Bringing History to Life in Donaghmore

Technology tells the story of Tyrone's past, finds Emma Heatherington

Only ten years ago, a mobile phone was considered a luxury item and there was no such thing as a text message.

Go back another ten years, and we had no email or Internet access to feed our modern-day, information hungry minds. Ten years before that we were in the age of vinyl; compact discs were a part of everyday life and satellite television was a thing of the future.

Digital technology has moved our lives into overdrive over the past few decades, and ironically, it is such technology that is the basis for bringing history to life in an innovative new project by Donaghmore Historical Society.

The Living History Project incorporates some of the history, activities, daily routines and heritage of pre-1950s Donaghmore, Castlecaulfield and the surrounding areas of south Tyrone. Donaghmore is steeped in natural heritage and history, with a famous ancient High Cross guarding the site of a former ancient monastery and graveyard.

The chapel is believed to have been founded by St Patrick, and Brown's Soap Factory provided employment in the 1920s. The neighbouring village is Castlecaulfield, whose most notable landmark is the ruin of the castle, a Jacobean mansion built by Sir Toby Caulfield in 1619, eventually destroyed by fire.

Using the internet, the Living History Project offers an extensive background to the life and times of the area through almost 50 video clips, a photographic exhibition, and audio recordings relating to employment in the area. A DVD has also been produced to compliment the project.

Local historian Pat John Rafferty has been a key player in the development of the project. ‘This project will provide an invaluable resource for young people as a record of a bygone age from which they can see and hear the experiences and lives of real people who have lived through the middle years of the twentieth century.

'The motor car was a rarity, television nonexistent, work on the farm and in the home usually manual, and people lived with no washing machines, other modern conveniences or entertainment, apart from the picture house - of the home-made variety. Although these experiences are a mere lifetime ago, they reflect a lifestyle that has all but disappeared.’

To deliver the initiative, the Historical Society approached Bardic Education Arts & Media (BEAM), a multimedia and event management organisation based in Donaghmore's Torrent Valley Business Park. BEAM were given the mammoth task of transforming the initial idea from a proposal on a page to a fully interactive website with photographs, audio and video clips.

Ciara Boyle, Manager of BEAM says, ‘With rapid global developments since the 1940s, many of the contributors find it unbelievable that all their memoirs from yesteryear can be shared anywhere in the world using today’s technology, living up to the concept of Living History.'

Patricia Bogue from Donaghmore Historical Society furthered that, ‘We are the last of a generation of people who grew up in a way of life that has now disappeared. It is important to record the memories of this way of life for future generations.’

Donaghmore man Felix Hagan, actively involved in historical projects, agrees, ‘So often we have lamented allowing the old people to pass away without recording their memories. This is our chance to prevent any further loss.’

From an educational perspective, the website provides an opportunity to bring history to life. The project was financially supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, who contributed £23,900.

The Fund’s manager Kevin Baird said, ‘This project will guarantee that local memories, stories and traditions won’t be lost from this generation. Much has changed since the 1950s and it is important that young people have the opportunity to learn what life was like in Donaghmore and Castlecaulfield. Now, thanks to this project, these memories will be preserved for future generations to use and learn from.’

Jimmy McCullough, aged 92, is one of Donaghmore’s oldest residents. He was delighted to give his memories to the project.

'We all were asked to choose a topic, making sure there were no overlaps. While some focused on farming or school days, I talked about village life in the 1920s and how the structure of the village has changed over the decades.

'Back then, everyone who lived in the village was employed there too – at the soap works owned by Mr and Mrs David Brown, the farmyard at Brewery Bridge, or the railway that brought shoppers to the town of Dungannon, three miles away.

'I worked at Ivy Bank House as a gardener. The house was owned by the Brown family, who were the wealthiest in the village. They treated their staff impeccably – organising parties and picnics for workers’ children and even building a play park for them, which brought people from all over to Donaghmore.

'The turning point of village life came with the war, when many left to work at airfields and there was a scarcity of coal and food.

'As a child I played skittles and horse-shoes, and at Hallowe'en, before there were street lights in the village, we would get up to all sorts of pranks - stealing wheels from carts and piling them up at the front of the cross for all to see the next day. Our social lives took a turn for the better when a small dance hall was built in 1932, and all sorts of travelling shows were staged.

'I can’t believe that at the touch of a button, Donaghmore’s emigrants all over the world can teach their children the history of their home village in an up-to-date way, still straight from the horse’s mouth.’