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Author: Gary Peating
Title: The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra, Co. Down, Northern Ireland
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
December 2004

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Source: The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra, Co. Down, Northern Ireland
Gary Peating

vol. 7, no. 3, December 2004
Article Type: Article

The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra, Co. Down, Northern Ireland

Gary Peatling

University of Guelph

Monuments and museums are arenas of public history and for the formation and articulation of identities and narratives.  [1] Decisions taken as to the formation of museums and the selection, display and organisation of exhibits are influenced by criteria which are not necessarily politically neutral; these may especially involve devices of political elites to emphasise aspects of communal togetherness and thus exert control over communities.  [2] Memory and commemoration of past events and generations is by its nature a political and contested act, especially in sharply divided societies.  [3] It is no surprise that recently established governments and states should particularly concern themselves with the production of such forms of festivities, commemorations, and monuments.  [4] As rulers of a sharply divided society, unionist elites in Northern Ireland in the aftermath of its eventful creation in 1920-1 had particular reasons to concern themselves, and did concern themselves, with such strategies of power.  [5] The integration of the province's Catholic minority may have been, or may have been felt to be, beyond the rulers of Northern Ireland;  [6] but this very fact heightened the importance of preserving the highest possible degree of political unity under unionist hegemony among the Protestant majority.  [7]

In this context, the opening of the Ulster Folk Museum, located in Cultra in County Down, Northern Ireland (and now linked to the Ulster Transport Museum), in 1964, might theoretically be seen as a strategy in the ongoing attempted maintenance of unionist hegemony and social control in Northern Ireland. This might especially be assumed in that the early 1960s were a time when pressure for reform in Northern Ireland was increasing, and when the governing unionist coalition was fracturing, partly under the strains of early deindustrialisation.  [8] Such a tourist site might also be seen as a propagandistic effort to appeal for political support (or reduced political opposition) from those with ancestral links to Ulster and its traditions in the wider diaspora. There are however manifold reasons for thinking that it may be rather too tempting to exaggerate the political intentions behind the formation of such a museum at such a time. Foucauldian notions of the exertion of knowledge-power over the human body have been rightly criticized (even when applied to more favourable contexts) in that they fail properly to address complicated questions of agency and the issue of in whose interest any given strategy was exerted.  [9] In the case of institutions such as museums, even when publicly owned, pressures to raise revenue may inhibit propagandistic purposes, tub-thumping political messages rarely proving a consumable of choice. Museums are not necessarily a powerful means of imposing social or political control compared to systems of law, policing, and education, etc; visitors to museums are generally only there briefly, and within limits, can select from the experience a variety of lessons or narratives.  [10] And the specific circumstances of the formation (and specifically the running) of the Folk Museum show such evidence of the influence of different agencies and pressures as would have inhibited the coherent exercise of any relevant political strategy. Local governments had a large role in running the institution, and the primary interest of the Unionist-dominated Northern Ireland government was in avoiding spending too much money on the project.  [11]

So it would be a mistake to read a sinister or coherent political design into the creation and continued running of such sites of public history in Northern Ireland. What is fascinating now about the three areas of the Folk Museum (the folk galleries and the rural and urban areas) and the linked Transport Museum is the multilayered nature of the evidence it provides: consciously in the selection and display of artifacts relating to the ways of life of the people of Ulster in more distant periods; historically in the parallels between the evolution of the museum and that of Northern Ireland; and in the unconscious evidence it provides as to the emergence of attitudes and points of political contention in a critical period of the history of the province.

The three predominant facets of the exhibits held in the Folk Museum's folk galleries comprise an impressive array artifacts from Victorian life, collections of tools and exhibits pertaining to the evolution of technologies in Ulster agriculture, and a display regarding the history of sports in Ulster. The latter range from the multinational such as soccer (the short-lived but successful story of Belfast Celtic is told in some detail) to the more local and particular such as the game of road bowls which will be unfamiliar to many visitors. Modern media of both audio and film are well used in these displays. The Folk museum's extensive rural area, of which a proper examination would require a prolonged visit, contains period-style farm buildings and cottiers' houses, but also weavers' houses and mills. The common image of Ulster, especially in Britain, is predominantly urban and industrial (in the recent past a subject for celebration but now a more dubious political and socio-economic inheritance).  [12] The rural area therefore forms a necessary reminder how even industry for much of Ulster's history has been predominantly domestic and rural.  [13] The presence of the Tullylish Bleach green tower reminds that linen, for long Ulster's key export (before the rise of shipbuilding), was such a valuable commodity that at times during its production it had to be guarded over for fear of theft.

