We’ve been transported… transported back in time.
It’s mid-morning on a spring market day in 1917, and Ulster Street is already humming with activity. There’s a queue of excited children in the sweet shop and newspaper billboards proclaim the headlines of the day (“USA: Congress votes to enter war!”). Just opposite Reilly’s pub, a jovial woman is setting out clothes on her stall.
“I’m hoping for a busy day today!” she sings to no-one in particular as I amble past.
While my eldest daughter haggles over the price of a goose egg, I’m distracted by an animated conversation taking place near the Post Office: an elderly woman in a black shawl is complaining bitterly to a basket maker about the quality of his wares. The basket maker shrugs off the allegations and the woman eventually sulks back down the street, pausing briefly to comment on the “immodest” choice of clothing of a passing visitor (who happens to be my mother). Everyone laughs, Mum loudest of all; the scene has been set for a fully immersive and engaging day out.
The Ulster American Folk Park is an open-air museum near Omagh, Northern Ireland. Visitors are drawn – rather brilliantly – into the story of Irish emigration to America in the late 1800 and early 1900s. Founded in 1976, the “Folk Park” (as it is affectionately known) has been developed from a handful of houses to a large collection of almost twenty major buildings, plus a significant indoor museum.
Visitors are initially transported into the “Old World”, i.e. rural Ulster in the mid- to late- 19th century. The houses here range from a tiny famine cottage to the large and relatively opulent Campbell House. Like many of the buildings at the Folk Park, this grand old farm has, itself, been transported – stone by stone, memory by memory – from its original location in the nearby Sperrin mountains and painstakingly reconstructed in the park-like grounds of the museum.
Nearby is the Castletown National School (another original, relocated building), where my kids sit at long wooden benches, colouring easter eggs and trying their hand at writing on slates. While they are busily occupied I am transported again, this time back into my own childhood: I grew up not far from here and attended a tiny rural school not at all dissimilar to this one. Looking around, I am suddenly inundated under a gushing waterfall of memories: of spelling tests, of tiny milk bottles with foil lids, of the muffled grating noise of chalk on a blackboard, of games of “rounders” in the playground.
Just beyond the school, the wonderful market street leads to the focal point of the park: a replica dockside and ship, waiting to transport the hope-filled emigrants from Ulster to the “New World”. In here, the cosiness of many of the houses and the joviality of the spring market is instantly forgotten – it is a sobering experience to see the cramped conditions of the ship and to think that families spent up to twelve weeks(!) and their life savings to take this dark and dangerous journey into the unknown. In a place such as this, the desperation and courage shown by these people just a few short generations ago immediately becomes evident.
Stepping off the ship, the visitor finds himself transported yet again – this time to a different continent. A dark passageway through the docks leads to a typical 19th century market street of an American port town, before opening out into the wide-open spaces of the New World.
On this side of the “Atlantic” the houses are wooden, not stone; there are logs on the fires, not turf; and the weather is always sunny and 10°C warmer (actually, that last bit isn’t true…).
Visitors are free to wander around the Folk Park independently, but well-informed guides are present in most of the buildings to add further illustration to the experience. Quite often you’ll find these guides busy practicing a traditional craft or skill – corn dolly making or cooking traditional food, for example – and they are always, always dressed in period costumes.
In fact, the staff at the Folk Park are more than just guides; they are ambassadors for their cultural heritage. Many of them – such as the wonderful acid-tongued woman encountered on Ulster Street – have been playing their parts here for many, many years, and their historical knowledge and storytelling skills are immediately obvious, adding an extra – and totally unique – dimension to any visit.
As for the kids, well.. they packed a lot into their day at the Folk Park: riding in a horse and cart, learning Northern Irish children’s songs, taking part in a barn dance (I skipped that one…) and playing with traditional American games and toys amongst many, many other absorbing and educational activities.
But we weren’t only transported during our day out at the Folk Park – we were also transformed. A photography studio on the American market street caught our eye, and we spontaneously decided – why not? Getting dressed up for the photo was all part of the fun.
And the final result? A unique and lasting souvenir of a wonderful day out.
Practical information for visiting the Ulster American Folk Park
- The Ulster American Folk Park is located 8 kilometres (5 miles) north of Omagh on the main A5 road between Omagh and Strabane.
- By car, 1h20 minutes from Belfast, 2h30 from Dublin, 45 minutes from Londonderry/Derry.
- By public transport, buses 273 and 97 from Omagh will stop at the museum gates (if you ask the driver nicely).
- The Folk Park is a major museum attraction with lots to see, educate and entertain: set aside a full day to make the most of it, and wear a comfortable pair of walking shoes.
- General admission prices are GBP9.00 per adult and GBP5.50 per child, with family tickets and other concessions available (as at April 2017).
- Parking is plentiful and free, but it can still become full during special events. Arrive early to grab a spot.
- We visited during the “Spring Fair 1917 Celebrations”; since this was a special event there were more activities going on than on a “normal” (non-event) day, and admission fees were higher. Check the Folk Park’s website in advance of your visit.
- The museum has a tasty café and plenty of picnic tables. There’s also a sizeable shop.
Disclosure: We were offered free entrance to the Ulster American Folk Park for the purposes of writing this article. All views and opinions are our own.
Daisy the bus visited the Ulster American Folk Park in April
All photos and text (c) 2017 Jonathan Orr