Dún na Sí Amenity and Heritage Park is a true community endeavour – what was once a cow park has become one of Westmeath’s and the Midlands’ most popular visitor attractions.
An hour from Galway and 75 minutes from Dublin, it rates highly on Tripadvisor. Remarkably, the park which opened in 2015 is run by a dedicated community group and over 100 volunteers play their part annually – alongside staff – to keep the park running smoothly. KATHY MASTERSON spoke to three people deeply involved in the project.
A green space of 27 acres that was formerly a cow park – yes, there is such a thing – is now a popular recreation spot and a thriving centre for Irish culture and heritage in the Midlands.
Dún na Sí Amenity and Heritage Park in Moate, Co Westmeath, welcomed about 60,000 visitors last year, and serves as an important social and educational hub for the local community.
More recently, it has provided opportunities for integration and inclusion in the area, with volunteers from all walks of life, including direct provision residents and students from the local school, coming together to care for the park.
The Secretary of Midlands Amenity Park CLG, Olive Quinn, told Changing Ireland how it all began: “Back in 2008, I was asked to attend a meeting. It was chaired by Frank Kelly, a building developer here in the town. He had a vision to create an amenity on what was a cow park here in Moate. A cow park is commonage land left to the people of the town to graze a donkey or a cow.
“In later years, it was taken over by the (Westmeath) County Council. As there were no people using the cow park for grazing, the council decided that they want to sell it off. So a group of volunteers approached the council. And they put forward their idea of leasing the land to develop it into an amenity for the town and beyond.”
The voluntary group took out a 100-year lease at the very reasonable rate of €100 a year. Then they raised almost €1,000,000 for the project.
“We were very fortunate to get the full amount of LEADER funding, which was over €650,000, and then our volunteers raised in excess of €400,000 to make up the difference,” said Olive.
The Heritage Park charges visitors an entry fee and features reconstructed buildings such as a ring fort and farmhouse, as well as a Teach Ceoil and a pet farm with goats, donkeys, rabbits and various birds.
The Teach Ceoil was originally opened in 1985 by the Moate branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, which joined forces with the Midlands Community Park Association in 2015.
The Amenity Park is home to a playground, a turlough, various sculptures, an arboretum and well-maintained walkways. Entry to the Amenity Park is free.
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“Since its inception, Dún na Sí has been at the heart of the community in Moate. And thanks to many wonderful volunteers and staff, it remains so,” Olive continued.
“It operates mainly under a Community Services Programme (CSP, which is administered by Pobal on behalf of the Department of Rural and Community Development) and we’re allowed four paid staff under Pobal.
“The staff are assisted by the Community Employment workers from Monday to Friday, and volunteers step in at the weekend and look after the animals.
“For events like the Halloween event, and the Christmas event, we had in excess of 120 volunteers. Volunteers come from the direct provision centre to help at those events, and to attend those events.”
Residents of the Temple Spa Direct Provision Centre in Horseleap, Co Westmeath, have begun to play a vital role in the upkeep of the park.
Local volunteers with New Horizons refugee and asylum-seeker support group, Pamela Sheridan and Maria Flanagan introduced Temple residents to the Dún na Sí Sensory Garden in the summer of 2022. Since then a small number of residents have been coming regularly to the garden and have also supported events in the park such as the Spooktacular Halloween event and the Christmas experience.
Maria said: Their English is really improving; they’re getting to know people in the community. It’s becoming a space for them to get to know what’s happening in the community, get to know other volunteers from around the town. It’s become a space of, slowly but surely, more integration in the town.
“It’s very good for their mental health and for their wellbeing. They’re a couple of miles outside town in a very isolated part of the country. So for them to come into town and have a routine and to engage with other people is really important for them.
“We always end the evening with a cuppa and some treats to finish off the evening’s work. This gives us space to chat about local things, share experiences about our cultures and countries, get to know one another and above all have some fun.”
Zak, one of the direct provision residents, said: “I cannot stay in my room all day. Every day was the same before I became involved with Dún na Sí Amenity and Heritage Park.”
