The Irefin Palace is yet another treasure chest of ancient Yoruba history and wonder in Ibadan. Located in the nucleus of the city, the busy Beere market, this structure still stands today with imposing grace since 1910. It's walls and corridors are home to whispers and secrets of the past, as well as insights into the role of the Irefin clan in the development of Ibadan so it was quite an honor to be visiting.
We arrived at the palace a little after midday, by then the heat of the overhead sun had switched to 'bake', but the building provided some respite. It has a powerful aura to it, thick walls, columns, arches, elegant doorways and statues, leave a strong wave of reverence while the shrine dedicated to Ogun, deity of iron and warfare adds another layer of intensity. The palace is of great significance to the Yoruba because it is one of the last standing cradles of traditional culture and heritage in the city. It was built as a home to a powerful chief at the time, Oba Irefin Ogundeyi, a philanthropist and advocate of formal education with great influence in the community.
His parents migrated from Owu, Ogun State (19th century), and they joined the community of fellow Owu people that had settled in Ibadan. They were allocated land by the Balogun, and it was here, on the Oke-Ofa hill that Irefin Ogundeyi built his palace. He had grown steadily in influence since 1895, rising from 'Asaju Baale' till he became Olubadan for two years (1912 - 1914).
In Yorubaland, palaces are the most important buildings because they serve a multitude of functions. They are governmental, industrial, socio-cultural, economic, recreational and storage structures, while they serve as a residential space to the members of the royal family (including the extended), and religious sites for special ceremonies, making the space dear to a lot of people. For me, this structure serves as a preserve of traditional artistic expression, engineering, creativity and ingenuity, much of which has been thrown aside with our drive to 'modernize'.
Before we looked around the palace, we had to seek permission, and also gain insight into its history, the plans for its restitution and the legacy of the Irefin clan. We were introduced to one of the older members of the family - Baba Tabi Irefin, and in his benevolence, he took the time to tell us stories and show us the space.
Way past his 80's and now blind, he spoke (in Yoruba) about the significance behind these walls. He told us why it sat on a hill, customary for important structures in many ancient communities, including the Yoruba. Firstly it was a vantage point, so it overlooks the city which was very important for a number of reasons. The first being the advantage it gave when they were being attacked - this happened a lot. They could see invaders coming from a distance and would have ample time to prepare a counter attack. Being on the hill made the palace easy to see from a distance, so while it protected it's residents, it was also symbolic.
Oba Irefin is said to have been a generous philanthropist, particularly when it concerned education. During his reign, he donated £200 and some land to the development of the Ibadan Grammar School, the first secondary school in the area - giving out multiple scholarships also. It is believed that Oba Irefin had led a petition against the colonial administration of Captain W Ross, resulting in his deposition. He died in his palace in February 1914.
The palace is a bit run down, but the foundations are strong! You can get details from a recent study here. We couldn't see/photograph certain parts for privacy reasons but we saw the kings hall, upper floor, roof and parts of the courtyard where many had been laid to rest.
We got to learn that there have been plans to set up tourism structures around the Irefin palace but there is minimal progress on that, he expressed through sad old eyes. Nonetheless he spoke proudly of his ancestry and wishes more people from across the globe visit, in curiosity of the landmark. The current administration has expressed some interest in the project though, so that seems exciting.
The Irefin Palace is a significant landmark and its preservation is important if we are to keep these stories and these legacies alive. The 1999 production Saworoide was shot at this location, and it's a fascinating insight into the culture and identity of those before us.
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