by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
In many languages the words for history and story are the same. Telling stories is intrinsically connected with the past, with relating how people, events and circumstances from times gone by have fashioned, forged and formed our present realities. When it comes to selecting a destination to visit we’re initially drawn by strong and appealing visual stimuli – images of limpid clear waters and golden sandy beaches, pictures of deeply resonant iconic constructions like Big Ben or the Statue of Liberty, videos of cityscapes and exciting, participative activities. However, what keeps us in that destination and what brings us back there again and again are the stories we hear and the ways we too can be protagonists in these stories.
I was reminded powerfully of this last summer during a visit to New York when I had the opportunity to visit the recently opened the National September Eleven Memorial and Museum. The 911 Memorial tells the story of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, an event that has now become as much a part of the New York story as the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. And like all great stories, this one is both specific in time and universally applicable. It’s not just about New York coming face to face with the unspeakable effect of rabid extremism but that of all cities, all countries, all destinations.
New York City has more than its share of great locations to visit – Central Park, the National History Museum, the Empire State Building etc – and all of them contribute some piece of colour to the overall mosaic that represents the city’s story. However, the 911 Memorial contributes something more, something deeper, something more resonant and enduring. The Holocaust Museum in Washington DC touches you at a similar level as does a visit to the Sistine Chapel in Rome or to the Acropolis Museum in Athens. These are privileged encounters in space and time: between each of our individual personal stories, the universal story of humankind and the specific place or destination where it is taking place.
Yesterday I visited EPIC Ireland, the recently opened “diaspora” experience located at the historical CHQ building in Dublin’s Docklands area. Afterwards, in my unstable state of emotional excitement I tweeted the following, overlooking one of grammar’s most fundamental tenets in the process:
EPIC Ireland is a visitor attraction that will touch you deeper and more enduringly than most and, as such, is an immense and welcome addition to Dublin. It’s location, on the North bank of the Liffey, on the LUAS line, close to the Dublin Convention Centre and to the resurgent docklands area makes it especially welcome.
With 70 million global citizens owing their origin to our tiny island of 6 million, there has long been talk in official circles of a “Diaspora” museum. However, the word only became flesh when former CEO of Coca Cola, Neville Isdell, a modern star of the County Down, invested well over €12 million to establish the visitor attraction. Set out in the basement vaults of the CHQ building, EPIC Ireland tells “the story of a people”, or, more specifically, how the population of a small island in north west Europe made its pretty impressive mark upon the world.
The story unfolds over 20 galleries and is communicated in the most contemporary way possible via the latest in multi-media technology. It’s a digital-only facility with all its primary source materials stored in the cloud. There’s Harry Potter-style wizardry and Minority Report-like trickery in great abundance as interactive screens and holograms spring to live on touch. And despite the low vaulted ceiling there’s a highly engaging overall visual aesthetic and some great tech art.
EPIC Ireland tells the story of Ireland’s emigrants around key themes. Commencing with the reasons why people left in the first place – some were willing leavers, some not – the museum then explores what they did when they got to their new homes before finally examining the legacy. Throughout, the stories are highly personalised, some related to famous emigrants like Kennedy, others concerning unknown emigrants who might have been members of our own families. This connection with each of our own personal family narratives makes EPIC Ireland particularly powerful.
One of the galleries at the beginning of the journey introduces 6 characters, 3 men and 3 women, whose stories span over 200 years but bring us right up to the 1970s. Using a combination of original sources and actors talking direct to camera you get the full spectrum of motivations for emigration – for some it was to escape hardship, for others persecution, for others still it was for opportunity. This notion is developed in the next gallery where the theme of belief is explored – after all the first emigrants to leave Ireland were missionary monks who played a seminal role between the fall of Rome and the rise of Mediaeval Europe in preserving scholarship and culture for future generations.
The extend of the contribution of men and women of Irish origin to the betterment of the world is probably the thought that most resonates following a visit to EPIC Ireland – and hence my own sense of pride as per my tweet. While most of us have a strong sense of the extraordinary creative contribution of the Irish to literature, the Arts and music, the Irish as discoverers, inventors and change makers are less well known and fêted. Thus it was great to discover Belfast man, William Thomson, a “towering figure” in nineteenth century science or John Holland from Clare who developed the first submarine to be commissioned by the US Navy.
EPIC Ireland takes a minimum of 2 hours to visit and will lead you on an emotional rollercoaster of a journey from despair and sadness to deep pride and euphoria (just watch the Riverdance sequence). If you’re Irish you’ll walk out 6 feet tall with a puffed out chest (even when you’re only 5’8” like me) and if you’re not then … you’ll wish you were. Huge respect to Neville Isdell for giving Dublin such a wonderful new visitor attraction and to the team he assembled to bring it all to fruition, especially Director, Fiona Ross and the charming Head of Sales and Marketing, Dervla O’Neill.
Pádraic Gilligan, Patrick Delaney and Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, an agency working with destinations, hotels and venues on strategy, marketing and training for the Business Events sector, also known as MICE