Irish heritage sites have to make Irish people feel welcome

The Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary. Ancient cathedral/castle
built on a site where, tradition has it, St Patrick converted the
King of Munster in the 5th century.
A recent survey on Irish heritage sites indicated that a quarter of Irish people visit heritage sites "frequently," which surprises me to be honest. In fact, I don't believe that at all.

The same survey indicated that the prehistoric passage tomb at Newgrange in County Meath is the country's most important heritage site. That doesn't surprise me because if there's one thing that makes Newgrange different from many of the country's other sites is that Irish people go there in large numbers. In my experience that isn't the case with some of Ireland's other historic jewels.

A few weeks back I went to the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary. It was my first time there in many years and I still can't get over how much I learned and enjoyed myself there.

The Rock of Cashel is simply fantastic. I know there seem to be a lot of places like this in Ireland and if you're on a limited vacation schedule you might not fit them all in, but if you can get to Cashel, do it.

My family and I had a great time, thanks in large part to the tour guide who did a very good job explaining the history and architecture of "The Rock."
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The only negative - and it's not a big one, more of a nagging annoyance - was that the Irish-born in my traveling party (all but me) felt during the tour that the Rock of Cashel was for tourists and not Irish people.

It was subtle and more down to the tone than the actual words spoken, especially at the start of our visit, but there was a sense that we were in a tourist trap more than a place of real significance. The Rock of Cashel is not Bunratty Folk Park (although that has its pluses too, but it is primarily for tourists).

It's a little difficult to phrase because I'm not really being critical or at least I don't have an easy answer to the problem, which is that the tour was clearly designed for a non-Irish audience. Our tour guide at Cashel did a very good job of explaining the history of the Rock, the importance of the various parts of the structure, etc. but his entire talk made it obvious that Irish people were not his audience.

Again, I'm not criticizing him because he was good and I assume he was working mostly from a script that those who run the Rock of Cashel provide for their tour guides. And he wasn't wrong. Of the 25 or so on the tour there were only four or five Irish people and three of those were my family. Most of the group probably was pretty unfamiliar with Ireland and its history.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about: our guide explained that Cashel was the seat of the King of Munster, "which is the most southern of Ireland's four provinces." Every Irish person knows that. I daresay that a large percentage of Irish-Americans know that. If I had heard that when I was a young, visiting Irish-American tourist I'd have been a little annoyed to be thought so ignorant of the basics of Irish geography.

My 17-yr-old daughter was incensed. She wanted to leave the tour right then. Yet if the guide had inserted "for those of you not from Ireland" it would have had a completely different impact. It would have been perfectly acceptable. There were a lot of similar phrases where it was obvious the tour guide expected his audience to know next-to-nothing (at most) about Ireland.

I have experienced this sort of thing before. Yet I don't blame the tour guides for it happening. They know their audience and it rarely includes Irish people. That's the shame of it. Irish people don't go to a lot of their own heritage sites so those in charge of the sites run them as tourist destinations. Or maybe Irish people don't go to the heritage sites because they know that they'll be treated as tourists and they don't like that. I don't know which it is, but it's a shame regardless.

As a comparison, try to imagine the Statue of Liberty or Independence Hall or the Washington Monument being explained to those visiting as if they don't know the basics of American history or geography. It just would never happen. Wouldn't happen at the Tower of London or Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris either.

Now if this was a one-off I wouldn't mention it, but it happens regularly. As I said, it's only a minor quibble, but I do think that fixing this would make the sites more attractive to Irish visitors. Make them feel less like only 'foreigners go there.' I also think tourists prefer to visit places that the local native population values highly and visits regularly. Tourists like authenticity and the native population's presence is proof of authenticity.

Ideally Irish people will visit their nation's fantastic heritage sites more often and force a change, but short of that the people who are in charge of the Rock of Cashel and other important sites need to explain Ireland's history and geography in a way that doesn't insult those Irish people who do go. That "céad míle fáilte" they all start with should be directed at Irish people too.

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