Dr. Walter ( Wally ) Kirwan is a member and a former Vice-Chair of the Board of Ireland Newfoundland Partnership (INP), and a member of its spin-off entity, the Power Clan Gathering, which takes place May 31 – June 4 in County Waterford, as part of the Irish Government’s nationwide initiative, The Gathering 2013. Recently we spoke with him about the event.

What is your own ethnic background/heritage?
My background is as Irish and Celtic as you could find. The Kirwans are one of the 14 Tribes of Galway, merchant families who, from the Middle Ages up to well into the 1800s, controlled the life and trade of Galway city and also held huge estates in Counties Galway and Mayo. The Kirwans are one of only 2 of the Tribes that had Celtic ancestry. A pedigree we turned up in researching our ancestors traced us back, through 38 generations, to Mileadh Spainneach, the original chief of the Celtic or Milesian invaders of Ireland, from Spain before the dawn of history. My own family are descended from the branch of the Kirwans formerly resident at Dalgan Park, near Shrule, Co. Mayo – a direct ancestor, Walter Patrick Kirwan, like myself, came to Dublin in 1834, from Mossbrook, Claremorris, Co. Mayo, to be apprenticed as a solicitor and we have been centered in Dublin since then but with tentacles spread to Australia, New Zealand, the USA and further afield.

How, when and why did you become involved with the Power Clan Gathering?
Long story! The short answer is that around September, 2012, I was one of the members of the Board of a volunteer entity in Ireland called Ireland Newfoundland Connections (INC) who decided to promote the Power Clan Gathering, as a contribution to the Irish Government’s nationwide initiative, The Gathering 2013, aimed at bringing back to Ireland as many as possible of the worldwide Irish Diaspora for what in Newfoundland is called a Come Home Year. INC, with its partners, Newfoundland and Labrador Irish Connections, has been running, since 2005, an annual 10-day festival, which takes place every second year in the parts of Newfoundland that have an Irish heritage and in South-East Ireland, from which originated 90% of Irish migrants to Newfoundland The Ireland Newfoundland. Festival 2012 took place, very successfully, across 4 counties, in August, 2012 and thus, under the established rotation, Festival 2013 was due to be in Newfoundland. This put us out of kilter with The Gathering and presented us with a dilemma. We did not wish to appear to be solely exporting travelers at a time when our Government was encouraging us to promote importation! But neither did we wish to let down or disappoint our friends and partners in Newfoundland; moreover, by skipping a year, we would lose all momentum in Newfoundland, as 3 years would elapse between our last and next visit. So we decided to stick to our pattern of alternation and bring a big party of Irish visitors to Newfoundland next September, but also to promote the Power Clan Gathering in Co. Waterford over the June Bank Holiday weekend, 31 May – 4 June 2013. Part of the rationale of this is that Power is the most numerous name in Co. Waterford but also in Eastern Newfoundland. We hope that Newfoundland will be our ”anchor tenant” but the Gathering is open, not only to all, around the world, who proudly bear the name Power, or its variants, such as Powers, De La Poer, De Paor, but to all linked to Powers by marriage, kin or affection, and, beyond that, to anybody who wishes to participate in what will be a most enjoyable celebration and program. The visitors from Newfoundland who have attended the wonderful IRL/NFL Festivals in Ireland in 2005, 2007, 2010 and 2012 can bear ample testimony to that! Our motivation, in promoting this Gathering, was to harness the joyful spirit and energy that has infused those festivals to the nationwide endeavour that is the Gathering. There is a saying in Irish, ”Beidh la eile ag an bPaorach”, literally ”Power will have another day” but usually taken to mean, ”We’ll rise again!”

What is the event’s mandate?
The event has a dual mandate. At one level, the aim is to provide a very enjoyable experience for the visitors, continuing the tradition established both in Ireland and in Newfoundland since 2005. Over the years since then, wonderful vacation experiences have led to enduring friendships that have spanned the ocean and the years. We aim to extend that experience to many more people, far beyond Newfoundland, who treasure their Irish heritage, in the spirit of the 1998 amendment to Article 2 of the Constitution of Ireland : ”Furthermore, the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage”. The Power Clan Gathering also aims to make its contribution to economic recovery in Ireland after the setbacks of the past 5 years. We have set the target to bring an additional 500 overseas visitors to Ireland to participate in this Gathering. Their spending will give a major injection into the regional economy in South-East Ireland, as, of course, will the spending of the Irish visitors who will attend the Newfoundland Irish Festival on ”The Rock” next September. Part of the thinking, back in 2004, in launching the annual festival was to help to sustain rural and coastal communities and this is also an objective of the Power Clan Gathering.

