Irish writer, not the American director) has claimed on several occasions that society needs a critical mass of religious believers to function. The idea seems quite plausible to me. If nobody actually believes in absolute moral truths, in an actual purpose to human existence, in a Providential ordering of the universe, in an obligation to forgiveness, in Faith, Hope and Charity (not as ideals but as supernatural virtues)-- then what could prevent the whole show from descending into chaos and despair?
The prayers and devotions of religious believers are the fire that heats and lights the spiritual life of all the world. Christians, and other believers, are the dilithium crystals that keep the warp engines of our society running (you won't get that one if you haven't seen Star Trek).
So, much as I hate to be cynical, I have to join in the negativity regarding The Gathering. How can we expect the Irish Diaspora to become sentimental about Ireland, when we ourselves have forsworn all such sentimentality in favour of hard-headed business acumen?