A more compact but still largely outdoor series of exhibits is provided by the Folk Museum's third area, Ballycultra town. Here buildings from Ulster's urban past have been recreated or in some cases transferred brick-by-brick with much detail. These include Church of Ireland and Catholic churches, a Presbyterian meeting house, a parochial house, a school room, and labourers' houses from Sandy Row, in which the detail is particularly impressive. There are also business premises such as a bank (and bank manager's house), a post office and a coal-yard, and also a reading room and an RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary, that is Irish police) barracks. Much though not all the town is based on buildings of the Edwardian period, and in an upstairs newspaper room, it is issues from the early months of 1912 that feature. This was a climactic period in Ulster's history with the launch (and sinking) of the Belfast-fitted Titanic, and the introduction of the third home rule bill, which was, more than its two predecessors, to catapult Ulster to the center of Britain's (and the British empire's) political attention.  [14] A welcome variation is provided by some older buildings on the fringe of the town, especially the seventeenth-century Lough Neagh cruck houses with their distinct architecture. Visitors can enter and walk around all such buildings, some of which are adorned with contemporary artifacts collected with almost uncanny accuracy, and some of which may be found complete with live actual burning coal or peat fires. The accessibility of the interiors of such cleverly fulfills the dual purpose of enhancing the visitor's voyeuristic pleasure at experiencing a recreated or imagined past, and providing shelter against the never-negligible possibility of inclement Ulster weather. In this atmosphere the sense that one acquires of walking into a house or premise that someone of the period is still living or working in may be accentuated by the presence of some museum staff members themselves in Edwardian dress. I must confess to having felt an uneasy but irrational sense of being a trespasser on meeting with any of these.

The adjoined smaller Transport Museum traces the cultural, social and economic impact of the development of transport. Here also, though the focus is on Northern Ireland, exhibits and their presentation typify features held in common with the history of transport throughout Ireland and the wider world. Although chronologically the period from the days before the wheel into the late twentieth century is covered, the emphasis is on Ulster from the nineteenth century. The first exhibition is concerned with the railways, a key development of that period in which Ulster, being part of the United Kingdom, was involved in relatively earlier. The close and early relationship between the development of the railways and the coal industry indeed is indicated, transportation of coal on wooden rails in Ulster dating back to 1740. The story of the expansion and progress of mechanized forms of transport is largely a pioneering and triumphant one, although a discordant note is sounded by the story of the Hamilton's Bawn rail disaster in Armagh in 1889, which left 88 dead.

There are then substantial series of exhibits of cycles, motor cycles, buses, trams, and fire engines as well as vehicles such as milk floats, and exhibits tracing the history of carts, going back to the period where materials were transported on wooden runners before the wheel came to Ulster. There is an extensive exhibition pertaining to 'The car and society', and a feature of these exhibitions is the consideration which has been given to vehicles as cultural items as well as just a mean of getting around. Such a story should also not solely be one of triumph, and if propagandist purpose there is to be, it is rather to be regretted especially given the location of the Museum and its targeting the lucrative tourist market comprising visitors from north America that the opportunity has not been taken to educate patrons as to the environmental damage wrought by the automobile, surely one of its chief social consequences and a consequence of which such consumers still seem all too little aware. The final section of the Transport Museum concerns itself with water-borne transport in Ulster, especially the province's shipping industry. Ability to mount or touch the exhibits is critical to maintaining the interest of younger visitors in the museum and, by extension, the past (as well as, in some cases, sustaining the enthusiasm of jaundiced thirty-something professional historical researchers), and while the capacity to do is at the transport museum is necessarily limited, this consideration has not been neglected, and visitors are permitted to mount a tram or train carriage. It may be a surprise to the younger generation to find that trains in the United Kingdom in particular used to be comfortable.

Both museums are informative, entertaining, and worthy of devoting time to on their own terms. But they are much more than that. Whatever political or other ulterior motives could possibly have gone into the museums' creation or design at any point, they comprise themselves evidence for the historian concerning the recent evolution of Northern Ireland in ways which designers cannot have anticipated. Two significant examples of this particularly deserve close reading.

The first concerns an exhibition in the Folk Museum's RIC barracks, which traces the history of policing in Ulster over the last two centuries. One photographic exhibit therein recalled the Maryfield disturbances of 1986. These occurred in the context of a majority of Protestants' opposition to the extension of the Irish government's consultative role in Northern Ireland as envisaged in the Anglo-Irish Agreement negotiated between the Irish and British governments in 1985.  [15] In other words, this was a case where the overwhelmingly Protestant then police force in Northern Ireland, the RUC (the Royal Ulster Constabulary, lineal descendants of the pre-partition Royal Irish Constabulary), found themselves trying to restrain, and implicitly protect Catholics from, the ire of other members of their own Protestant community. The narrative offered with the exhibit highlights the RUC's efforts to encourage recruitment among Catholics, which was low during the troubles owing in part to the perception of the force as a sectarian one. In the light of the fiercely politically contested nature of the force,  [16] such efforts to recruit Catholics were possibly the only way in which the force could have survived the peace process. The Museum's presentation at least seems to consider the effort worthwhile. But with the replacement of the RUC by the new Police Service Northern Ireland in 2002, here the Museum's central narrative, like the RUC, has passed into history. The exhibit remains a fascinating artifact, but partly in a way surely other than was the authors' intention. The Museum's narrative is now a moment frozen in time as much as any consciously exhibited artifact.

