Behind the scenes at ‘The Big House’…

‘We’ve around 30 volunteers working on different projects’

The Irish Famine Museum at Strokestown Park House has become a Roscommon success story with thousands of visitors learning more about the ‘Great Hunger’ and its effect on the surrounding areas each year.

Following a multi-million euro redevelopment during Covid-19, the museum and walled gardens have welcomed visitors from as far away as the US with a growing tourism interest from mainland Europe too.

Marketing Manager Tony Aspel of the Irish Heritage Trust says there’s more to the tourist attraction than meets the eye however.

“We’ve around 30 volunteers here at this point including Ukrainians and Irish people working of different projects in our gardens,” he said.

“For example, there’s a grain project going on at the moment and that’s mainly Irish volunteers who are interested in growing grain here. Their plan is to mill it and the make bread with most of the process completed on site apart from the milling.

Ukrainian and Irish volunteers are also working closely together on a vegetable garden.

“That stemmed from the Ukrainian volunteers wanting better quality beets…of course they’re not something that we really eat a lot of,” Tony says.

  “We also have Ukrainian volunteers coming from Boyle and Irish volunteers who travel over an hour from County Mayo. They come here to help with the upkeep of the house. There are so many different skills involved and people helping with preservation and cleaning. It’s obviously a very delicate process and quite a lot of patience is needed. You can’t go in like a bull in a China shop!”

Volunteers, with experience in the library service, also help out with the archives while one man even helped to restore a number of old bicycles found on the estate.

“I think what attracts many volunteers is the flexibility of it,” Tony says.

“They can come and go as they wish. So if you only have a couple of days a week you can slot in some time here. It’s a way of putting old skills to use too and it gives others a certain amount of routine”.

It’s also a wonderful way of meeting people with similar interests and the beautiful surrounds are also a help!

  One such volunteer, Gloria Houlihan, was busy in the garden when the Roscommon People dropped by recently.

The Tulsk woman, who discovered the project through Roscommon Volunteer Centre, said she had always wanted a greenhouse at home and was delighted to have the opportunity to grow vegetables such as beetroot, runner beans, tomatoes and even a fig tree.

As well as the army of volunteers, Strokestown Park House and the National Famine Museum employs around 30 full, part-time, and seasonal staff.

It also hosts everything from the Strokestown Poetry Festival and the local Agricultural Show to National Tree Week and Christmas events.

“We have Heritage Week here and Culture Night too and the majority of these events are free or as low cost as possible,” Tony explains.

“Our key attraction is the Famine Museum of course but we also have the house and gardens and the woodlands too,” Tony says.

“There are a million and one projects going on here all the time, it’s just a never-ending thing – and volunteers are a huge part of that!”