The story of Ireland told to the world from Manchester
The first phase of the ambitious Irish World Heritage Centre is nearing completion
MICHAEL FORDE, raised in Bohaunes, between Kiltimagh and Knock in Co Mayo, recites the date of his emigration from Ireland as a soldier would his identity number: “Fourth of August, 1961.”
Like others of his generation who headed to Manchester, Forde came to the Blarney dancehall, a shed at the rear of the British Legion building in Cheetham Hill once known as “Little Ireland”.
“There was no drink licence, so it was tea and swiss rolls. Some of them would pop into the Legion to get a drink,” says Forde. In time the Legion left and the ambitiously titled Irish World Heritage Centre took its place.
Since then it has hosted taoisigh and presidents, gathering all the while some of the Irish story – the floorboards in one room come from the mill in Haslingden where Michael Davitt lost his arm.
The flag that draped Michael Collins’s coffin – “The history of that has been checked out”, says Forde – is held by the centre, though it is never put on display.
Today, however, a new chapter is beginning with the near- completion nearby of the first phase of a new £15 million (€18.5 million) building, one properly deserving of a global title, that will tell the story of Ireland, it is hoped, to an audience of millions.
Unlike the existing centre, which has a thatch-covered bar in one room and one dressed as a crannóg in another, its replacement, on a 25-acre site, is contemporary in every element: huge glass windows, clean lines, no Gaelic kitsch.
“We want to tell the story of the new Ireland, just as much as the old,” says Forde, the centre’s chairman, adding that the organisers are in contact with the National Museum in Dublin, as well as seeking artefacts throughout Britain.
The site has been donated by Manchester city council, which sees the centre, says Cllr Sue Murphy, not only making an important contribution to recording the city’s Irish heritage but also providing a tourist attraction.
Difficulties have plagued the project – in the works for more than a decade – particularly when the economic crash destroyed a plan to bring a hotelier on board. The Irish Government contributed £2 million.
“We had the deals done. We lost £1 million on the sale of our building. We had planning permission for a supermarket. We were lucky to get what we did,” Forde says.