Tip O’ Neill, former Speaker of the American House of Representatives, once remarked that all politics is local. If this is the case, the same may be said of history, in that a nation’s history may be categorised as the sum total of all of those local battles, evictions and incidents over time.

If one is to attempt to fully understand those factors that have affected and moulded our place in the world one must examine these influences at a local level. The growth in the number of heritage centres located throughout the country during the last decade goes some distance to examine this impact.

In December l993 Bord Failte bestowed the status of a Heritage Town upon Athenry, a decision based upon the eclectic nature of the town’s varied architectural composition. In achieving such a status Athenry became the first town in Connaught to receive this honour. As a direct consequence of this decision the Church of Ireland church located in the grounds of St. Mary’s Collegiate Church was identified as the ideal site to house a heritage centre that would showcase the rich history of the area. After a period of five years of intensive fund-raising, both here and in America, the heritage centre is about to open its doors to the public.

The centre will open for two to three weeks at the end of this summer and will formally open in April/May of next year. The centre’s main exhibits will consist of a series of audio-visual and other displays recreating the historical development of Athenry. These exhibits will evince the strong historical influence that has permeated the town’s evolution since its foundation through to the present century; an influence that still continues to exert a bearing over the town as the new millennium beckons.

The story of Athenry’s development is a subject not solely reflected in the rich architectural legacy of buildings such as Athenry Castle or the Dominican Priory; these are, rather, reminders of the town’s historical past. A comprehensive understanding of the area’s historiographical evolution entails an appreciation of the life experiences of those residents in the town itself. The essence of these experiences is graphically evoked through the use of the aforementioned audio-visual displays and exhibits that capture the nature of life down through time. The centre will house two distinct exhibitions in this regard. Downstairs the exhibits will concentrate on the town’s strong medieval character. Meanwhile, the gallery area upstairs will house exhibits recalling Athenry’s social and cultural life in the 19th and early 20th century.

Running parallel to this will be the initiation of a project designed to compile anecdotal recollections of growing up in the area in the early part of the 20th century. A book detailing these memoirs will be published at some future juncture. A tourist trail is also being prepared. This walk will take in such sites of antiquarian and tourist interest as Athenry Castle, as well as the Dominican Priory and the town walls. Guided tours will be organised every half hour during the summer season.

Outside the building the undergrowth that has accumulated in the grounds is being removed; when cleared an intensive survey of the graveyard area will take place. This project will require a detailed examination of the headstones in situ with such details as inscriptions and height noted. A map with the location of the various plots indicated will then be produced. This project will be realized in conjunction with the West Galway Family History Society.

Besides the various projects alluded to above, the O.P.W. will oversee the completion of two archaeological digs in the chancel areas of the older Collegiate Church. Whilst a completion date has not been finalised it is quite possible that the digs may take as much as three years to complete.

The centre will also contain a gift shop. Amongst those items available for retail include T-shirts, sweatshirts, pens, books and gift goods. All of these items will be sourced locally where possible.

Athenry has also been recently admitted to the Walled Towns of Europe. Membership of this organisation will again promote the town and its environs on a greater scale than previously. As is readily apparent from the above the Heritage Centre will be the focal point of much activity over the coming months.

Anyone wishing to contribute to either of those exhibitions mentioned above, or, has any questions vis a vis the centre itself should contact either Brian Walsh at … or Madelyn Brody at …