In this second segment of my summer cultural travels, I have decided to focus on some of the heritage sites that I have visited around Ireland. I have to say I love visiting heritage sites, they generally are a more informal and relaxed way of learning about history in contrast to museum and galleries.
Heritage sites for me are more relaxed and more welcoming to visitors interacting more fully with the site and the history that is on offer. I often get tours when I go places and I don’t know whether this is the norm or just something I have experienced but guides at heritage sites tend to be more chilled out and dare I say more fun than guides at museums. I think this has a lot to do with their surroundings, museums in general are deemed as quite formal strict establishments for learning where as heritage sites as fun things you go to during the holidays and on Sundays!!!
I managed to visit a few heritage sites this summer, one of my favourites was my visit to The Dunbrody Famine Ship. During my annual cultural holiday in Wexford with some of the girls I went to uni with we decided to visit Dunbrody. This was one of the best tours I have ever been on, the center is very welcoming and our guide was so friendly. We had such a laugh with him, I think once I was picked out to ring the only original artefact on the ship (the bell) I was always going to rate this tour highly. I would recommend it to everyone, not only was it good fun but you did learn something. http://www.dunbrody.com/
The way the tour is delivered is very clever in that as well as your guide there are people dressed up in character as people who took the famine ship to America. They tell you their story and how being on board was for them. Parts of the tour were quite powerful, imagining being stuck in a tiny bunk with ten other people for months would make anyone crazy, not to mention the lack of fresh air and sunlight they got to experience. We all walked away from the tour feeling that we better understood the plight of the emigrants from Ireland during the famine. I have to say that the Dunbrody is a great place to bring children, there were lots of props that you were allowed to touch that helped you to get to grips with the story, and touch them we did. I am a huge fan of photographs and at the Dunbrody I was very snap happy, many pictures to remember the day of us in various ridiculous poses around the ship. Any follower of my blog will quickly see that I never miss a photo opportunity. 🙂
One thing that did strike us while at the Dunbrody is that other than the bell, all the objects including the ship are reproductions, replicas. We discussed at length whether we felt that having no original objects made the ship and the tour too commercial and touristy. In some cases this can happen that a heritage center can loose sight of its story and its reason for being but that was not the case here. The ship is successful for not only telling its story and introducing people who may not be familiar with the story of the famine in Ireland but for also doing so in a way that you learn without even realising it. The history and the tragedy is not forced on you, but regardless you do get to see how this period in Ireland has left its mark on the country. The last thing you see on leaving the ship is The Irish Emigrant Wall of Honour which has a list of all the people that died on board the Dunbrody, this is a powerful and thought provoking lasting message.
The Irish Emigrant Wall of Honour
Another heritage site that I visited this year was ‘The Dublin Tenement Experience. Living the lockout’ at number 14 Henrietta St, Dublin. The aim of the project ’is to highlight the unique character of this building and this part of Dublin through its tangible and intangible heritage as well as encouraging re-branding, tourism and social and economic regeneration through community participation’.
This was a very strange tour. On entering the building at the beginning of your tour you are met with actors, characters who would have lived in number 14 during the infamous lockout in Dublin. I have to say I found parts of this visit uncomfortable. I went with the misconception that I would be getting a tour of a tenement house/flat and hearing about life in a tenement at that time,that was not the case. The actors never broke character which is a credit to their skills as actors but for the visitor you were left feeling like an intruder into their lives. There were parts of the performance that had me close to tears and then there were other parts that had me wishing the wall would swallow me whole as I stared at my feet.
I understand what the ‘experience’ was trying to do, let us learn about the history and story of the time in an unconventional way. I am not sure if it worked, at one point two actors as brothers started to fight and physically hit each other, everyone in the audience looked awkward and uncomfortable. The realness of the scene was hard to watch. The message they were trying to convey some how got lost in the awkwardness and intrusive nature of the performance. The tenement experience was created for the centenary of the lockout and has so far not been extended. I do think it deserves to be made into a more permanent fixture with some of the kinks and flaws ironed out. A lot of this would have been solved by experience and this can only be gained by longevity. I do hope it gets to stay as it could become a a center for understanding and portraying a difficult and tragic time in Ireland’s past.
Both of these heritage visits left a lasting impression. The manner in which they were approached was completely different. Looking back on both of them you can see that there are many ways in which to convey a time period or event in our past. The sites were quite similar in that they both were addressing a time that was tragic, people were living under difficult circumstances trying to get by as best they could. Things were done that may be deemed wrong and many people lost their lives. These events left a mark on Ireland’s history and have shaped the country that it now is.
I came away from both visits feeling very differently, The Dunbrody was a fun visit and I left thinking I would love to do the tour again and would recommend it to everyone where as I left the Tenement Experience feeling uneasy. The tour is powerful and leaves a lasting effect but it is not a visit I would want to repeat and on telling others about it I made it very clear that it was not for everyone. Perhaps in many ways that makes the Tenement experience more impressive, that feeling of unease stayed with me all day and I felt myself talking about the visit with anyone I met for days afterwards. Maybe that was the true power of the visit, it got under your skin and created conversations. It made you think!!