Unlocking Sligo Gaol

The opening of Sligo Gaol for local access and tourism would be a gamechanger for the region.

That’s one of the key points from the findings of a top-level feasibility study on the future of the jail. The findings of the study by CHL Consulting were released this week.

Dublin based CHL are a vastly experienced firm of consultants who have been closely involved with several world travel award winners, including the Titanic Centre in Belfast and Spike Island prison.

The feasibility study on the potential future uses of the jail was commissioned by the Friends of Sligo Gaol group and published this week in conjunction with Sligo County Council and Sligo Leader.  

The study recommends a progressive phased development of the project in what they describe as a “grand vision, small steps” approach.

CHL predict that the ultimate “grand vision” stage would see the jail become a flagship attraction bringing in 55,000 visitors annually.  

It would also involve the development of a new interactive exhibition and museum area  and a dedicated glass-enclosed events space.

 

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In preparation for the first phase of the reopening plan it is proposed in the study recommendations that the County Council should cease its current uses of the jail buildings – storage facilities and – and other functions. With limited funds available, the council has already began initial small scale works in this regard.

The study findings envisages that when Phase One gets underway it will start with basic tours of the cell blocks.

As funding streams would gradually become available, the project would move on in small steps to the “grand vision” flagship stage.

On the project’s potential the study predicts that when fully operational the jail could bring in 55,000 visitors annually.

The study states: “Sligo needs to strengthen its range of attractors and the jail is an obvious prospect.

“The ultimate ambition for a visitor experience at Sligo Gaol is to develop a flagship attraction that will not only share the stories of the historic site but also boost tourism in Sligo town as a whole and support community and commercial opportunities as a result”.
 
Welcoming the publication of the study findings and lead-up activities of the Friends of Sligo Gaol, Martin Lydon, Chief Executive of Sligo County Council said:
“I commend the people working on this project. The people of Sligo appreciate your valued work in the protection of such an important heritage asset”.

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Malcolm Noonan Minister of State for Heritage said: “I congratulate all involved and look forward  to visiting Sligo newest heritage destination as soon as possible”.

Chairperson of the Friends of Sligo Gaol Tamlyn McHugh said the group are delighted with the findings of the study. She said:  We started working with CHL in 2019 and we are thrilled that we have now reached this stage".

The study recommends that an initial working group be set up to progress the development of the jail project.
In the first instance this could be a group established jointly by Friends of Sligo Jail and Sligo County Council.
Other stakeholders could be invited to join the group with a view to sharing their expertise.

This group will progress the development of the more substantive elements of the project and identify funding sources for the various stages of its expansion.

It is hoped that overall funding will come from outside the county. Key potential stakeholders may include national bodies such as Failte Ireland, the Heritage Council
among others.

The feasibility study was funded by Sligo LCDC and Friends of Sligo Gaol.

 

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DEVELOPMENT PATH: GRAND VISION, SMALL STEPS

The consultants who undertook the study, CHL, have taken the view that it is unfortunate if great ambition is suffocated too early in a development process by (yet to be proven) concerns. Hence the suggested approach of ”Grand Vision, Small Steps”. 

This is essentially an incremental approach to project development, through which a grand vision can be established at the outset, whilst recognising that its realization will not take place immediately but rather over a number of phases.
 
This approach allows time for experience and review. Experience, in the sense that once a phased developed is completed, there will then be a period of years to observe the reality of the project’s performance. 

Review, in the sense that subsequent phases of project development will only be triggered by a review process which establishes that the project has performed successfully (in terms of visitor numbers and economic impact).

PHASE 1 – PREPARATORY PHASE:

This first phase is a necessary preparation for the substantive visitor experience development phases that follow.
 

It involves Sligo County Council removing the various uses that it has introduced to the site over recent decades. These include archive storage, which occupy cells in the Gaol, machinery and equipment stores, and car-parking in the exercise yard and in front of the Governor’s House.

 

Removal of these uses should be viewed as a short-term goal.

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PHASE 2 – INTERIM PHASE:

With limited investment and within a relatively short period of time, a consistent and regular visitor experience could be established that builds on the existing tours and events. This would start with the process of tidying up the site and buildings, and also help to build awareness and support for the long term project.

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The basic visitor experience would include the following:
 

  • Regular guided tours for visitors of the Three- and some of the Two-Storey Cell Blocks, potentially led by costumed guides at peak times. These would run during the main tourism season of May to end-September, and would also be promoted via direct contact with tour operators
     

  • Basic static interpretative elements within the relevant Cell Blocks
     

  • The development of a year-round events programme, including ‘dark tourism’ events, in conjunction with external partners, e.g. the Hawkswell, Sligo Co. Co. Arts Officer, community groups, etc.
     

  • The development of a schools’ programme
     

  • The development of strategic partnerships with third level institutions (art and history) to create innovative interpretative elements
     

  • This basic experience could be supplemented with the development of an Augmented Reality app.

PHASE 3 – THE ESSENTIAL SLIGO GAOL EXPERIENCE:

This would involve the development of the Governor’s House as a visitor reception area and orientation point, as well as forming the first stage of the visitors’ journey through the Gaol.

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This Phase of the project would include all elements of Phase 2 as well as the following:
 

  • Visitor reception and ticketing on the ground floor of the Governor’s House
     

  • Audio visual presentation of the Gaol’s stories and some introductory static interpretation, again housed on the ground floor in the former chapel space
     

  • Toilets, retail and a basic café space on the ground floor
     

  • Office and community spaces on the first floor
     

  • Basic recreation of the former garden to the front of the House in keeping with the historic nature of the site.

PHASE 4 – THE EXPANDED SLIGO GAOL EXPERIENCE:

This phase incorporates all the previous elements, but with visitor movement between the Governor’s House and the Cell Blocks now being accommodated by the restored Link Tunnel.

 

It also includes the addition of two new elements of the Experience: the recreation of the Treadmill and the execution
area.

 

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The additional elements of this Phase include the following:
 

  • The one-way flow of visitors from the Governor’s House to the Cell Blocks via the Link Tunnel
     

  • More advanced interpretation in the Cell Blocks, to include appropriate use of technology to tell a greater number of interconnected stories
     

  • The introduction of self-guided option for visitors alongside guided tours
     

  • Removal of machinery workshop and store
     

  • Refurbishment of Treadmill Yard (machinery store yard) to allow for two new areas: the Interactive Treadmill experience and the Executioner’s area
     

  • Refurbishment of the Exercise Yard as a circulation/rest space for visitors, as well as outdoor space for groups/events
     

  • Orientation strategy across the site to ensure proper visitor flow under self-guiding option
     

  • Production of maps/information leaflets in key languages to support self-guiding.

PHASE 5 – THE COMPLETE SLIGO GAOL EXPERIENCE:

The Full Experience includes all of the previous elements as well as the development of a new exhibition and museum in the Marshalsea, and the development of a dedicated events space, in the space between the cell block and prison wall.

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  • An interactive exhibition based on My Tale Untold or similar in the Marshalsea
     

  • A museum space in the Marshalsea
     

  • Removal of steel truss and corrugated iron roof between the cell block and boundary wall, and creation of a glass-enclosed event space to be serviced either by the creation of an onsite kitchen or by contract catering arrangement.
     

This full expression of the project -The Complete Sligo Gaol Experience - would allow Sligo Gaol to cater for a larger number of tourists on site, where there will be more to do and see, and would enable it to attract related and unrelated events, including private events.

THE NEXT STEPS

CHL have concluded that The Preparatory Phase is in the hands of Sligo County Council. There is substantial space available elsewhere on the overall site that is in the ownership of the Council.


Some or all of the uses currently being accommodated in the Gaol buildings could be relocated within this site. What is required is a practical master plan for the site, inclusive of a schedule and budget for implementation as a single project.
 

In order to progress the development of the more substantive Sligo Gaol project, an organisation structure of some sort needs to be established which:
 

  • Has a range of skills relevant to the Sligo Gaol project
     

  • Has the Sligo Gaol project as its only task focus.


In the first instance this could be a Working Group established jointly by Friends of Sligo Gaol and Sligo County Council.

Sligo County Council and Friends of Sligo Gaol could establish the role, purpose, and function of the working group, decide on the governance of the group (Chair, sub committees, etc.), and identify other stakeholders that might be invited to join the Group with a view to sharing their
expertise.

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Panel discussion on the future of Sligo Gaol

On the weekend of 7-9th September 2018, Friends of Sligo Gaol marked the 200th anniversary of the opening of Ireland's only surviving polygonal prison, rich in history and heritage with a Conference Weekend in Sligo.

A key element of the conference was a panel discussion exploring "The Future of Sligo Gaol".

Participants included
 
•    Dr Gillian O’Brien (Expert in ‘Dark Tourism), 
•    Eva Costello (Wild Atlantic Way Team Manager at Fáilte Ireland), 
•    Siobhan Ryan (Heritage Officer with Sligo County Council), 
•    Patrick McHugh (Events Manager and head tour guide at Lifford Old Courthouse), 
•    Tim Carey (Historian and former manager of Kilmainham Gaol) 
•    Ciarán McHugh (Feasibility Study Project Manger with Friends of Sligo Gaol)