Athenry Heritage Centre is small but significant amenity found in the centre of the infamous medieval walled town, located fifteen miles East of Galway city. This year the centre celebrates ten years of bringing the past to life through a series of fun activities and colourful displays. A community service project funded by Pobal, the heritage centre aims to put the fun into history, as is proudly exclaimed on its website and in its mission statement. The Heritage Centre itself is located within St. Mary’s Church in Athenry town. The fact that it is enveloped in history is particularly significant and visually engaging, as this church is a protected structure. The surrounding graveyard is also active, illustrating the continuity of the town’s history.
The designers of the heritage centre display interacted well within the confines of the church space and utilized the layout to its best advantage. The long rectangular nave is subdivided by fake masonry props that act as dividers and circulation devices, guiding visitors on a particular route through a series of different spaces. These include the dungeon, armory and medieval streetscape. In terms of circulation within the gallery, the passages are wide enough to facilitate the movement of large groups throughout. As well as this the chancel at the back of the church has been utilized as a stage area, often used for plays by drama groups, puppeteers or school children. Information is presented via a series of visual aids throughout the gallery. These are detailed information boards, artefacts (the Athenry Mace and Seal), models of the walled town layout and a timeline.
The centre offers a variety of activities, both daily and seasonal, as well as historical tours. Medieval costumes are available for visitors of all sizes and heights and are designed by local volunteers using second-hand fabrics. By dressing in medieval costume or armour it brings the past to life for the participants. Archery is provided and implores participants to channel their “hidden Robin Hood” by catering for all ages and levels. A sensory herb garden allows visitors to explore history using their senses in a relaxed outdoor environment, while walking tours of the Athenry town allow further open air exploration of its historical sites.
A key strength of the heritage centre is its engagement with and education of individuals with special needs, as indicated in its mission statement. As well as participating in the tour, dress-up and role-play activities in the centre, the aforementioned sensory herb garden provides a huge range of benefits to both children and adults with special needs. Visitors can touch, smell and taste the herbs, many of which would have been cultivated and used during the Medieval period. The interior of the heritage centre is also completely wheelchair accessible. The heritage centre also offers a venue for children’s birthday parties and provides medieval costumes, an archery lesson, a medieval banquet table for the party food, face-painting, games and a tour of the dungeon. Seasonal events include a Hallowe’en Spectacular and Christmas Winter Wonderland. The centre also celebrates the Heritage Council’s annual National Walled Town’s day with various activities including battle re-enactments, plays by local theatre groups, archery tournaments, medieval craft demonstrations and a children’s parade.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit there and, judging by the happy faces depicted on the website, many others enjoy it too. The staff are friendly, helpful and eager to impart knowledge and create a fun visitor experience. The centre fulfils its aim of ‘putting the fun into history’ with its wide range of entertaining activities, while also educating the public on what life in a medieval walled town was actually like. The level of accessibility for all visitors is exceptional. It promotes the rich heritage of Athenry very well to locals and visitors from further afield through the range of seasonal and daily events organized. It is accessible via train or bus, or alternatively by car on the motorway from Dublin to Galway. A fun experience for all and you might even learn a thing or two!