August 2003: Omagh


Ulster folk park chicksIF Pirates of the Caribbean has put you in the mood for finding out more about conditions on an ancient sailing ship, why not try the real thing. It doesn’t involve any seasickness, because this one is firmly moored in the Ulster American Folk Park in Omagh, but you will still be glad to get back on dry land.

During storms, the guide will tell you, they battened down the hatches, extinguished the lights, and everyone stayed below deck.

Below deck in a storm in the dark, a storm that could last a week or two, with no hot food but the oatmeal cake that your friends had presented you with before you started.

It is not just the sounds of the creaking timbers and the foul smells, it is the information that emigrants spent up to twelve weeks in the hold of a cargo ship to get to the new world, and that up to a quarter of the passengers died of fever on the way.

Eric Montgomery started the Ulster Folk Park in 1968, cleverly using the ancestral home of the Mellons, one of America’s wealthiest Irish families, whose bank in Pittsburgh was grown into one of the biggest businesses in America by the original emigrant’s son.

Big donors to museums in the Pittsurgh region, where the Carnegies, Fricks, and now even Tony o’Reilly have their names adorning public buildings, the Mellon tradition is to help deserving historical causes through large bequests, and none could be more suitable than this.

The Mellon descendants rowed in with some cash, a few acres were added, over 25 buildings were reconstructed stone by stone and log by log on the site, and ten years ago the park was given a focus by its life size replica of an emigrant ship.

There are other homes, bringing you on a journey from the cottier’s cabin to the ship, and then through the various farmhouses of eastern Pennsylvania, where most 18th century emigrants went. It is a fascinating journey, and elevates the entire experience above your normal visit to a Folk Park. New exhibits are being added all the time, among the newest is the Cunningham Spring House.

Ulster folk park musiciansThe sign for the Folk Park will be familiar to those who travel on the main Dublin road to Derry or north Donegal, four miles on the Strabane side of Omagh.

The museum tells the story of the thousands of emigrants who left Ireland for the New World of America in the 18th & 19th centuries. In peak season 80 guides in historical costumes are available to answer questions.

Visitors can join in hands-on activities including spinning, open-hearth cookery and traditional corn craft.

The major exhibition “Emigrants” tells the story of over 200 years of Irish emigration to America, with an exhibition concentrating on famous emigrants, reasons for leaving and emigrants’ adventures.

Children also enjoy many of the special events organised throughout the summer including military re-enactments and musical programmes. With wooden dancing dolls, hobby horses and other traditional games the museum promises to offer a full day’s fun for young visitors.

Castletown National School, a meeting house and a mass house have all been rebuilt. The Ulster Street features an number of original shops from various towns around Ulster including Hill’s Chemist, Blair’s Printers and Reynold’s Ropework.

The museum offers a family ticket discount at a price of £10 for two adults and up to 4 children, Children under 4 are free.

Tel : 048 82243292 Fax: 028 82 242241

Ulster American Folk Park was voted  Northern Ireland’s Top Visitor Attraction in 2002.


Turning Grass Blue The Ulster American Folk Park is preparing for its 12th Annual Appalachian & Bluegrass Music Festival from 5th – 7th September inclusive. The festival will comprise Bluegrass concerts on Friday and Saturday in the Festival Marquee, followed by a Bluegrass Gospel concert on Sunday evening. The event also includes ” Bluegrass in the Park” sessions, in various exhibit buildings on the museum’s historic site on Saturday and Sunday.  There will be a huge American line up with artists including Laurie Lewis, Ginny Hawker, Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens, Jerry & Tammy Sullivan, Ira Bernstein and Smith & Jones. The Branchetts will add African American Gospel music.

The line up of musicians includes artists from USA, Canada, Europe, UK and Ireland. Other artists include Northern Exposure, the Niall Toner Band, The Rosinators, Knotty Pine, Alec Somerville, the Broken String Band and Julie Hennigan.

This year musical lectures will be given by Jack Bernhart (USA) and HSBC Bank are generously sponsoring a series of dance workshops with dance master Ira Bernstein.

O Sister ! For those of you who first heard Bluegrass music through the George Clooney film ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ it’s time to watch out for ‘O Sister!’.  Despite their popularity in American Country Music, women have been a rarity in Bluegrass bands. Theories of their absence range from the macho attitude that women ought to be at home cooking and rearing children to suggestions that women sing in keys difficult for the instrumentalists. In the last two decades this has changed with artists such as Alison Krauss, Hazel Dickens and Lynn Morris coming to the fore. Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerard and Ginny Hawker will demonstrate real Bluegrass        ‘girl power’ at this year’s Bluegrass Festival.

The Branchettes (left) Cappella singers Ethel Elliot and Lena Mae Perry have been performing gospel songs as the Branchettes for twenty-two years. The duo have their roots deep in the congregational hymn singing of earlier generations of African Americans. Although the Branchettes occasionally pick up the tempo of their songs and add instrumentation, they like to sing slowly and in the old way. Their gospel singing is sure to uplift and energise.

Ira Bernstein (right) is a drummer – his feet are the sticks and the floor is his drum. Ira is regarded as one of the most versatile and accomplished performers of percussive step dancing in America.

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