The Northern Ireland tourist industry has in the recent past been criticized for not making sufficient effort to cash in via Belfast's connection to the huge and continuing marketability of the Titanic story to a sentimental transatlantic audience. The potency of glib comparisons between the Titanic's inauspicious maiden voyage and the troubled history of Northern Ireland and its leading political formations may in part explain any inhibitions. The framing of a Transport Museum exhibit in relation to the ship and its story offers us however a second moment worthy of close academic scrutiny. The White Star shipping company in 1911 asserted, this exhibit reminds us, that the Titanic and its sister ship 'stand for the pre-eminence of the Anglo-Saxon race on the Ocean'. Britannia - and with it Ulster's shipyards it was confidently felt, ruled the waves. Others took a pride from such evidence of military and economic prowess which was indeed something more specific than Anglo-Saxon. Addressing an Orange Order parade in Nova Scotia in July 1914, in a pointed criticism of the 'errors of Romanism' and 'the designs of the Papacy' (and at least implicitly thus a defence of the position of Ulster unionists in the contemporary third home rule crisis), a Protestant churchman argued: 'There could not possibly be a greater test of the vitality of Protestant principles, and of their constructive character, than a study of the world's shipping'. This was held to be evident from an analysis of the shipping tonnage of the 'three outstanding Protestant nations', US, Britain and Germany, but also especially from the 'fact, that while in the nationalist provinces of Ireland not one vessel was built, Ulster is the home of one of the largest shipbuilding industries in the world': Belfast's Harland & Woolf was indeed the world's largest shipyard in the early twentieth century.  [17]

Such declarations now read as immodest triumphalism, but for much of the twentieth century, these comprised facets of a sincerely held ideology which many observers, not just in the north of Ireland, found persuasive. The relative commercial and industrial success of the Anglo-Saxon race seemed to demonstrate that almost any part of the world would be better off under Protestant British rule. Political factors, it may have been reluctantly conceded, made that impossible in certain parts of the world; but in cases such as Ulster, where the political legitimacy of British rule was at least defensible, resident sympathizers with such a view were hardly likely to precipitate the end of their connection with Protestant Britain. A different age is now however less ready to celebrate the commercial prowess of the United Kingdom and the imperial rule which often went with it. The voyage of the Titanic itself is at best but a misleading metaphor for the fate of the 'pre-eminence of the Anglo-Saxon race' itself. The fact that those 'three outstanding Protestant nations', the United States, Britain and Germany, would shortly after July 1914 be using their 'vitality' in an effort to blow each other's share of 'the world's shipping' out of the water is cognate to a more substantive reason for the decreasing popularity of such attitudes. More substantive reasons for such change however may be subtler still. Celebration of industrial success is now commonly found far less impressive in a postmodern western culture, where the centrality of work to identity has been diminished, in some cases replaced by leisure. In any case, industries such as shipbuilding that were Protestant Ulster's proud and special boast are now at the tail-end of a long-term period of decline, not just in Northern Ireland but also in Scotland. British deindustrialisation, the loss of any lingering sense that Britain was the workshop of the world, has added to the perceived recent crisis of Britishness, and particularly to the questioning of the place within Britain of such regions especially affected by that deindustrisation.  [18] The ideology which celebrated such sources of Ulster Protestant and British success has thus been forced to meet both the reevaluation of that success and the erosion of its bases with rapid and not always successful readjustment.  [19] Unionism, the ideology which aims to retain links between Britain and Northern Ireland, has through this process neither just become unfashionable as its supporters try to suggest,  [20] nor out of date and inherently reactionary as its detractors like to assume.  [21] Grounding the reevaluation of Northern Ireland and political change therein in social and economic development assists a far more subtle interpretation of these events, and a far more significant understanding of the history of Ulster.

That a visit to the Folk and Transport Museum can enhance such an understanding is testament to the efforts of its organizers and staff and to the success of the institution, if perhaps in unintended ways. Whether or not an attempt was ever made to offer a core political narrative with the institution, it is certainly no such narrative which is impressed upon the keen or the casual observer, partly because of the limits of such a process in any museum. In demonstrating the variety of ways in which such an institution can be read, this fact also has wider implications for approaches in the discipline of museum studies.


