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.

Supportive but concerned, the council brought in Paul Stannion, the project manager who planned the city’s Commonwealth Games, to drive it to completion.

Stannion’s solution was to split the construction project in half. The first half is nearly complete, while the foundations and other works necessary for the rest – once £3 million more can be found – are in place.

Investors who had been wary about financing the hotel – the key to the project’s financing – are displaying ever more interest as the Cheetham Hill construction grows, particularly as it will soon have its own tram stop.

More than 30 million people live within 90 minutes’ travel of the centre, its backers point out, but the ambitions extend globally, particularly if they can link schools in the United States and Ireland.

“We’ll link them with the schools where their ancestors went, if they went to school at all. In time, US kids will go to Ireland and see a totally different Ireland to the one that they have been told about,” says Forde.

An interactive exhibition – the key element to the plan’s second phase – prepared by Events Ltd, which designed the Titanic display in Belfast, is being prepared.

Besides the stories of the usual subjects, US presidents and Henry Ford among them, the centre will tell the stories of men such as Hans Sloane, who invented milk chocolate, and James Drumm, the designer of the rechargeable nickel-zinc battery.

“We’re glad, in a way, that we didn’t get going when we had wanted to do so, because the technology has moved on so far in the last few years. We will have the chance of telling it so much better now,” says Forde.

He is certain it is a story that should be told outside of Ireland, rather than at home. “There are five million Irish at home and 70 million abroad, so it should be told abroad,” he says.

A ring fort built in stone forms the site’s centrepiece – one that will see every Irish surname carved into paving slabs. “It’s done in such a way that one can be taken out if we forget a name,” says Forde.

Within months, it will house marquees for weddings and other celebrations, offering a spectacular night-time view of the Manchester skyline. “We’ve three couples who held off on their date to use it,” he says.

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