Having lived and worked abroad for the majority of his adult life — Africa, the UK, America and now Dublin — Mervyn Greene felt about Ireland from afar the way many Irish emigrants feel: a heightened connection to home.
A Maths and Engineering graduate from Trinity College in Dublin, he travelled the globe, working in technology and finance. But the managing director and co-founder of the EPIC emigration museum in Dublin retained what calls an “International Irish outlook” on life.
“I’d been an Irish person in America, I’d been an Irish person in London,” he says. “By the early 2000s, I had four kids, and I genuinely wanted them to grow up in Ireland.”
In 2013, the century-old edifice of heavy metal, the iconic but forgotten-about CHQ building in Dublin, caught the eye of Greene and his step-brother and business Neville Isdell, the Irish-born, Barbados-based former chief executive of Coca-Cola. They were seeking out a business opportunity and fell in love with the building, which had recently been restored “magnificently”.
Initially, the building was turned into cafe-type food spaces to attract workers in Dublin’s burgeoning finance district. Then, after a year or two, Dogpatch Labs was established: a start-up hub and co-working space for tech companies.
The building measured around 200,000 square feet — so Greene and Isdell began working on the idea which became EPIC museum, the fastest-growing tourist attraction in Ireland’s capital, perhaps in all of the country.
While overseas, Greene noticed the affinity and goodwill that exists for Irish people. Isdell, another emigrant, agreed that an emigration museum, if done well, would be a worthwhile investment.
The pair spent €15 million on fitting up 45,000 square feet and decided they wanted to create a “destination”.
“The mantra we have is that everything must be world-class,” Greene says. “We also said that we didn’t really respect the border — if you’re from Antrim or Belfast, you’re as Irish as someone from Cork or Kerry.”
Founded in 2016, EPIC Ireland is a visitor attraction that tells the story of Irish emigration and achievement. It explains how and why more than ten million people left Ireland over the course of 1,500 years of the country’s history, tracking the impact that they had on the world around them.
The all-interactive, fully digitised museum illustrates the influence Irish emigrants had on sport, music, dance, creativity, charity, politics, science and technology.
It was recently voted Europe’s leading tourist attraction, beating off the likes of Buckingham Palace, the Colosseum, and the Eiffel Tower at the 26th World Travel Awards.
Greene predicts that the museum will welcome 300,000 visitors in 2019, an astonishing figure for a space founded just three years ago.
Because neither Isdell nor Greene come from a tourism or museum background, they knew from the outset that they would need to innovate.
They opted for an immersive, digital experience, and, after doing some research, discovered that nobody had ever set up an emigration museum. Yes, there were plenty of institutions that celebrated — and archived records of — immigration. But, Greene says, they found a niche.
EPIC’s three fundamental aims, what Greene calls his “cardinal rules”, are: to inform, to educate, to be accurate. Every historical fact has been rigorously double or triple-checked. If an answer is hazy or in doubt, the museum will specify this.
“The last thing we wanted was to create a fantasy out of it. It really does have a serious mission. But we do exhibit, with a smile on our faces, people like Che Guevara and Rihanna.”
Because the museum is untypical, nontraditional and mould-breaking, it does not collect items, meaning it can move quickly to update its collections.
“If we want to add Saoirse Ronan to our actor’s exhibition, it’s very, very easy to do so,” Greene says, noting how the former Ireland rugby star Ronan O’Gara was recently added off the back of his recent successes as a coach overseas.
EPIC holds images or references to about 750 people of Irish, historical interest, telling about 350 individual stories, in-depth so much as possible. Greene remarks that many people’s stories are “impossibly broad”, so they redirect people to other organisations, locations and museums to get more information.
“We see ourselves as a first port-of-call for visitors. They can then drill down [on information] with other organisations [or locations].”
Conscious of representation, Greene estimated that a quarter of the museum’s stories relate to people from Ulster. They’re also working hard to achieve gender proportionality, with female stories hovering close to 20 per cent.
