Exploring Irish Heritage
By Noreen Bowden of CIE Tours
A trip to Ireland can be an emotional homecoming for Irish-Americans, as they return to the land of their ancestors. Check out three museums and an online resource that can help unlock visitors’ family history and heritage.
Ireland’s tragic history and long legacy of emigration hold special meaning for tens of millions of Americans who can trace their ancestry back to the Emerald Isle. And for many Irish-Americans, a trip to Ireland is a kind of homecoming. Visiting the places that tell the stories of those who left their ancestral homeland can help unlock family history – and there are many museums in Ireland dedicated to revealing the experience of those who left. Here are a few of our favorites – these are all great places for exploring heritage, but there’s plenty to intrigue even those without an Irish branch in their family tree:
EPIC the Irish Emigration Museum
EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin is a shiny, high-tech wonderland – the first all-digital museum in the world. But don’t be fooled by the slick technology: this museum has a lot of heart. EPIC is all about stories – of the 10 million Irish people who left, where they went, and what happened to them. Twenty galleries detail the history, heritage, and culture of the Irish diaspora. It’s a wonderful introduction to the vast global scale of Ireland’s descendants.
See emigrant letters, experience Irish music and dance, meet the outlaws in the Rogue’s Gallery, hear the words of some of the world’s most famous authors in the Whispering Library. Visitors can even begin exploring their own history with a consultation with a professional genealogist.
The museum is located near Dublin’s docklands–steps away from the Jeannie Johnston, a replica ship similar to those that carried millions of starving Irish refugees fleeing famine in the 19th century (and also worth a visit).
For more information visit EPICchq.com.
Dunbrody Famine Ship
The Dunbrody Famine Ship in New Ross, County Wexford is a faithful reproduction of an 1840s emigrant vessel that carried weary and hungry refugees fleeing Ireland’s Famine. The Famine was caused by a potato blight that killed the staple crop of the impoverished tenant farmers. From 1845 to 1852, 1 million people died and 1.5 million emigrated. As people fled throughout the world, the Irish Diaspora took on new dimensions.
The Dunbrody was launched as a cargo ship in 1845 but was quickly refitted, going on to carry thousands of desperate tenant farmers to Canada, most in overcrowded steerage. While many of the millions who crossed the ocean in that era died, the captains of the Dunbrody kept the mortality rate with good care of their passengers. Visitors to the Dunbrody learn the story of famine emigration from the perspective of those who left, as they cross from the quayside of New Ross on the long journey to the Arrivals Hall in North America.
The Dunbrody’s port location was the departure point for an ancestor of John F Kennedy, who visited there in 1963 in an emotional homecoming. The ship sits beside the Irish-America Hall of Fame.
Learn more at Dunbrody.com.
Cobh Heritage Center
The pretty little port town of Cobh – named in 2019 as one of the 25 most beautiful towns in Europe by Condé Nast Traveler – was the departure point for millions of emigrants over the centuries. The Cobh Heritage Center tells their stories – for many, their last glimpse of Ireland was of this harbor.
Cobh’s role in emigrant history starts in the 1600s, when Irish people left for British overseas colonies like Virginia, New England, Barbados, Jamaica, and Montserrat. Then between 1848 to 1950, nearly half of the 6 million people who left Ireland departed from Cobh.
Cobh Heritage Center showcases many facets of emigrant history. Explore life on board a so-called “coffin ship” and a ship bringing convicts to Australia. Exhibits detail the lives of seventeenth-century local man Francis Barret, famed pirate Anne Bonney, smuggler Robert Davies, and more. Learn about Annie Moore, who departed the port in 1891 and became the first emigrant to be processed at the newly opened Ellis Island in New York – she’s memorialized with a statue at the entrance to the museum. The center also tells the story of the Titanic – Cobh was its last port of call for the ill-fated ship.
Learn more at CobhHeritage.com.
IrelandXO.com: an online heritage resource
Those with Irish heritage who are planning a trip might be interested in an additional resource before they go: Ireland Reaching Out, a nonprofit group comprised of volunteers who seek to connect Ireland’s millions of descendants with the communities their ancestors departed from. Their many resources, including genealogy message boards, connection stories, and ancestor chronicles are available at IrelandXO.com.
Travel with CIE Tours, the premier tour operator into Ireland – offering dozens of expertly crafted vacations to Ireland to suit every travel style and taste, from the camaraderie of coach tours and custom group travel to a variety of independent adventures, small group tours and personalized private driver experiences. See CIETours.com for more information.
Noreen Bowden, the Content Manager at CIE Tours, writes extensively about the Irish diaspora; she has worked in Ireland and the US in positions aimed at strengthening links between Ireland and the Irish abroad.