IN so many ways this octogenarian, Jean Bills, epitomises what The Gathering 2013 is all about. As the tragic and desperate fallout from the Great Famine of the 1840s decimated the population of Mayo, her grandfather, James Gallagher from Achill Island, set off for the United States in search of a new life. He was among the lucky ones who survived the voyage, in what was known as the ‘Coffin Ships’, and settled in Milwaukee after being granted a parcel of land there.
Over the following years, like so many other emigrants, he sent money home and brought his wife and children out to the US. Poignantly, one daughter remained behind in Achill with her grandmother.
Now, over a century and a half later, his granddaughter, Jean Bills has been honoured as part of The Gathering 2013 initiative. Indeed, Jean, who ran a Medical Laboratory in Milwaukee for much of her busy life, was recently honoured by the Irish Government for her establishment of Celtic Women International. This organisation recognises the contribution made by women of Celtic origin all over the world and shares their success stories in the hope they may inspire other women.
Now 83 years of age, she has returned to Achill annually for the past 31 years and is currently staying at Ferndale B&B in Keel. Over the weekend, however, she travelled to Westport for a presentation by Fáilte Ireland – a dedicated Gathering poem on parchment, by Fionntán Gogarty of the Sea Sky Shore Gallery.
The ceremony was attended by the cathaoirleachs of Mayo County Council and Westport Town Council, Cyril Burke and Ollie Gannon, as well as Ms Róisín Lavelle of Achill Tourism Ltd and Brian Quinn of Fáilte Ireland.
Speaking to The Mayo News yesterday, Mr Quinn said: “Jean Bills is a wonderful symbol of what The Gathering is all about and we were thrilled to meet her at the weekend. She told us there is great awareness of The Gathering 2013 in the US and she knows of other people planning to come back during the year.”
Mr Quinn confirmed that projected numbers attending the innovative event were already exceeding initial expectations,
“The Gathering is very important for the economy since government has stipulated specific targets of 325,000 extra visitors. This means there is a specific revenue expectation that we have to try and achieve. We are delighted that the overseas markets are receiving it well,” Brian Quinn said.
He continued: “Even in our own family we are bringing 12 people from St Paul, Minnesota, and they are delighted to be invited. Remember, there is still time to invite people and organise an event.”
Meanwhile, Junior Minister for Tourism, Michael Ring, has announced that 1322 events will receive funding under the IPB Gathering Ireland Fund.
HAVE YOUR SAY email firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments