Dramatic illustrations by David Rooney set the tone… “this is not a fairytale castle!” In fact the new interpretive centre added to the buildings adjacent to King John’s Castle in Limerick don’t shy away from the site’s violent past. It wears it like a badge of honor; after all, it only emphasizes the city’s coveted location on the Shannon River.
While the exhibits rely on the familiar tricks to entertain children — video monitors with greetings from costumed characters; flip-to-learn-more panels; and several hands-on areas — the more grown-up panels and films employ production values usually reserved for top-rated programs on the History Channel. With a sweeping soundtrack and snazzy graphics, it almost feels like the storylines for “Game of Thrones” and “The Tudors” must have played out right in the Treaty City.
One can’t deny, there is a risk of information overload in the newly renovated site. Fortunately, more subtle storytelling techniques break up the space — like the hallway covered with descriptive phrases like, “Sickly, sweet smell of emptied chamber pots.” Such lines stick with the visitor and somehow get them to slow down and process the information they consumed.
The archaeology area under the modern addition to the castle has gotten some much-needed graphics. When combined with the details covered in the interpretive centre, it’s much easier to understand the clues buried in the rubble… especially bits like the evidence of invading tunnels that were dug under the outside wall.
In for a Chat
There’s something new around every corner, and while the site always had one or two roaming guides in period costume, they’ve upped their game with more guides and better training. Maria and Sean in blacksmith shed knew exactly how to counteract my apprehension to enter. “Come have a look… how about you try on this helmet.”
The Maze and the Best View of the City
From the courtyard, there is a labyrinth of stone stairs, walls, and halls to wander. The highlight arrives atop the newly opened “high” tower where the panorama takes in the Shannon River, Thomond Bridge, and a look back over the city. On a clear day, this is probably one of the best views in town. And since I was there on Sunday morning, I was treated to a long serenade of church bells.
Old and New
I’ll warn you, reviews of the site prior to July 2013 may turn you off from even considering this stop, but I can assure you, it is a very different place now. Since King John’s Castle reopened after its €5.7 million upgrade, the interpretive centre is completely new and of the highest quality, rooms in the castle have been fitted interesting content, and the entire place received a much-needed tidying up.
I’ll admit, I miss the mint-your-own coin activity that was once offered… and they should probably bring back the old audio-visual simply because everyone had a good laugh at how bad it played to visitors. I guess I’ll have to live with my memories of both.
There are more exhibits in the glass building (which they tried to hide a bit in the refurbishing by painting parts grey instead of leaving them bright white), and it also houses the gift shop and café. The food and the setting in the café is beautiful… but if you’re on a budget, slip over to Tracey’s bakery in the convenience store across the street for some of the same desserts and made-to-order sandwiches for a fraction of the cost.