The secret life of Ireland’s tour guides

 Kevin Whelan has been a tour guide for more than 20 years in his hometown of Nenagh in Co Tipperary. Photograph: Alan Place
Ireland’s professional storytellers on sharing their love of history and culture, warring clients and hidden pizzas

We all love a good story, but only a few can tell them well. A great storyteller is someone who can hold a room, impart new knowledge and bring us to other worlds. Now that we’re waist deep in another summer of staycations, we thought we’d share a few stories from some of the best – the people at the coalface of the tourism industry – tour guides.

Kevin Whelan, has been a tour guide for more than 20 years in his hometown of Nenagh in Co Tipperary, where he gives walking tours and tours of Nenagh Castle. “I didn’t have an academic background in history. I never passed an exam in my life, but I had given days to the library just researching – history was a pastime,” he says of his career.

“I love teaching people about the history of how the town came to be. I like to bring in interesting characters and different events. As a kid I used to tend to the garden of an old house for the woman who lived there. She’d give me sixpence and I’d get chocolate biscuits. I remember once, her telling me about a man who would come to her at night and stand at the bed and shout at her – then she said to me, ‘Don’t turn around, he’s standing at the end of the bed now’, well I jumped over the bed and out the door, and never went back.” He laughs, “when I tell that story, it breaks up the tour a bit, people enjoy the human stories.”

With more than a few local tales up his sleeve, Whelan finds it easy to captivate his audience. However, there’s always the occasional challenge: “Once in Roscrea Castle, a fight started between a husband and wife. The rest of the group was just silent, the two of them were just screaming at each other. What do you do in a situation like that? The man stormed off and the woman just stood there with temper in her face. She just let out a roar at me and told me to keep talking – oh she was horrible. But, you have to be professional,” he says.

James Sheehan at Portumna Castle
James Keenan at Portumna Castle

Like Whelan, fellow Tipperary native and local guide James Keenan, who has been working at Portumna Castle for 12 years, has a few tall tales to break the ice, “I try to bring a bit of humour to the tour and to have a bit of a laugh. There’s a 15th-century carving of a lady at the Augustinian Priory, she’s wearing a horned headdress and there’s still a bit of paint still on her – a little bit of blue and a little bit of white – we tell visitors that she was the first camogie player in Lorrha – as those are the Lorrha colours.” Keenan worked in the construction sector before his move into tourism, and has never looked back: “I think of myself as a storyteller – there’s a satisfaction in knowing that people have enjoyed your company and have left with a bit more knowledge. I always come back happy – I took a national school out recently and we did a little workshop – a few weeks later I received a handmade card from all the children in the school.

“I try to appeal to people’s humanity and give them a sense of colour – what smells came from the kitchen, what they grew in their vegetable gardens, the sports they played, the herbs they used in their cooking. I build these details into the story to give people a sense of what the area was like – I try to bring them back 800 years.”

Sheena Dignam eating an oyster on one of her Galway Food Tours
Sheena Dignam eating an oyster on one of her Galway Food Tours

Another person who is well versed in sharing stories of Ireland’s food history and its people is Sheena Dignam; owner of Galway Food Tours. “Growing up, I knew that I was going to run my own business and that it was going to involve food, drink and dealing with the public,” Dignam says. She worked for years in the food industry, from restaurants to food start-ups. She even ran her own chocolate shop in Dublin before moving to Galway six years ago where she founded her food tour company. “I really thought it would be cool to bring visitors and locals to meet these passionate food producers”, she says. Dignam has a glowing reputation among restaurateurs, chefs and food suppliers; “A big part of the work is the day-to-day dealings with amazing Galway businesses – they welcome us and bring a bit of craic to the tours”.

Ellen Quinn Banville during her time as a tour guide in Paris
Ellen Quinn Banville during her time as a tour guide in Paris

When asked what stories she keeps for special occasions she jokingly says . . . “I don’t know if I can tell you . . .”, but goes on to say; “there are so many stories to tell – especially in a medieval city like Galway. Did you know it was against the law to sell warm bread in Galway city in the late 1800s?”

