Joining in Celebration of Northern Ireland's Museums
From historical houses to treasure troves of fascinating artefacts, there's a wealth of local heritage out there just waiting to be discovered
Our family outing to Baronscourt in County Tyrone to see the Norman Hartnell dress, tiara and long satin gloves worn by the Duke of Abercorn’s sister, Lady Moyra Hamilton, one of the six Maids of Honour at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, made such a lasting impression on me that I always wanted to go back and see the house, something I did just over a year ago during an open day. The dress was no longer there of course nor the circular garden pond, which I remembered vividly for it enchanted a small child just tall enough to stand on tippy toes, peer over the side and gasp in delight at a profusion of delicate white water lilies.
Such experiences are formative and the opportunities to visit historic houses and gardens are now facilitated by the National Trust who own many of the properties in the NI Museum Council’s A-Z list: Florence Court in County Fermanagh (recently featured in The Woman in White on BBC One), Mount Stewart and Castle Ward in County Down, Ardress and The Argory in County Armagh and Springhill in County Derry~Londonderry.
Among the privately run museums which are open to the public and which offer a fascinating glimpse into rural life in Ulster in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries are Hezlett House in Castlerock and Sentry Hill House in the parish of Carnmoney, once home to the McKinney family. The Andrew Jackson and US Rangers Centre in the Boneybefore district of Carrickfergus was the home of Andrew and Elizabeth Jackson, the parents of the seventh American President. The couple left this single story thatched cottage in 1765 and sailed from the port of Larne to North Carolina where their son Andrew was born in a frontier log cabin in 1767. Andrew Jackson formed America’s Democratic Party and served as President from 1829-1837. He was the first of 11 American Presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who had strong family ties with Northern Ireland. All of them were featured in an exhibition of pencil portraits entitled From Here to the White House, by the Belfast artist Frank McKelvey, which was shown at the Ulster American Folk Park in June 2016.
Pencil portrait of US President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) by Frank McKelvey
Among the museums run by local authorities is the Castle Museum in Enniskillen. The attractive lakeside site became the stronghold of the Maguire Gaelic chieftains who ruled Fermanagh for 300 years. At home, they were patrons of poetry, music and learning but they also travelled. Hugh ‘The Hospitable’ Maguire died in the castle in 1428 following a pilgrimage to Compostela in Spain.
Enniskillen was the only town in the British Isles to have two regiments in the British Army – the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. The regimental museum in the Castle Keep houses memorabilia including a magnificent display of ceremonial silver.
A fine art gallery holds a permanent exhibition of work by local artists, William Scott and his one-time teacher Kathleen Bridle, TP Flanagan, Philip Flanagan, Jeremy Henderson and Mavis Thomson, while the Heritage Centre displays items of local interest. Among my favourites is the ‘Boneshaker’ velocipede, so-called because its iron bound wheels jolted the cyclist on stony roads. The early bicycle was once the property of John Reid of Rorkefield, Florence Court, who acquired it in the late 1860s when he was a medical student at Trinity College Dublin. Bicycles of similar vintage and provenance were collected by a Belfast businessman, Thomas Edens Osborne (1856-1930), and can now be seen at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra.
The 'Boneshaker' bicycle can be seen at Enniskillen Castle's Heritage Centre
I remember how, some years ago, one particular item displayed at the Ulster Museum took my breath away. It was the Bessbrook Quilt which dates from 1790. The pure white bed cover was made by the Richardson family who grew their own flax and manufactured linen. The magnificent quilt was hand stitched with cotton yarn in a manner known as corded or Italian quilting.
Some people still remember the pungent smell of retting, a process that breaks down flax fibres, when they passed through the Lagan Valley on their way to Belfast. Sadly the province’s once thriving linen industry has declined, though the linen used to form the background to the Game of Thrones tapestry which will be shown in the Ulster Museum from July 22 to August 27, has been sourced from Ferguson’s Irish Linen, one of the last surviving mills in Northern Ireland. Designed in the manner of the Bayeux Tapestry, this large scale work depicts the epic story and the characters who appeared in the most popular television series of all time.
Those wishing to learn more about the Ulster linen industry may visit Flax to Fabric; the Story of Linen, a permanent exhibition at the Irish Linen Centre and Museum, Market Square, Lisburn.
The Game of Thrones Tapestry weaves together stories from all seven seasons of the show at the Ulster Museum
Founded in 1788, the Linen Hall Library is the oldest in Belfast. Climb the stairs from street level and you will find yourself in a wonderful world of books and manuscripts. The library holds an unparalleled Irish and local studies collection including the Northern Ireland Theatre and Performing Arts Archive, the definitive archive of the recent Troubles and 250,000 items related to politics in the province. The library café is a favourite meeting place for regular readers and visitors alike.
The oldest library in Northern Ireland however is the magnificent Robinson Library, founded in Armagh in 1771 by Archbishop Richard Robinson as part of his plan to establish a university in the city. Thomas Cooley’s design includes a classic Long Room of ordered shelves on two levels which accommodate the archbishop’s own collection of rare books, first editions and more recent acquisitions about local history, Church History, St. Patrick and Jonathan Swift. Some items are also on display in the library’s museum at No 5 Vicar’s Hill, next door to the excellent 4 Vicars Restaurant.
In Banbridge, the F.E. McWilliam Gallery was established to highlight the work of the artist who was born in Newry Street on April 30 1909 and became a friend of Henry Moore and William Scott. As well as a permanent garden display of McWilliam’s bronze sculptures, the most powerful of which evoke the agony of The Troubles, the gallery, which has become something of a mecca for art lovers, also stages special exhibitions.
The one I remember most is My Mind’s i by Janet Mullarney, who has studios in both Dublin and Florence. In December 2016, Mullarney set up a huge 6 x 4 metre light box in the gallery and on it placed a group of small quirky and curious sculpted figures inspired by her visits to Italy and Greece. As daylight waned the characters became more luminous and cast longer shadows. Animated by the spirit of their maker, they looked real enough to come alive at any moment. If you visit the gallery be sure to lunch at Quail’s which must surely win the prize for best museum café. Mexican chef, Fernando Correa, produces the most delicious dishes beautifully presented and decorated with flowers freshly picked from the museum garden.
On NI Museums Day we may discover more of the hidden gems, small privately owned museums like the Sheelin Irish Lace Museum in Bellanaleck or Headhunters Railway Museum in Enniskillen. Already, through closer inspection of the NI Museum Council’s website we can begin to appreciate the scope and scale of what museums in our small province have to offer and I for one have discovered several which inspire a visit.
NI Museums Day will be celebrated on Friday May 18, with NI Museums Council encouraging the public to sign up to its Thunderclap campaign and add their voice to the conversation on the day. To sign up go to https://www.thunderclap.it/projects/69531-nimuseumsday or make sure to include the hashtag #NIMuseumsDay in your tweets and photos.
Find a museum to explore near you by visiting NI Museum Council's own directory at https://www.nimc.co.uk/find-a-museum.