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Tale of murder most foul just one story dug up from history of a sleepy Plantation village

Garvagh Museum boasts NI's biggest display of antiquities outside the Ulster Museum thanks to the work of a few volunteers. By Una Brankin

Small, rural Garvagh was invaded by BBC cameras from the hit series, Who Do You Think You Are, last year when the television and radio presenter Ferne Cotton arrived to find out more about her great-great-great-great grandfather, an apothecary from this quiet corner Co Londonderry.

A year on, the sleepy Plantation village is set for another invasion - this time of visitors to a huge exhibition of the Art & Artefacts of Our Ancestors at Garvagh Museum, in the biggest display of antiquities outside Belfast's Ulster Museum.

The collection includes a huge variety of ancient objects, from Stone Age axes, flints and mace-heads, to a working model of a scutching mill (used to separate impurities from flax), to a radiogram record player - a groovy piece of equipment to have in your living room in the 1950s.

The exhibition is a joint venture between former Garvagh Intermediate school teacher George McIlroy and Wilbert Patterson, an expert in Stone Age artefacts.

Says George: "People say: 'What's in Garvagh?' There was a lady visiting my aunt's the other day who'd never even heard of Garvagh and she only lives 15 minutes' away.

"But this is the biggest display outside of Belfast. There is an enormous variety of diverse pieces - up to 4,000. The model of the scutching mill is popular. Another volunteer rigged it up with electricity to turn the wheel, so that's worth seeing."

George and his colleagues worked tirelessly to raise funds for the museum, which stands within the walled garden of Garvagh House, the former seat of the Canning family, who arrived in the early part of the 17th century as agents for the Ironmongers' Company.

Unique in its status as a rural folk museum in the Bann valley, the enterprise received charitable status in 2014. Now approaching 80, George leads tours of the collections.

"It started out as a display of artefacts collected from the town and district in a small building adjoining the secondary school," says George.

"When the collection outgrew the space, a new building was built by Enterprise Ulster, with the generous support of local businesses and others.

"Lord Garvagh has donated all sorts to us and he's been to visit and given his approval. People will be massively surprised when they come to see this latest display."

Over the last 40 years, George has brought together a varied collection of machines, instruments, vehicles, photographs, papers and artefacts which will amaze and entertain.

As well as giving a great insight into life in the Garvagh area during the late 19th and much of the 20th century, the museum tells some amazing stories.

There is a riveting photograph of the 1908 murderer John Berryman being led away by police officers as he attended the funeral of his victims.

Berryman (53) worked for his brother William and sister-in-law, Jean, at their farm at Tirkeeran, near Garvagh, having sold his half share to William but continuing to work there.

"It wasn't an ideal arrangement - William felt that he was now in charge and would make the decisions and that led to friction between the brothers," George explains.

"William had decided to purchase some timber and John objected to the price William had paid. William told John that it was none of his business, so John battered him with a hammer."

The attack took place in March 1908, while William was having lunch. A passer-by saw John running out of the kitchen afterwards and Jean emerging and shouting that William was dying.

Says George: "John went back in and the passer-by then heard Jean cry 'Murder, murder'. Berryman then attacked Jean and afterwards went to the neighbouring farm, owned by John Wallace, and told him that he had found his brother and sister-in-law dead in the kitchen.

"John Wallace took Berryman back to the house and saw the battered bodies. He called the police, who found that both victims were still alive, although they would die later that day. Jean had put up a fight and bore defence wounds on her arms."

"The murder weapon was discovered by an Albert Moore the same afternoon and examination revealed hair and blood."

Berryman was tried at Londonderry before Mr Justice Gibson in July 1908. He was hanged by Thomas Pierrepoint in Londonderry the following month.

Fascinating stories such as the Berryman murders, which live on through the museum, have provided great fodder for writer and historian Pearl Hutchinson, from nearby Kilrea, in her popular reminiscence talks.

"I love the little model of the scutching mill, for example - it has two women in it and that harks back to the unmarried women of the house at the time who had to muck in and do the dirty jobs, such as scutching," says Pearl.

"It was very dusty and bad for the chest but the unmarried girls were expected to do it, along with the poor and uneducated.

"There's also a very old shop till, which came from a shop in Kilrea. When that was put on Facebook, the first comment we got was from Alaska. Someone there remembered the till from going to the shop as a child, and getting blackjack sweets."

Pearl credits George McIlroy with keeping history alive in Garvagh through his life-long efforts to build and enhance the museum.

"He's too modest about it; as are all of those involved," she says. "Yet what they have created is fascinating. It all started when a Bronze Age burial ground was discovered in the local forest. George began to gather the artefacts and it grew and grew.

"People had been throwing the articles behind ditches, not realising their significance.

"I was really overcome when I saw the collection George had put together. It's so eclectic. I could see hundreds of possibilities for stories for my talks, which I do all over the country. People see these artefacts and it triggers memories of something their granny had. It's totally fascinating."

The Art & Artefacts of Our Ancestors exhibition is currently open to organised groups, so booking is essential. Contact George McIlroy on 028 2955 8544. Garvagh Museum will be open during June to August, from Wednesday to Saturday, 2-5pm. www.garvaghmuseum.com

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