Dignam has had her fair share of weird and wonderful experiences. She tells a story about a woman who was “forced” to come on a food tour with her husband. “She just wasn’t interested. What really amused me was - as we were eating our local farmhouse cheeses, air dried lamb, oysters and crab - she would pull out of her small black handbag slices of cheese pizza. It was the smallest handbag. I have no idea where she was keeping all that pizza.”

Ellen Quinn Banville moved to Paris in her early 20s, and by chance ended up as a tour guide. For seven years she gave tours at the Eiffel Tower, the gardens of Versailles and later on, bespoke walking tours around the lesser-known quarters of the French capital. “I realised that I was good at it, and I really enjoyed it. You just get a buzz, it’s almost like playing a character – you can just tell when you’re winning people over.

With almost two years away from home I began to get very homesick, before it dawned on me – ‘how amazing would it be to be a tour guide at home in Ireland?’

“The thing that stuck with me was the psychology of people on holiday – particularly in Paris. There’s often so much riding on that trip. You’d meet people who are on this trip of a lifetime – people have a vivid idea of what Paris should be. I always saw that a big part of my job was, yes, telling the history of Paris, but I always thought it was also showing people how to ‘work’ Paris,” she says. “Sometimes I would bring people to a metro station after their tour, to show them how to buy tickets and how to get through the turnstiles, and make sure they were going in the right direction. But, also I loved sharing an insight into the culture around just sitting and having a coffee, things to make them feel more comfortable and enjoy the experience.”

Tour guide Gemma Howe left Ireland to travel in 2018 and settled in a town in northern Vietnam called Du Gia
Tour guide Gemma Howe left Ireland to travel in 2018 and settled in a town in northern Vietnam called Du Gia

Another woman who cut her teeth as an international guide before returning to Ireland is Gemma Howe. Now front-of-house co-ordinator at 14 Henrietta Street museum in Dublin, Howe left Ireland to travel in 2018 and settled in a town in northern Vietnam called Du Gia. “I worked in the hostel, helping the owner as he had very little English. As the weeks went by and I got to know the area, I offered a guiding service to backpackers to hidden gems and waterfalls I found on my days off. With almost two years away from home I began to get very homesick, before it dawned on me – ‘how amazing would it be to be a tour guide at home in Ireland?’”

A seasoned tour guide today, Howe shares the biggest challenges of touring the country with foreign visitors: “The weather! Trying to cheer up a group of 40 passengers who have travelled all the way to Ireland to see the Cliffs of Moher and they see nothing but fog! I used up all my terrible jokes on those days,” she says.

In 2020, Howe took on a role as tour guide at Henrietta Street, a former tenement building – now a museum – in Dublin’s city centre. “I love focusing on the stories of ordinary people who, in my eyes, did extraordinary things,” she says. “I was drawn to this building as my family on my mother’s side grew up in a similar tenement in Gardiner Street in Dublin before the big exodus of people from the city to the suburbs. My grandmother had a stall at Moore Street. Growing up in the 1990s my mother sent me to help out at the stall during the summer months. I just sat with my grandmother asking so many questions about what life was like for her and for her mother – who lived in the tenements. Every time I walk through Henrietta Street today my grandmother’s stories are brought to life.”

Seán Buckley at Bryce House on Garnish island
Seán Buckley at Bryce House on Garnish island

From the tenements of Dublin, to the coast of west Cork – Seán Buckley is delighted to be back giving tours of Bryce House on Garnish Island – “It’s a piece of paradise. You come from the rugged landscape here in west Cork and you go out into these beautiful gardens with its own microclimate. I have a lovely commute to work, a 10-minute boat trip each morning, I pass all these seals greeting me everyday, the wildlife, the birds and swans . . . I’d work here 12 months of the year if I could,” he says.

Like so many working in the tourism industry, Buckley has had to adapt to a Covid world. “Last year, we weren’t able to give tours at all due to Covid, as the house wasn’t open. But this year, we are delighted to be back there – we were a bit homesick.”