What can attendees expect to experience at the event?
People who come to this Gathering can expect to have a great time ! A packed, diverse, enjoyable and informative program has been planned, with great opportunities to get close to Irish life and culture, not usually available to the general run of tourists.Those interested can see this program, as well as lots of information about the Power Clan and famous Powers on our web site and on our Facebook page. The events will be centered around the castle at Dunhill, about 10 miles from Waterford City, which was the place of origin of all Powers in or from Ireland, from the time they came in 1170 AD with ‘Strongbow’, Richard De Clare, Earl of Pembroke and the Norman invaders. The Gathering will commence there on 31 May with a Gala Dinner and a foot-tapping concert of traditional music, dance and humour presented by the acclaimed Booley House troupe from Ballyduff, Co. Waterford But the program of talks on the Powers, tours to scenic and heritage highlights, concerts of the best Irish music, distinctive Irish sporting events etc will also bring visitors across all of beautiful and unspoiled County Waterford, also extending into neighbouring counties, Tipperary, Wexford and Kilkenny. The Gathering will embrace the thrills of horse-racing in seaside Tramore, with a special power Clan Chase and of a hurling match in Carrick-on-Suir between Kilkenny and Tipperary, All Ireland champions in, respectively, 2012 and 2011. Originally Normans, the Powers later were among those who became ”more Irish than the Irish themselves” and were a thorn in the side of the citizens of Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city. A famous battle of the Middle Ages, involving these antagonists and the piratical O’Driscolls will be re-enacted on Tramore Beach. One planned tour will lead visitors to several of the stately homes and castles historically associated with the Power Clan, some still lived in by their descendants today, finishing up by taking in the vibrant musical scene in Carrick-on-Suir at its festival honouring the Clancy Brothers who paved the way in the 1960s for the revival of Irish traditional music and song. Another tour will bring Gathering participants through the heart of Tir Paorach, Power Territory, through West Co. Waterford, including Lismore Castle and heritage town, Ardmore, with its ancient monastery of St. Declan and perfectly preserved Round Tower, county town, delightful Dungarvan and Gaelic-speaking Ring, which, that weekend, is hosting the Gaelic Football championships for Irish-speaking areas throughout Ireland. The return journey will be along Waterford’s Copper Coast and UNESCO Geopark. On Saturday, 1 June, visitors will have three options in the morning – the first to follow a path taken by Irish migrants to Passage East to take ship for Newfoundland and Canada, followed, again in the wake of their ancestors, by a boat trip down the estuary of the Three Sister rivers, landing at historic Duncannon Fort and the beautiful fishing port of Dunmore East. The second option is a tour to the Hook Peninsula and lighthouse in County Wexford, the oldest lighthouse in Europe, also taking in the historic town of New Ross, with its quayside Dunbrody Famine Ship and its memorial to the visit there, 50 years ago, by US President John F Kennedy, whose ancestral home lies close by. And the third choice is a Power Clan exhibition in the Old Coastguard Station at Tramore, with traditional storytelling, all this before the Race Meeting and the battle re-enactment. The final day of this vibrant Gathering will take place in historic Waterford city, including a chance to visit the Waterford Crystal showrooms and factory, dance to lively music in Millenium Plaza, have a send-off reception in the lovely quayside Granville Hotel and attend a wonderful Closing Concert in Christchurch Cathedral, where, in 1170, Strongbow, the mentor of the original Powers, was married to Aoife, daughter of the King of Leinster. And that is only a flavour of the official program. Visitors since 2005 know that, very often, the sessions of music and song go on in the pubs into deep into the night ! And there are always surprises, such as discovering long lost cousins or unexpected romantic encounters ! During the Power Gathering, there will be facilities for voluntarily taking part in the Power DNA project, to help visiting Powers find where they figure on the Power ancestry map ! Those who come to the Power Clan Gathering 2013 will have the time of their lives !!!

