When Dinosaurs Ruled in Northern Ireland

The Blueprint Exhibition presents the evidence that says Woolly Mammoths walked in the north

An eyeless beast towers above the children as if about to devour them and chew their parents for afters. Like HR Geiger’s skeletal Alien, the reconstruction of the scelidosaur should inspire fear and command respect. But the hundreds of kids running about its feet are having more fun making faces and blowing raspberries.

The shiny black bones and dangerous teeth are the centrepiece of the Blueprint exhibition at BBC NI's Blackstaff House to coincide with the three part television series of the same name. The scelidosaur bones, displayed next to those of a megalosaur, are evidence of Ireland’s dinosaurs as discovered on the Antrim coast by the late Roger Byrne.

The Minnis MonsterThey sit beside a 200 million-year-old ichthyosaur skull discovered by seven-year-old schoolgirl Emma McIlroy and the late George Barker close to Glenarm; proof of a beast that has since been christened ‘the Minnis Monster’.

Presented on television by William Crawley with archaeologists Peter Woodman and Emily Murray, Blueprint traces the origins of Northern Ireland from 600 million years ago to the present day. The show explores 45 locations in NI, including the Sperrins, Fermanagh’s Marble Arch caves and the Giant’s Causeway.

The Giant’s Causeway is where differing approaches to natural history in Northern Ireland intersect. The Causeway has of course been long associated with the legend of giant Finn McCool but there are people who believe that Blueprint’s explanation really is a fairytale.

'Creationists believe the world is 6,000 years old,’ says Crawley, sitting next to a 60 million-year-old selection of polygonal basalt columns formed by cooling, contracting lava.

Nothern Irish children enjoy the Blueprint exhibition‘They believe the world was created in 4004BC, using Archbishop James Usher’s date.

‘Usher was Archbishop of Armagh in the 17th century. He went through the Bible and added up the genealogies of the book of Genesis and calculated that the world was created on October 23, 4004BC. We should really have a party on that day.’

Due to the success of Blueprint, BBC Northern Ireland has been designated a centre of excellence for History programmes. The show is expected to have attracted more than a million viewers, with nearly 2,000 people visiting the exhibition over three days.

‘I was expecting a little bit more controversy,’ says Crawley, 'But I don’t think it’s a massive thing. This event is taking place in the context of a culture in Northern Ireland which is quite religious still.

‘We had some people from a Creationist group who came yesterday, and they were very pleasant. Their only point was that they wanted people to know that it was possible to interpret the facts in a different way.

Stone weaponry on display at the Blueprint exhibition‘You can watch the Blueprint series and be a religious believer and not feel any contradiction whatsoever. CS Lewis believed in evolution and he believed in the creation of the world by God. There should be no contradiction. I don’t think there’s a contradiction.’

With the success of the television show, school groups and the public have arrived en masse. Children chatter and ask questions at the stalls, ignoring the ‘do not touch’ signs, happily prodding orthoclase crystals as found in the Mourne Mountains, or poking badgers’ skulls at the Ulster Museum’s display tables.

‘We have various experts from the Ulster Museum. Botanists, several geologists, zoologists and archaeologists, all showing different aspects of the collections,’ explains Sinead McCartan, Head of Collections, Research and Interpretation with National Museums of Northern Ireland.
'It’s terrific for us, a wonderful opportunity to showcase objects normally on display.'

With the Ulster Museum undergoing a £14.7 million redevelopment and not due to re-open until summer 2009, its involvement with Blueprint forms one part of a programme aimed at bringing objects, exhibitions and paintings to audiences across different venues in Northern Ireland.

The reconstructed scelidosaur at the Blueprint exhibition‘There’s an “out and about” approach, taking the museum to you,' continues McCartan. 'We have an extensive outreach programme with panel exhibitions, object-based exhibitions going out to different venues like Down County Museum and Fermanagh Museum, and workshops with activities and lectures. We also have a very successful partnership with the Linen Hall Library.’

At the Blueprint exhibition, amidst the museum’s display of ancient herring, stone weaponry and Mesolithic flint, young visitors are invited to host their own television discussions with Crawley in a mock-up studio. Some children present, others get to grips with camerawork, and some even stand against the green screen, hosting a prehistoric weather report.

‘We have fossils from two dinosaurs,’ says Crawley. ‘They expect the reason we haven’t found a lot more is that the remains – the fossils we could find – are under the sea, under a layer of stratification under the sea bed. The thing that amazes me is that we’re so surprised. Dinosaurs were all over the place.

'I think that’s an indication of how we [in Northern Ireland] see ourselves as so cut off from the rest of the world’s experience. When you say “we used to have woolly mammoths here,” people say “Nooo we didn’t.” As if other people would have had woolly mammoths but we didn’t. Of course we did.’ 

Kiran Acharya