President Michael D Higgins has defended actor Gabriel Byrne as a fine ambassador for Ireland in the wake of his controversial remarks about The Gathering.
The Hollywood screen star is a “magnificent Irish person” who merely wants the Government’s flagship tourism initiative – which he branded a “scam” – to have a deeper connection to the diaspora, said President Higgins.
“I looked at the full transcript of what he said, and what Gabriel was saying was that he wishes very much The Gathering to be a success but he wants it to have depth,” he said.
Speaking during a three-day trip to Liverpool and Manchester, the president said Mr Byrne was a personal friend who had done great work over the years with the Irish film industry.
Furthermore, the former cultural ambassador had brought investment to the country, he said.
“I do hope as well that the reaction to what Gabriel has said is that people are fair to Gabriel,” he said.
“Gabriel Byrne is a magnificent Irish person who has worked for Ireland and worked beyond his own self.
“He is a star but beyond all of that I remember so clearly all he has done as cultural ambassador and how much he has done for Irish film and continues to do so.
“He’s actually making a film in Ireland at the moment and it has brought investment to Ireland.”
As part of President Higgins’ visit to the north west of England, he will be guest at a reception for The Gathering on board the Irish naval ship LE Eithne at Liverpool.
“My own view about it is that The Gathering is a great opportunity for those who have been planning to come to Ireland. If they come in 2013 they will see a very special effort being made, not only in upgrading all of the festivals but with new celebratory aspects of Irish heritage available to them,” he said.
President Higgins said he also hoped the many Irish who will not be able to come home for their own particular reasons and circumstances have their own way of coming together to celebrate their Irishness.
Speaking earlier this month about the tourism initiative, Mr Byrne said people are sick to death of being asked to help out in what they regard as a scam.
“I wish The Gathering the very best of luck but they have to understand that the bridge between the diaspora and the people is broken and I tried to fix that for two years and it’s still broken,” he said.
“Most people don’t give a shit about the diaspora (in Ireland) except to shake them down for a few quid.”
His remarks drew a chorus of disapproval from Government Ministers.