Another commented: “Volunteering is a beautiful experience that I recommend to everyone, for me it is an enriching way of giving back to the Irish community. I got the opportunity to meet and work with my sweet friends Maria, Margaret and Olive as a team sharing tasks in the park and saving our globe.
“Collaborating with them enabled me to strengthen my teamwork skills, make beautiful friends and learn a lot in all aspects from improving my English language to embracing the culture and (becoming) somehow integrated in the Irish community.”
Temple Accommodation Centre is developing a community garden for residents and a collaborative project with Dún na Sí is in the pipeline, such as planting seeds in the centre’s polytunnel for plants that can then be planted in the park’s sensory garden.
Maria hopes that this can become a symbol, called “‘Planting seeds of hope’, showing our solidarity with our friends who are seeking asylum in our community and bringing awareness to everyone in our community of the importance of showing empathy, compassion and extending the hand of friendship”.
She also believes that volunteering in the park could eventually help the direct provision residents find paid employment.
Maria added: “They’ve got to know about all the things that are happening in the park, and can get to know about potential job opportunities down the line when they’re able to work. It helps with getting work experience, getting a reference for their CVs or applications.”
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The Dún na Sí Irish Music and Genealogy Centre, also located in the park, gives visitors the opportunity to learn about the history of Irish music, song and dance. Music and dance lessons are also available, and the centre hosts monthly céili and ‘Rambling House’ events.
Karen Nugent, general manager at Dún na Sí explained: “The Rambling House is a lovely way for older people to come together to just sit around a fire and tell stories. Just a real old Irish way of life, they’re really trying to preserve that.”
Karen stressed the importance of making the park and its events affordable for all: “We’re very conscious of how we price things so that it’s affordable for everybody. We have family price tickets, so we can ensure that families are visiting the park. We normally have a Family Fun Day in the summertime. We had our Halloween event and our Christmas event.”
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The Amenity and Heritage Parks are in a constant state of development. Work on a sensory garden is currently underway, and an app was launched last August.
Karen added: “The park has 18 attractions and ten are on the app. People can download it and have a look at what’s in the park even before they go. We have a lot of local stories on the app as well, local history around the mass rock and different things like that.
“We also are just starting to open to external events. The park is so popular and it’s such a beautiful space. When people come in they see the potential of actually holding events there.
“It’s gaining traction all the time. It’s got fantastic potential; we’re just working over the next few years to get the word out there just to get more people knowing about it.”
TIMELINE – Moate’s Dún na Sí Amenity and Heritage Park
1985 – The Moate branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ) opens a centre for Irish culture called An Teach Ceoil and, the same year, the Dún na Sí Folklore Group was established.
1989 – Westmeath Genealogy project begins.
2001 – Moate Heritage Company is established so that it can host a team of Community Employment workers.
2006 – A rural museum opens in the park.
2007 – Midlands Amenity Park CLG is formed and the cow park is leased from Westmeath County Council for 100 years.
2013 – LEADER funding comes through. In January, landscaping of the Amenity Park begins and the park opens to the public later in the year.
2015 – The area is renamed the Dún na Sí Amenity and Heritage Park after a formal partnership is agreed between Moate CCÉ and Midlands Amenity Park CLG. Dún na Sí is Irish for “the fort of the fairies”.
2018 – Midlands Amenity Park CLG is awarded long-term funding support through the national Community Services Programme; this means the project can take on four staff.
2021 – Dún na Sí is awarded €126,000 under the government’s Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure Scheme to renew to renew outdoor infrastructure, to repair and develop the paths and to improve toilet facilities.
2022 – An Teach Cheoil is allocated €76,810 under the Government’s new Community Centre Investment Fund. The funds are for roof repairs, wall insulation, a heating upgrade and better lighting.
2023 – At least 60,000 people are expected to visit the park this year, a decade after the park first opened to the public.
Meanwhile, Moate residents had more cause to celebrate last year when a long-sought after playground opened in Mount Carmel Drive. Our report on how volunteers made it happen with support from Westmeath Community Development: