Claragh Heritage Centre, Kilrea
Clare O'Connor visits Tom Graham's personal collection
Claragh Heritage Centre, Kilrea defies definition. It seems to house every conceivable bygone agricultural and industrial artefact known to man and then some! Alongside tractors, ploughs and the like are any number of unexpected surprises from a ‘Bamford’s Patent Perfect Root Cutter’ to a doll’s pram from the 1930s.
This staggering collection is the life’s work of one man. Tom Graham inherited the family farm that is now the Claragh Heritage Centre, but he spent much of his working life driving around the rest of the country distributing poultry.
A self described ‘reluctant farmer’ Tom was often more interested in the old things he saw lying around during his travels. Discarded kitchen utensils, combine harvesters, railway station clocks, nothing escaped him. Now that he is retired he devotes most of his time to restoring the thousands of items he has rescued over the years.
Tom built up a reputation for collecting things - ‘ones got to know the sort of him' and would call him up ‘about some yoke or other’. As interesting as each of the objects are in their own right, it is Tom’s explanations as to their origins and how he acquired them that really brings them to life.
He is only too willing to give demonstrations, as with the1920 wooden washing machine ‘The Majestic’ salvaged from the local Convent.
Other treasures include a very rare wartime Davy Brown tractor, an old steam boiler built by Harland & Wolff that used to belong to a flax mill and old railway paraphernalia from Derry Central Railway. Brightly emblazoned oilcans and advertising hoarding from the 1950s are a typographer’s dream.
‘The Barn’ was the first building on Tom’s farm to be converted into a display area when what had been a personal hobby became something of interest to the outside world. By now 5 more outbuildings have been utilized for this purpose.
A further two buildings have been built by Tom himself. In 1998 he erected ‘Jamie’s Cottage’, painstakingly recreating the original dwelling which had stood there in 1850. The cottage, complete with half door and open fire is considered the centre’s jewel in the crown and is beloved of yanks and local schoolchildren alike.
Further along the 4 acre property, Tom has thrown up a tiny, 2 square metre church for the sheer hell of it. The ecclesiastical theme continues with the façade of Tom’s garage which replicates a church Tom took a shine to in Ballymena!
With his own personality writ large all over the place, not following the trends or diktats of anybody but himself, Tom’s place is as much about Outsider Art as museum space and this is the sheer joy of it.