I recently revisited EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin, five years after I wrote a fairly critical blog here. I called it a 'museum of two minds,' one of which looked seriously at the history of Irish emigration, and then—I felt—veered off into a sort of "Look at me! I'm Irish and famous" rhapsody.
The means of emigration, from small boats to sailing ships to airplanes
I still think it was a fair criticism, but on second thought, and second visit, I think they've done a better job than I felt then. I can't say for certain how much change the museum has made and how much of the change comes from me, but I felt a better balance this time around.
There are still things that need more discussion and thought, but there's no denying it covers a lot of territory, and does it in a very engaging way, making great use of various video and display technologies.
Visitors enter through images of the Ireland emigrants left behind
That's perhaps not surprising; it was designed by Event Communications, a London-based firm that has won awards for its work on a number of museums, including the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the Hans Christian Anderson Museum in Denmark, the Titanic experience in Belfast, the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin and more. EPIC has won several awards.
Hints of the obstacles and opportunities at the other end of the trip
In case you're wondering what EPIC stands for, it doesn't. Jessica Traynor, an EPIC curator told an interviewer that “We have joked it stands for Every Person Is Connected. But really it’s an acknowledgement of the epic journeys Irish emigrants have made.”
For many, and perhaps especially in the U.S., the story of Irish emigration focuses on the 'potato famine' of the mid 19th century, and the numbers show how big an influence that was on both sides of the Atlantic, but EPIC makes clear it wasn't that simple.
A series of 'personal testimony' videos by actors illustrates numbers of other causes of emigration both before and after the famine: displacement from land, religious persecution, political changes and the effects of industrialization and war.
It also gives attention, perhaps too much for the main thrust of the story, to those who left for other reasons—as missionaries, teachers, medical workers and in more recent years as peace-keeping troops. All those are real, but they are not, really, emigration or related to it.
More relevant, and made clear in multi-media displays were such causes as the expropriation of huge tracts of land seized from both peasants and lords by Cromwell's forces and later by those of William III. That was followed by attempts to root out Catholic worship and suppress Irish traditional culture and language.
And, to be honest, EPIC covers those topics well, with large-scale projections on the vaulted walls and with details to be found in exhibits grouped with them. If you just want an overall view, watch the walls; if you want more detail, read the rest. It's a formula that works well.
The narration is clearly critical of English rule of Ireland, but doesn't shy away from criticizing events since independence; the Troubles of not-so-long ago, the scandal of the Magdalene laundries and persecution until recent years of LGB people are covered and linked to emigration in recent decades.
Several galleries highlight Irish writers and painters (and a pub, why not?), as well as, well, literally, song and dance. And Gaelic football.
The last galleries, as well as the music area, still highlight famous people who have some claim, however tenuous, to Irish ancestry, including Barack Obama. Also highlighted there is Ireland's place on the world stage
All in all, not a badly-balance look at a very complex subject, and very much worth the visit.
And, if you've wondered at all those barrel-vaulted spaces: EPIC is on the lower level of an 1820s warehouse building designed by John Rennie and in its time one of the largest enclosed spaces in Europe. You can get an idea of the size from the picture above, made when it was the site of an 1856 banquet to honor nearly 5,000 Irish veterans of the Crimean War.