Welcome to our latest ‘Postcard from Ireland’ where the Irish Family History Centre try and give you a flavour of some of the new or lesser known museums/exhibitions and attractions in Dublin and further afield in Ireland. Head of IFHC, Fiona O’Mahony, and Education Manager, Claire Murray, take a trip to Tyrone.
Our May postcard takes us on a cultural day trip to Co. Tyrone, where Fiona and Claire visited the Ulster American Folk Park and the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies. So many of our own visitors are not only eager to learn about who their ancestors were or where they were from, but how they lived and what they experienced in their day-to-day lives. For those with Ulster roots, the folk park and centre both provide a phenomenal backdrop to their own ancestors’ emigrant experiences from the 18th century on.
Our first port of call was a visit to the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies, where we were joined by Catherine McCullough, Director, and Patrick Fitzgerald, Lecturer and Development Officer. We were in good hands, and had a great discussion over some well-needed cups of tea and biscuits after our car journey. We learned a lot about what kind of work the centre carries out, the collections they have and how they assist people in researching emigrant ancestors.
The main goal of the Mellon Centre – as noted on their website – is to serve the community as a leading international institution for the study of human migration, focusing on the peoples of Ireland world-wide. The centre is a rich source of information, with a specialist collection of over 17,000 volumes, approximately 50 periodical titles, a selection of maps and audio visual material, and the Irish Emigration Database, which is a fantastic collection of primary source documents relating to Irish-American emigration, and is keyword searchable on the computer.
After our catch-up, we made our way to the folk park itself, which comprises of a detailed indoor exhibition of Ulster-American folk heritage, and an open-air museum. We were given an introduction to the folk park by Richard Hurst, Visitor Services Manager, and provided with maps for the site.
The indoor exhibition offers great context to the time period, and is well worth spending some time in to fully grasp what you are going to see outside. It covers four themed galleries as follows: People and Places, Failure and Opportunity, Transport and Migration, and Survival and Prosperity. There is also a temporary exhibition space which currently houses ‘A Step in Time: The Story of Irish Dance’.
The story of the folk park is interwoven with the narrative of the Mellon family, with Thomas Mellon front and centre throughout.
Thomas – who founded Mellon Bank/Mellon Financial Corporation in the US – was born in Co. Tyrone in 1813, and he and his family emigrated to the United States in the early 1800s. They first emigrated to New Brunswick, then on to Baltimore, and finally on to Pennsylvania.
The journey through the folk park is a mirror of Thomas’ life, beginning in a small Irish cottage, and ending in the larger scale American homestead.
Throughout the park you are greeted by fully-costumed characters who act as guides within each of the locations. They’re an incredibly knowledgeable team and well-equipped to answer any questions. Many are also engaged in traditional crafts and activities, to provide hands-on demonstrations, like a blacksmith and a weaver.
It is not just the transition through the life-size emigration ship that separates the old land with the new. Emigration is a tough palate cleanser, and subtle sensory changes in the atmosphere carry you through this journey. The smell of turf is gradually replaced by burning wood and samples of soda-bread tasted in the first Mellon family home are replaced by warm cornbread on an American farmhouse.
As we ambled through the various cottages, reconstructed streets and docklands, we couldn’t help but feel part of their story. How fearful but excited they must have been to have been faced with something unknown, how anxious they would feel knowing that they may not make it to the other side alive. These emigrants weren’t just investing their time or money in this leap of faith – they were investing their lives. It was humbling.
The Folk Park is an outstanding place, rich in content and a truly immersive experience. But most impressive of all is the fact that each building is completely original. In this large-scale and painstaking project, the US plantation homes were sketched, studied and deconstructed; each stone, brick and panel numbered, only to be transported across the waves and fully reconstructed on the other side.
Even the shop fronts in the streetscapes are original facades, the school house, cottages – all transported to the site to provide an authentic experience in a huge feat of historical reconstruction. From the stories and artefacts, to the characters and how they interact with visitors, attention to detail is well represented in every angle of the entire experience.
We spent about three hours in total at the Ulster American Folk Park and the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies, and had we not been driving home that same day, we could have spent another three!
We finished up our visit in the café and gift shop, which stocks some wonderful local products, such as Ulster Linen, souvenirs, toys and a huge collection of books ranging from local geography to family history. The staff were incredibly welcoming, helpful and informative, and Richard Hurst met with us again before we left to see how we had gotten on.
Both the Mellon Centre and the Folk Park provide a full day of activities and run special events throughout the year, so if you’re looking for something a bit different to do with the whole family, I would highly recommend visiting.
There is ample car-parking and the park is well sign-posted and easy to find. For details on accessibility at the site, please click here for more information.
Thanks to the whole team for hosting us for the day, and we will definitely be visiting again soon!
By Claire Murray