CHICAGO, March 3 (UPI) -- Famine, poverty and the desire for new opportunity sent millions of Irish from their homeland in the 19th and early 20th century. Now Ireland, hit hard by the global recession, is hoping descendants of those early emigres will return home this year for a visit.
Ireland is trying to tap into the Irish Diaspora, estimated at 70 million people worldwide, to help revive the economy. Tourism officials are promoting "The Gathering" as a year-long effort to entice those who claim Irish ancestry to come home to attend locally organized events in Ireland's villages, towns and cities.
"The Gathering Ireland 2013 provides the perfect excuse to reach out to those who have moved away, their relatives, friends and descendants, and invite them home," according to promotional material on the website www.thegathering.com
Adding a twist to the traditional floats and bands, visitors from the United States and other countries are being invited to march in Dublin's St. Patrick's Day Parade. As many as 8,000 people will be able to march in procession through the streets of Dublin as the parade passes landmarks such as Trinity College, Dublin Castle and City Hall.
"Build lifelong memories, display your Irish pride, celebrate all that is good about Ireland and being Irish -- even if you are just an honorary Irish person for one day!" organizers said.
The festivities in Ireland surrounding St. Patrick's Day have their roots in the painful experiences of early Irish immigrants in U.S. cities such as Boston, Chicago and New York.
The early St. Patrick's Day parades were both a cultural celebration and a rallying cry for the mostly poor, rural, Catholic immigrants who struggled to adjust to life in the big city.
"Irish immigrants to America had a very difficult story in the 19th and early 20th century," said Mary Donoghue McCain, who teaches Irish history at DePaul University in Chicago.
"Even as far back as the American Revolution, Catholics were viewed with deep suspicion, especially because the Catholic Church is not a democracy."
Also, having grown up on farms, most did not have skills that translated to jobs in large urban areas, she said.
"These early immigrants, by having their parades, were saying, 'We're here, we're staying and we're going to make our way in this country,'" said McCain, whose father was born Killarney, Ireland. "Jump to 2013 and we see people wearing buttons saying, 'Kiss me, I'm Irish.' Being Irish has become something to celebrate. It's a great American story."
St. Patrick's Day has long been a public holiday in Ireland, but was traditionally a quieter, religious event. Up until 1970, pubs across Ireland closed their doors on St. Patrick's Day as a mark of respect for the religious occasion, Tourism Ireland said.
"Families would get together for a meal, many attended mass, and that was the extent of it," McCain said. "The new Irish Free State had military parades on March 17 starting in the 1920s, but it's only been in the last 20 years or so that it's become the 'St. Patrick's Day Festival,' a multiday event more along the lines of our big cities' celebrations here in the U.S. In fact, most of the publicly festive traditions were imported from and heavily influenced by big cities in the United States."
McCain said Irish immigrants struggled against prejudice and poverty when they first started arriving in the United States in the mid-1800s but the worst of the anti-Irish prejudice was over by the 1870s as Irish-Americans began to make their way into the police service and the political world. While they fully embraced their new life and their new country, they never forgot their Irish roots, particularly because so many were able to return home to visit.
"Irish-Americans can consider a trip back to the homeland without worrying about a language barrier," she told UPI. And the Irish, well, they're very welcoming, with travelers returning home with tales of the parish clerk who spent hours poring over records to help find their ancestors. "It really is kind of a magical place, just the beauty of it," McCain said.
U.S. travel agents are capitalizing on "The Gathering" by offering travel packages tailored to those researching their Irish roots. Friendly Planet Travel, for example, is offering a nine-day Fitzgerald Clan Gathering in Ireland tour that starts at $3,099. You don't have to be a Fitzgerald to participate, but it helps to be interested in tracing your Irish genealogy. You might even discover your Fitzgerald roots, the travel agency said.