Ulster Sports Museum Exhibition

Dame Mary Peters calls for a permanent home for Northern Ireland's sporting artifacts, and takes Padraig Coyle on a tour through the archive

If you happened to have passed anywhere in the vicinity of Belfast City Hall before the New Year, it would have been worth your while to check out the east wing entrance – near the Big Wheel, where you may just have caught a glimpse of the country’s sporting heritage at ground level.

The fleeting Ulster Sports Museum exhibition was staged there throughout December as part of a strategy to establish a full scale sports museum in Northern Ireland. Dame Mary Peters, Olympic Pentathlon gold medal winner at the Munich Games in 1972 and advocate of the idea, believes that the project (if it were to receive the requisite funding) could develop into a prime tourist attraction in the centre of Belfast.

Irish Rugby'We want to celebrate the past and inspire the future,' remarks Dame Peters. 'We have such a wealth of sporting history and we must not lose that. In the really bad years of the Troubles, sport played a big part in getting people through those difficult times.'

The challenge that Dame Peters and her colleagues on the Ulster Sports Museum Trust now face is how to turn nostalgia and memories into a permanent home for the country’s sporting treasures.

'We need a lot of money to develop a site for a permanent museum,' explains Peters. 'It should be in the city centre near our hotels and shopping areas, so that it can be a tourist attraction. At the moment we are carrying out a study to see if this project would be sustainable. Camelot, the Ulster Museum and the Department of Social Development have helped us. We need it and we deserve it. I just want to achieve this before my life comes to an end.'

The temporary exhibition may have been on a small scale, but it packed in a lot of memories relating to some of Northern Ireland's sporting, and Olympic champions. Speaking at the exhibition, Dame Peters gave CultureNorthernIreland a tour of the individual sporting memorabilia on show.

'If you have a quick look around you see images of Dawson Stelfox, Rinty Monaghan, Robin Dixon, Fred Daly, Alex Higgins, Peter Canavan. The list goes on and on. These sporting heroes could inspire some of our young people to get off their computers and get out on the sports field or athletics track.'

Dame Peters also points to the George Best section, which includes a replica of the European Cup that he won with Manchester United in 1968, as well as a pair of his boots and a handwritten letter to his parents. 'The letter captures the personal side of George as he wrote home to his mum and dad telling them about George Bestthe excitement of playing for United. And beside that letter, there’s a telegram which George received from Lulu.'

Also on show was a section devoted to Belfast Celtic. The club may have disappeared 60 years ago, but its memory lingers on. The exhibition featured an original shirt worn by Paddy Bonnar, a replica trophy won by Charlie Tully when he played at Glasgow Celtic and the identification documents that Belfast Celtic captain, Bertie Fulton would have carried with him when he was playing for the Great Britain team at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

Close by was a bronze sculpture of Dame Mary Peters herself, made by John Sherlock, which portrays her standing with her gold medal on the winners rostrum in 1972. 'In sport it’s the ultimate prize. You are always an Olympic champion,' reflects Peters. 'I have no relations living here to enjoy this exhibition – all my family is in Australia and I want my medals and memorabilia to stay here. Although I was born in Liverpool, this is my home.

'We need to have a permanent record of what all our world champions achieved, and what was done by our athletes on the GAA, hockey, football and rugby fields and running tracks. And there is so much more out there, from our motorcyclist and motor sport champions like Joey and Robert Dunlop, Brian Reid and Paddy Hopkirk. We need people to tell us what they would want in the museum.'

For more information, and to have your say, visit the Ulster Sports Museum's website here.