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Ireland invites the world to come home for The Gathering

A St. Patrick's Day Parade troupe celebrates The Gathering.

Raise a pint and do a little jig: a massive get-together is under way in Ireland and you’re invited.

No, it’s not St. Patrick’s Day per se, though the country hopes the famous celebration will get you thinking in the right direction.

The big buzz is about The Gathering Ireland 2013, the biggest tourism initiative ever staged on the Emerald Isle, according to the project’s official website.


Launched by the Irish government, the campaign hopes to boost the local hospitality industry and project a bit of positive news amid some of the economic troubles that have plagued the country in recent years.

“We have reached out to anyone who is Irish born, Irish bred or Irish in spirit worldwide and invited them to return home in 2013,” said Bernard McMullan, a spokesman for Tourism Ireland.

The goal? To get some of the 70 million people around the globe who feel linked with Ireland in some way to visit the country this year, whether to explore their roots, indulge in some bacon and cabbage, or smooch with the Blarney Stone.

People across Ireland have been asked to create local gatherings – which can center around anything from food and drink to clan reunions -- and invite “connections abroad” to come and visit them.

More than 2,500 such events have been scheduled so far, McMullan told NBC News.

“It’s taken on a life of its own,” he said. “There are lots of fun and quirky gatherings, such as gatherings for redheaded people or left-handed people, tall people, literally any category you might think of.”

Ireland is hoping the Gathering will attract 325,000 extra overseas visitors in 2013, according to the office of Leo Varadkar, the country’s minister for transport, tourism and sport. That would amount to about a 5 percent boost over the number of overseas visitors who arrived in 2011, the last full year for which statistics were available.

Mariellen Ward, seen in this 2006 photo while visiting India, is planning a trip to Ireland later this year. Ward says her ancestors came from Ireland.

One of those coming is Mariellen Ward, a Toronto travel writer who plans to head to Dublin in September to research her family roots. Ward’s ancestors left Ireland around 1800 and although she’s never been to the Emerald Isle and doesn’t know a single relative who’s ever visited, she feels a pull to explore the country.

“I have just always been curious about what would it be like if I go to Ireland? Will I feel really at home? Will I feel amongst my people?” Ward, 53, told NBC News.

“What I’d like to do actually is just find a little spot, like a cottage, and just be there, soak up the atmosphere and to walk in the same places where my ancestors walked.”

Ward will attend the Whelan clan gathering – her grandmother’s family name – in hopes of discovering any kin she might reconnect with. Then, it’s off to Cork County, where her ancestors used to live, Ward writes in her blog.

Ireland’s hospitality industry has been cheering The Gathering, with 76 percent of hoteliers expecting a growth in business this year as a direct result of the event, according to the Irish Hotels Federation.

Stars including Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson have endorsed the project. But in a bit of a snafu, actor Gabriel Byrne said Irish Americans felt that the pressure to get them to visit Ireland this year was an effort to "shake them down for a few quid,” the BBC reported.

Still, the party is just getting started. Irish tourism officials hope you’re a part of it.