Heritage sites can be good, powerful and human places to encounter and understand the important people and events that have shaped a country’s past and present. I believe they have a particularly important role for international visitors.
I have been immensely blessed to work regularly in Ireland over the last four years. I have fallen unashamedly in love with the country.
I have been particularly privileged to work closely with the heritage tourism community. The Irish care about their heritage, especially the recent heritage. This is partly, especially now, for hard practical reasons – heritage tourism is an industry that can help the climb back out of recession. That is why we at TellTale were called in to help – we are pleased to do our bit to help strengthen the businesses we work with.
There is a huge heap of passion underlying the heritage of Ireland. This is a country that has fought long and hard for its identity. The country it fought, of course, was mine.
So let me cut a lot of corners and say that I had a lot to learn when I first set foot in the Emerald Isle. I thank my stars that I was old and canny enough to realise that. I have learned so very much, not only about that country but about my own too, not all of it comfortable.
My learning has all happened because of the heritage attractions I have visited and the people I have met. Whilst I am a great believer in people negotiating their own creative relationship with the past, and of meaning being fluid, there are times when facts matter. Hard stories, particularly, need the authority of research, primary resources and authentic accounts. They need well interpreted heritage sites.
Here is my list of six places which taught me important things about the history of Ireland, touched me very deeply, often stopping me in my tracks.
1. Limerick Cathedral, Co. Limerick
1986, my first holiday in Ireland, and a stop in Limerick in torrential rain. An ‘any port in storm’ decision to do the one thing we could indoors – a ‘son et lumiere’ (sound and light) show in the Cathedral. At that time, this meant a broadcast audio tape with timed lights: we were not at all enthralled by the prospect. In practice it was amazing. (I learned the magical power of words and the importance of great content – important lessons for any interpreter).
The words had been written by one of Ireland’s greatest writers, for two voices. The female voice of the Shannon, of the land and its spirit, and the male voice narrating the story of the Irish People. I learned indelibly that this was a land of lyricism, poetry and beauty, bloodshed, conflict and loss.
2. The Dunbody Famine Ship, New Ross, Co. Wexford
This is where I first encountered the Irish Potato Famine in a way that changed my whole understanding of Anglo-Irish history. This, and The Queenstown Story at Cobh just along the coast, showed me the importance of the Irish diaspora and the impact of mass emigration(s) on Ireland and overseas.
3. GAA Museum, Croke Park, Dublin
This is where I discovered that sport and politics cannot and probably should not always be separate and stumbled into the Bloody Sunday shootings. I may never feel the same about being British again.
4. Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin
Kilmainham Gaol put Irish Independence properly into context and told me the whole story from the Irish perspective. It was one of the very best, most moving, most educational and most thoughtful tours I have ever been on. I knew some of the staff were concerned about how English visitors would respond to the tour, so I read the visitors book from cover to cover to see what they said. English visitors found it ‘profoundly moving’, ‘eye-opening’ and ‘thought-provoking’. Me too.
5. Cruachan Ai, Tulsk, Co. Roscommon
There is of course much more to Ireland than the last two centuries. At Cruachan Ai we touched a deeper, enspirited past, a seat of kingship, a place of myth, magic, mystery. And lots of archaeology too. Totally compelling.
6. The Curragh Military Museum, Co. Kildare
This is where I learned that no one can explain a conflict like a soldier. There was an added depth and an authority that comes from authenticity here. And I learned about the Curragh Mutiny, a shameful and pivotal incident, that I am sure was a glaring ommission from the Anglo- Irish history I was taught at school.
These places reinforced my understanding of the role, and responsibility, of high quality heritage attractions in introducing foreign visitors to a country and its history. I found them rewarding, meaningful and, often, profoundly influential.
NOTE: I do not think these are six BEST heritage attractions in Ireland. They are not – although they are all well worth a visit. Nor are they the six I enjoyed most, or the six I would be most likely to return to. They are not the six that gave me my most profound inspiration, or where I felt I best made contact with Irish culture and way of life. There clearly could be many other ‘six of the best’ lists from Ireland – and maybe I will write them.