On our travels, with our Celtic Ways tours, we love to include visitor’s centres that serve the ancient sites and locations we visit. A good visitor’s centre provides
- A presentation of the sites, legends and the area
- A shop selling affordable guides, books and souveniers
- A cafe for lunch, snacks and beverage
- A toilet – usually the most essential first thing with any stop
There are two type of visitor’s centres
There are the large multi-million euro centres such as Bru na Boinne that is the entry to Newgrange and Knowth, Cliffs Of Moher, and Clonmacnoise the famous monastic site, high crosses and introduction to Celtic Christianity.
Then there are the small town and rural centres, that we like to support, like Kells that presents the heritage of the Book of Kells, its local high crosses and monastic site. The Dolmen Centre north of Ardara presents its heritage of local megalithic dolmens. Our favourite is the Cruachain Centre in Tulsk, Co. Roscommon that presents the vast local heritage of sites connected to Maeve and the royal courts of Connaught that may not be noticed without such a centre.
As you may tell, I feel the smaller visitor’s centres are more complete, more focused and much more useful than the larger centres.
Lets takes Newgrange as an example. On brochures, in magazines and within calendars it looks like the perfect place for spiritual ambiance and connection – but visiting there is very different. It can seem like entering a theme park, even a Disney park in July, dues to the crowds and the bustle. When you eventually visit the passage cairn, after waiting awhile for your turn, you might get 30 – 60 seconds for yourself if you are lucky. We take you to passage cairns at Carrowkeel and Loughcrew and you can take the time you want, and it becomes just like the ambiance of the brochures.
However, Bru na Boinne does arouse people to think “I wonder if there are other places like this?” and they seek to visit them. Maybe without Newgrange I would not have the sacred sites tour business I have as the interest may not have been aroused.
Most people that book us ask “Can we go to Newgrange?” I explain what I am explaining to you now and by the end of the tour they understand what I explained due to the wonderful experiences they have.
About the rise of Ireland’s Visitor’s Centres
During the Celtic Tiger days of the 90s, when substantial EU money flowed into Ireland, many Visitor’s Centres sprung up around the country as projects to create rural employment and also encourage political voting currency.
Unfortunately, a lot of these centres remained focused much more on job creation and political imagery rather than focused on the what they were presenting. People employed in these places had no knowledge or interest in learning knowledge about their local heritage. The local committees also lost interest when the EU and Irish government funds ran out and they were called upon to run these places as paying businesses. There was no more “easy to get” political score points to earn, and no real passion from the people that set these centres up,so many of these small centres closed.
Now we have the rise of a few multi-million “state of the art” centres designed to give worldwide imagery but with minimal interest in what they are presenting. The new Cliffs of Moher Centre is more like a shopping mall on a cliff. Ambiance and connection has been replaced with entertainment and temptations to grab as much of your money as they can. Imagery is more important that service. The Cliff of Moher are still there, many more people will now visit and there’s no need to go onto the cliffs if the weather is bad as there is so much to see and do inside …. but the ambiance, connection and even thrill of risk there once was has gone.
Celtic Ways supports the “little guy”
The small visitor’s centres that have survived are now run by local people, or people who have become resident in the area, who have an infinite passion for the heritage and culture around them.
It is a wonderful experience to be able to visit and connect to heritage sites at our own pace in our own ways, and then before and after our visits use the very welcome and very adequate facilities of these small centres.
There are a lot of areas we visit that we feel could do with one of these wonderful small visitor’s centres, just enough to show us what’s around through photos, video and exhibits, a local guide book or two, some food and beverages to keep us going, the all important bathrooms, and maybe some rest and shelter from a rain shower from time to time.
Such places do need visitors to survive, though, as the easy EU handouts are gone but I do strongly believe we can do our part to encourage a tourism economy that sustains and increases the number of these small centres.
The warmth and service of these small visitor’s centres compared to the large theme park style centres is like the comparison between the warmth, service, comfort and hospitality of Ireland’s guest houses compared with many hotels. Guest houses are also lower cost to stay in than hotels. Likewise a rural visitor’s centre is not going to urge you to spend as much as the large centres do, yet the memories will be more valuable.
Overall, my mission with my Celtic Ways tours is to encourage visits to lesser known sacred sites, use the rural visitor’s centres and stay in the friendly guest houses. Your vacation budget will go further, rural economies will be supported, your vacation memories will be so much wealthier and your soul will be deeply satisfied. You’ll want to come back as soon as you can.
I will feature deep reviews of individual small visitor’s centres on my web site as soon as I can