1. Ludmilla Jordanova, History in Practice (London: Arnold, 2000), 141-71.

2. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983): Flora E.S. Kaplan (ed.), Museums and the Making of Ourselves: The Role of Objects in National Identity (London: Leicester University Press, 1994)

3. Ian McBride (ed.), History and Memory in Modern Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001): Eberhard Bort, Commemorating Ireland: History, Politics, Culture (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2004): A.T.Q. Stewart, The Shape of Irish History (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001): R.F. Foster, The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making it up in Ireland (London: Penguin, 2001).

4. J.M. Fladmark (ed.) Heritage and Museums: Shaping National Identity (Shaftesbury: Donhead, 1999).

5. Gillian McIntosh, The Force of Culture: Unionist Identities in Twentieth-century Ireland (Cork: Cork University Press, 1999), 6-68

6. Bryan A. Follis, A State under Siege: The Establishment of Northern Ireland, 1920-1925 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).

7. See Paul Bew, Peter Gibbon and Henry Patterson, The State in Northern Ireland, 1921-72: Political Forces and Social Classes (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979), and to a lesser extent Paul Bew, Peter Gibbon and Henry Patterson, Northern Ireland, 1921-1996: Political Forces and Social Classes (London: Serif, 1996, revised and updated edition): Kerby Miller, 'Belfast's First Bomb, 28 February 1816: Class Conflict and the Origins of Ulster Unionist Hegemony', ire-Ireland, 39:2 (Spring/Summer 2004), 262-80.

8. Paul Dixon, Northern Ireland: The Politics of War and Peace (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), 47-66: Marc Mulholland, Northern Ireland at the Crossroads: Ulster Unionism in the O'Neill Years, 1960-9 (Houndmills: Macmillan Press, 2000): G.K. Peatling, The Failure of the Northern Ireland Peace Process (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2004, 36-48

9. David Garland, Punishment and Modern Society: A Study in Social Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 170.

10. Fiona McLean and Stephen Cooke, 'Communicating Identity: Perceptions of the Museum of Scotland', in Fladmark (ed.), Heritage and Museums, pp.147-60: K. Hetherington, 'Museum Topology and the will to Connect', Journal of Material Culture, ii, no.2 (July 1997), 199-218.

11. Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, CAB/4/1246: memorandum by J.L.O.. Andrews entitled 'Ulster Folk Museum', 22 November 1963; also CAB/4/1254: minutes of a Northern Ireland cabinet meeting held 30 January 1964.

12. James Loughlin, Ulster Unionism and British National Identity since 1885 (London: Pinter, 1995), 210.

13. Akihiro Takei, 'The First Irish Linen Mills, 1800-1824', Irish Economic and Social History, xxi (1994), 28-38: W.H. Crawford, 'The Evolution of the Linen Trade in Ulster before Industrialization', Irish Economic and Social History, xv (1988), 32-53.

14. A.T.Q. Stewart, The Ulster Crisis (London: Faber and Faber, 1967).

15. Steve Bruce, 'Terrorism and Politics: The Case of Northern Ireland's Loyalist Paramilitaries', Terrorism and Political Violence, 13 (2001), no.2, 27-48.

16. Michael Farrell, Arming the Protestants: the Formation of the Ulster Special Constabulary and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, 1920-7 (London: Pluto Press, 1983): O'Leary, Brendan, and John McGarry Policing Northern Ireland: Proposals for a new Start (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1999). Graham Ellison and Jim Smyth, The Crowned Harp: Policing Northern Ireland (London: Pluto Press, 2000): Brice Dickson, 'Policing and Human Rights after the Conflict', in Michael Cox, Adrian Guelke and Fiona Stephen (eds.), A Farewell to Arms? From War to Peace in Northern Ireland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 104-115: Clive Walker, 'The Patten Report and Post-sovereignty Policing in Northern Ireland', Rick Wilford (ed.), Aspects of the Belfast Agreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp.142-65: John Hermon et alia, The Royal Ulster Constabulary: Our Thanks and our Support (London: Friends of the Union, 1999)

17. Halifax Herald, 13 July 1914, p.2.

18. T.M. Devine, The Scottish Nation, 1700-2000 (London: Penguin, 2000, first published 1999), 570-606: Tom Nairn, The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-nationalism (London: NLB, 1977)

19. Peatling, Failure of the Northern Ireland Peace Process, 164-5

20. Ruth Dudley Edwards, The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions (London: HarperCollins, 1999).

21. David Miller (ed.), Rethinking Northern Ireland: Culture, Ideology and Colonialism (London: Longman, 1998).