Why is it an important event for that community?
Because it is a further development of a greatly valued interaction with the South-East Ireland Diaspora in Newfoundland through the Ireland Newfoundland Festivals, which have brought transatlantic visitors to a great many rural and coastal communities throughout the 5 counties of the region, thus helping to sustain vibrant rural communities at a time of grave economic challenges. A successful Power Clan Gathering will give a significant economic boost to the regional economy and lay a foundation for further Gatherings in future years.

How else are you involved with the Celtic community ?
I personally and my colleagues in INC and our partners, Dunhill Enterprises, have multiple involvements with Celtic culture and many connections with other Celtic nations and partners. Dunhill Enterprises are partnered with groups in Wales in a project to promote rural tourism, centered around the idea of a Sense of Place. This Hercules project is supported by the INTERREG Program of the European Regional Development Fund, as part of wider exchanges between Wales and South-Eastern Ireland. I myself have lectured in Carmarthen on ‘The Celtic Nations in the European Union’ at the annual gathering of The Celtic Congress and have, several times, attended the annual Book Festival in Hay-on-Wye. Since childhood, I have been deeply involved in organizations promoting the Irish language. Currently, I am on the Board of Directors of Comhar, the premier literary and current affairs magazine in Irish, while my partner is Health Correspondent for the main Irish language radio station. I have made quite a few visits to Scotland, where I can follow about 25% of Scots Gaelic radio. To improve on that, I applied last year for a scholarship to learn Gaelic in the Isles of Skye and Lewis but the timing offered to me did not suit. One of my ambitions, under my Ireland Newfoundland hat, is to promote closer links between learners of Irish and of Scots Gaelic in, respectively, Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia, in both of which there are now quite a few such students. I have now walked through Galicia 4 times, along different routes of the pilgrim Way of St. James ( Camino de Santiago), can read Gallego – paradoxically due to its similarity to Romance Portuguese, rather than any Celtic dimension. But nobody can doubt the Celtic roots of the wonderful Galician music, of which I am a big fan. I strongly advocate and support greater cultural connections between the Celtic peoples and believe our Ireland Newfoundland Festivals has much to learn from the development of the Celtic Colours Festival in Cape Breton Island.

Are we doing enough to preserve and promote Celtic culture generally?
It is a mixed picture, as to the health of Celtic culture – with, for example, great vitality and popularity in the traditional music and dance of the Celtic peoples – but, judged in the round, the answer has to be : No, we are not. I am influenced here by the doubts as to the sustainability of the Celtic language communities as the bedrock of Celtic identity and culture. Again, the picture is mixed : in Ireland, for example, Irish-medium schools in English-speaking parts of the country are thriving and expanding, while Irish language radio and TV are flourishing, as is sean-nos (old style) singing in Irish and sean-nos dancing. But in the parts of Ireland, Scotland and Brittany where the respective Celtic languages were and are the daily languages of communities, the areas where that is true have shrunk and the transmission of the language and associated culture to the rising generations struggles to resist the overwhelming tide of English and French. The situations of Welsh and Gallego are less vulnerable but far from safe. The Celtic languages are the foundations that nourish Celtic identity and culture and unless they survive and thrive, the well may, if not quite run dry, be greatly restricted in its flow. That said, the Celtic culture has shown remarkable resilience and a capacity to throw out new shoots, even in the languages of the conquerors and we may yet hope, getting back to the famous saying about the Powers, that ‘ Beidh la eile ag an bPaorach. ‘ ! It would take much more space than I can take here to analyze the weaknesses in the policies of those who govern, at various levels, the Celtic nations. A subject for another day !

What can we be doing better ?
How long have you got?! The full list of necessary improvements would be a very long one and I will not weary readers by trying to address it all. But I repeat that the basic necessity is to ensure that the native language communities are sustained and sustainable and that the languages are handed on to the next generations and maintained by them as living community tongues. Detailed studies in Ireland’s Irish-speaking areas have shown that this transmission is severely challenged. We have seen commendable initiatives from the Irish Government to support the study of Irish around the world, such as the support for teachers of the language to learners in 6 universities in Canada and many more in the USA. But unless the language is sustained in its speaking strongholds in Ireland itself, these initiatives are ultimately destined to wither on the vine. To achieve this result requires the wholehearted support of every arm and agency of Government and it is far from clear that we have this. I am not fully up to speed on the situations in the other Celtic nations but I will be surprised if it is greatly different !