EPIC, the Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin’s CHQ Building, just celebrated its first birthday and I got the chance to join the festivities – and take a quick tour around the museum.
As I mentioned before, I’ve lived in Dublin for a long time but I’ve really been trying to inject a bit of magic back into my relationship with the city by being an urban explorer every chance I get and doing things I think are reserved for tourists.
Anyway, EPIC has been open on Dublin’s Docklands for the last year, making it the city’s newest museum. Even though the idea of a museum devoted to Irish emigration (a subject that’s loomed large over my life and everyone I know) piqued my interest, I had never bothered to visit.
Around the time it launched, I recall seeing the Che Guevara posters and scoffing to myself that the Argentine revolutionary couldn’t possibly have had Irish roots. Well, let me eat my floppy hat. Guevara was in fact the great-great-great-great-grandson of Irish emigrant Patrick Lynch from Galway. This isn’t the only genealogical surprise you get at EPIC; you quickly find out about the Irish ancestry of all sorts of pop culture people, ranging from Johnny Rotten to Rihanna.
But let’s step back a bit. Located in the vaults of the CHQ, an ex-19th century warehouse, EPIC tells the tale of Mary Robinson’s Irish diaspora across 20 interactive, high tech galleries. Telling the story of 10 million people who have left these shores and the 70 million people around the world who claim Irish heritage is no mean feat but the museum manages to present these stories through a mix of video, original images and audio – without you needing a History degree to get it. The bright visuals and interactive element – you can take your place in a Notorious Irish line up of infamous Irish names like Mary Mallon AKA Typhoid Mary, to name but one example – will keep youngsters entertained, too.
With the Jeanie Johnston and Famine Memorial just outside the CHQ’s door on the docklands, it’s fitting that EPIC explains the cause and consequences of the Great Famine and I definitely think the museum complements the Famine Ship in particular. Over the years I’ve heard many jokes about the famine – mostly from English people, I have to say – and I just hope such ignorant people actually come across this museum and realise the devastation it caused.
As well as economic emigration, our guide also told us about Single Women Emigration (for real) and how groups like gay people were also banished to far-flung places like Australia, which is really unbelievable, and I was left wondering where these people ended up.
There’s a section of EPIC where you get to read letters from emigrants back home and I found the individual tales of emigration, particularly the really emotional letters looking to come home, pretty tough going. Thanks to the economic crash, I can’t think of a time before emigration was the only option for most people my age group and, knowing that so many young people left home because they had no choice, it’s difficult for me to reconcile the idea of actively exporting young, often brilliant people as a good thing. Still, as I walked out of EPIC, I thought of the limited opportunities here in Ireland and all the people who made something of themselves through emigration and that’s really what the museum’s about.
I won’t go through all twenty galleries but just so you know, it’s not all doom and gloom. The galleries are themed under Migration (Galleries 1-2), Motivation (Galleries 4-7), Influence (Galleries 8-18) and Diaspora Today (Galleries 19-20) and there’s a definite shift from the sadness of leaving to the impact Irish people have made abroad, as evidenced by a collage of famous faces with Irish roots, including Liam and Noel Gallagher and, my favourite, Graham Norton.
As a lifelong music obsessive, my favourite bit was the arts section which traced the influence of Irish emigration on culture abroad, such as Irish traditional music shaping the bluegrass styles of the Deep South. Our guide said certain parts of the US still talk in Antrim inflections – is this true?! I need to hear it! There’s no Bono in sight (U2 didn’t emigrate – which in itself amazes me) but there are nods to the legacy of rockers Thin Lizzy and, of course, you can watch the entire original Riverdance performance from the 1994 Eurovision. If Michael Flatley doesn’t get you surging with national pride – or at least your toe tapping – nothing will.
Check out epicchq.com to find out more about visiting EPIC and click through my pics below.