Belfast Telegraph

Ulster Museum's journey through time maps our shared past over 400 years

By Harriet Crawford

Five hundred years of history has been revealed at a major new gallery at the Ulster Museum.

The ambitious Modern History gallery features 150 objects which have never been seen by the public before - including a remarkable 400-year old outfit recovered from a bog.

The story of Ulster is told from 1500-1968; visitors will be taken chronologically through the post-Medieval Plantation of thousands of people from England and Scotland in Ulster right through to the social change and unrest of the 1960s by the 400 artefacts on display.

The centrepiece of the gallery is the so-called 'Decade of Centenaries' period, 1912-1922, one of the most eventful in the island of Ireland's history - including the campaign for Home Rule, through the First World War and the Easter Rising of 1916, to the foundation of the Free State.

National Museums Northern Ireland's head of history William Blair, who led the two-year redevelopment project, worked closely with Queen's University Belfast to ensure the exhibition's historic rigour and to develop its narrative.

The objects used to tell Ulster's story are wrapped in a broader historical context.

Mr Blair said: "One of the core concepts that has emerged is how interconnected our history is.

"It's history in terms of Northern Ireland within a broader Irish context, British context and an international, European, context.

"It is our shared history, even if aspects of it involve periods of conflict, it is still our shared history and it can only be properly understood if you look at it in a more holistic way.

"We want to highlight the connections to present a richer and more stimulating interpretation of our history." The rare set of clothing, found by a farmer in a bog in Dungiven, Co Londonderry, in the 1950s, gives an insight into the experiences of ordinary people, who Mr Blair says are often forgotten in the sweep of history.

The doublet reflects English fashion, the trousers are made of a checked, 'tartan' cloth reflecting Scottish influence, and the mantle - which is worn like a cloak - is a distinctively Irish piece of clothing from that period.

Mr Blair said: "In many ways, within one costume you have the different cultural influences present in Ulster in the late 16th century.

"It's almost like a metaphor for the cultural diversity of Ulster, both then and - to a certain extent - now.

"It's just a remarkable survival."

The Modern History exhibition has been funded by £454,800 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £127,000 from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure.

DCAL Minister Carál Ní Chuilín said: "The Ulster Museum is helping to lead innovative and inclusive approaches to remembering our shared past."

Bog butter

Butter was often stored in bogs as a method of concealment and preservation, and usually found inside a wooden container. In 1597 an English soldier described how butter was wrapped in tree bark, ‘which butter they hide in bogs, or Riuers, or in fresh water pooles’.

Duelling pistols  

These were made by Robert McCormick in Belfast before he moved to Dublin in the early 1790s.

Duelling was a way for gentlemen to defend their honour and few challenges were declined. The overwhelming majority of duels in the second half of the 1800s were fought with pistols. It peaked in Ireland in the 1770s and 1780s at a time of growing wealth and strong political debate.

Dungiven costume 

These 400-year-old wool clothes were preserved in a Co Londonderry bog. There is a doublet, a pair of trousers made from a checked cloth, and a mantle, which was worn like a cloak. Clothing was valuable in the 16th century. It is thought the costume started life being worn by someone at the top of society and was passed to someone down the social scale because it is patched and worn.

Clocking on at H&W

The wooden “boards” were issued to every one of the thousands of Harland & Wolff employees at their Belfast shipyard. Each board had the employee’s individual number and was issued by the time office in the shipyard. Employees used them to clock on at the start of each day, when they handed them in, and clock off at the end of the day, when they collected them to take back home with them.

Henry Joy McCracken sword

Fiona Byrne, assistant curator at National Museums Northern Ireland, holds a sword that once belonged to Henry Joy McCracken, the prominent United Irishman executed in 1798. He was tried for treason and hanged in Cornmarket, Belfast, on the same day: July 17, 1798. McCracken came from a successful Belfast business family.

His father was an entrepreneur and his maternal grandfather owned paper mills and was the founder of the Belfast News Letter.

Hugh O’Neill

Gaelic lords Hugh O ​Neill, Rory O’Donnell and Cuchonnacht Maguire fled to the continent in 1607 in a movement known as the Flight of the Earls.

Their lands were confiscated, allowing the Plantation of Ulster to begin in 1609 under the reign of King James I.

The population grew rapidly as thousands of settlers arrived.

Linen loom

This is a 19th century loom from the factory of William Adams & Company Ltd, Donegall Road, Belfast — manufacturers of linen products. This power loom would have been operated by female workers. The 1800s saw the transition from hand-loom weaving to power-loom manufacture. By 1873, Belfast was confirmed as the largest linen-producing centre in the world.

Portrait of a boy  

The child in this portrait from the 1600s is probably a boy, as he has a spinning top and whip. Girls then usually did not play with such active toys. At this time, both boys and girls wore dresses until they were about six-years-old.

Prosthetic arm

This was invented and made in Belfast by surgeon P Kirk and engineer Alexander Pringle in the early 1920s.

It is known as the ‘P&K Arm’ and relates to the medical advances in terms of prosthetics given to the more than 40,000 men who returned home from the First World War injured and maimed.

Television 1960s

This television was made by an English company, Ecko, in 1968.

It was a time of tremendous international change and social revolution with the Vietnam War, riots in Paris, the Civil Rights movement in the United States and the Civil Rights Association being set up in Northern Ireland the previous year. Television linked the events — it brought the world into people’s living rooms.

Toy soldiers

Wartime games for children often reflected the times in which they lived. This machine-gun section of six soldiers was made by model makers William Britain of London. Other wartime toys included strategy board games and teddy bears with military-themed uniforms.

Ulster Covenant

A casket contains a silver key and the fountain pen used by Sir Edward Carson to sign the Covenant (above) on September 28, 1912. The key and pen were presented to Carson the previous night at an Ulster Hall rally. The Covenant was an oath where the Protestant people of Ulster pledged to defend their way of life from the growing threat of ‘Home Rule’ — a devolved parliament in Dublin. The key represented Ulster as the political key to the Home Rule issue.

Exhibition tells story of the making of modern Ulster

By William Blair

The Decade of Centenaries provided National Museums with an opportunity to refresh the history galleries and to reflect broader historical perspectives. 

These anniversary events are placed in the context of a much broader narrative in the new exhibition which tells the story of the making of modern Ulster from 1500 onwards up to the late 1960s, placing the history of Ulster into wider Irish, British, and international contexts of the time.

We have creatively utilised our extensive collection and woven through it a range of diverse and fascinating stories which often demonstrate the complexity of our shared history. The exhibition explores the seminal events which have shaped our country and the many connections and interdependencies which have underpinned the development of the society that we know today.

The gallery has been redesigned with a view to showcasing more collections and current best practice in interpretation approaches. This includes enhanced interactivity and multi-media to improve the visitor experience. We hope visitors will find the new gallery a stimulating and thought-provoking experience.

William Blair is National Museums Northern Ireland's head of history

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