The Achill Experience as a concept came about in October 2014 after a cancelled meeting led to free time between Terence Dever, CEO of CFÁA, Colleen Corrigan Day of the Mayo Society of greater Cleveland, Margaret Lynch of the Irish American Archives and Kenny Deery of CFÁA. Comhlacht Forbartha Áitiuíl stands for the Achill Local Development Company and they were involved in a large scale twinning project between the city of Cleveland, Ohio and the parish of Achill in Mayo.
The discussion initially focussed on Achill’s famous deserted village, a settlement of what are now derelict remains of homes on the side of Slievemore Mountain but what was once a focal centrepiece of Achill life.
CFÁA’s head office is approx. 1km from the deserted village and while much activity took place under the auspices of CFÁA at that time we had underutilized assets, space and capacity to do more – and that we did.
The Achill Experience was born as a working concept and a project.
As an organisation we moved part of our operation to an alternate location in Achill Sound and freed up most of the building to be redeveloped into a visitor centre.
We firstly needed to establish would this work as a concept so phase one was launched in April 2016. What it consisted of was the following;
- Somewhere to tell the deserted village story so we re-built a deserted village boley house within our building kitted out with artefacts of the time and digital screens explaining to visitors the history as it evolved over time.
- County Mayo’s first Aquarium, in phase one it contained 8 tank experiences effectively modelled on the Dingle Ocean World but a mini ocean world, more a nod to how it began years ago than the substantive facility that exists at present.
- A technology solution to enable visitors explore the parish of Achill in an informed manner where by locating where they were on the map, points and experiences of interest could be tapped to give more detail in light touch and in depth detailed formats.
- All of this was built into an overall visitor centre – part Boley House, part Aquarium, part mobile technology solution but complimented by a broad stroke range of information and exhibits telling all the stories of Achill’s and West Mayo’s past.
We opened our doors in that April – with a sense of hope but a concern, would this work? By year end we had dealt with 16,000 visitors and had began to gain national and international publicity for the project as a standalone but also because of some of the rare inhabitants we began hosting – in particular lobsters. This publicity was of paramount importance to our next phases of development. More importantly it was the best thank you we could give to those who had confidence in our idea, the funders and supporters, Mayo Co Co, our friends and extended Diaspora in Ireland and Cleveland Ohio, Udaras na Gaeltachta, Fáilte Ireland and the BIM Flag programme.
With the success of the first nine months we were armed with a number of thing, as follows
- Validation, our numbers of visitors in a short period of time gave validation to our concept.
- We had obtained exit surveys from over 1,000 of those early visitors and without fail the surveys called out for people wanting more, more fish, a bigger Aquarium, more exhibits, extended opening hours and so on.
- It gave us the confidence to host a stakeholder engagement workshop on 11th January 2017 which invited participation from a broad range of supporters and potential supporters. Representatives of Pobal attended that along with many others from the community, the parish and funding agencies. The recommendations from this were unanimous – we needed to expand and quickly.
Phase two came along like a high speed train, planning and design followed by planning permission while securing our funding.
To cut a very long and arduous story short we delivered phase two of the Achill Experience in March 2018 with an official opening in May.
What Phase two has done for us is extended the scope, scale and dwell time within the facility, increased revenue opportunities within the Achill Experience, extended the visitor dwell time in Achill, become a product that partners like Achill Tourism, Fáilte Ireland and Udaras na Gaeltachta can promote and created long term sustainable employment in the parish of Achill.
We were supported in delivering Phase two by the LEADER programme administered through the South West Mayo Development Company, Udaras na Gaeltachta, Mayo County Council, the BIM FLAG programme and debt provided by AIB Bank.
During the development of Phase two we submitted an application to the Pobal CSP programme for support because we wanted to create long term employment in the parish of Achill but we were concerned in terms of how we would achieve this objective while still developing and funding debt.
The sanction of our application and on boarding to the CSP programme has been a very positive experience for us as a social enterprise. It gives us a firm footing in terms of how we can now focus on expanding the overall Achill Experience through to Phase three and also gives the comfort that the right people are in the right jobs managing the experience as it scales.
The benefits to Achill are many fold, increased visitor experience and dwell time leading to bed nights and secondary employment, increased positive reviews of Achill leading to repeat visitors, increased sales through our retail operation leading to increased use of product from local suppliers, increased publicity for the parish of Achill and Mayo as a result of the coverage of the parish of Achill in everything from the Irish Times to the BBC, the Plain Dealer in Cleveland to the RTE Six one news and so on.
Though many furrows have been ploughed to get us to where we are there are acres and acres of opportunity ahead.
We would like to thank all of our supporters, funders, volunteers and visitors for their enduring support and we look forward to continuing our journey in creating a bigger and better Achill Experience.