“That’s probably a fair [percentage] because a lot of women’s stories were suppressed or not told,” Greene says. “In 2019, though, you really do have to provide role models for girls and women.”
Why the museum has been such a whirlwind success is beyond Greene. As he understands it, word-of-mouth recommendations in small cities like Dublin are Goldust: taxi drivers, neighbours, hotel concierges, tourist offices — word gets around fast. Sheer excellence, Greene tells the Irish World, make a must-see.
EPIC’s online reviews, especially on TripAdvisor, catapult it straight to the top of ranked lists, piquing the interests of curious travellers and listless locals alike. School tours have proved invaluable, too.
He has noticed increased levels of school tours and received feedback from teachers that the student’s felt the museum makes history — and learning — fun. He expects repeat visits this way. Schools will become accustomed to visiting. The museum even hired an Education Officer to devise youth-oriented tour routes.
What makes people type those effusive reviews, and tell their workmates about their time there, depends on the type of visitor. For people born in Ireland or of Irish descent, Greene says there is a great source of pride behind CHQ’s walls.
“Irish-Americans, Irish-Canadians, Irish-Australians — they’re all slightly different but of course they can all resonate that they come from Irish families who have emigrated,” he says. “This is their story.”
That said, you do not have to be Irish to appreciate one nation’s storied history, which is inextricably linked to mass emigration.
Greene, who is stepping aside from his current role as EPIC CEO in September to focus on broader CHQ developments, is insistent that everything is created with a large audience in mind. “We’re not trying to create a niche, or present a history lesson here. We’re trying to educate by entertaining and informing.”
This approach means attracting — and engaging — people with no Irish connection and little to no grasp of Irish history.
“We’re also deliberately trying to give people who know nothing about Ireland an introduction of what it means to be from Ireland and Irish,” Greene says. “We want to know why they will have come across so many Irish people in their countries or on their travels.”
A genealogy unit is fast becoming one of the most popular hubs within the museum. Employing 5 or so experts there, the team helps with Irish ancestry. “It personalizes the visitor’s journey,” Greene explains.
Two years ago, Candadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeu, with the help of EPIC’s ancestry team, discovered he has Irish roots in Cork. He was clearly moved by the news, Greene remembers. A birth certificate dating from way back in the 1660s confirmed his Irish family tree.
The awards, the rising visitor numbers, and the reviews are all sure signs of success. Yet possibly the most eye-catching indication of EPIC’s effectiveness is in how Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs liaises with the museum during visits from foreign officials.
Various ambassadors have told Greene that bringing people to EPIC is preferable to briefing notes or small talk. It is imaginative, fun, fast and, most importantly, educational.
Delegations descending upon the museum are commonplace: Nigerian princes visited the week prior to the Irish World’s conversation with Greene, while, that same night, Croatian leaders were scheduled to take part in a special tour.
The Irish-UK emigration story naturally features heavily in the museum. This includes sections on the waves of Irish emigration to Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow in the 1800s; the surges in the 1950s, predominantly male construction workers; and, in the 1980s, when thousands of well-educated workers left for London and LGBT people fled Ireland avoiding persecution.
“The UK story looms very large in all of our galleries. And it’s told very well, too,” Greene says, adding that the ‘Motivation’ galleries — which explains why people left — includes conflict, economic, social, emotional, and legislative reasons.
“It’s really an opportunity for anyone in the UK to refresh their memories and knowledge of the emigration story. And, more importantly, if you’re interested in family history or research, you can go on to the website to book a consultation appointment.”
Over the next few months, the museum, working alongside Croke Park, will upgrade its GAA gallery. Establishing such partnerships, Greene says, is vital going forward.
Estimations put 80 million people worldwide claiming Irish descent. This puts Greene’s “long-term goal” of 750,000 visitors a year into perspective.
Maybe, someday, EPICs will pop up all over the globe in places as far-flung as Boston, Shanghai, Wellington, Glasgow, Moscow, and Cape Town. Anywhere where the green, white and orange flag has been planted.