ULSTER FOLK MUSEUM – Charlie Chaplin and why spades matter

Blacksmiths taking a lot of care making a decorative ram's head fire poker.

Blacksmiths taking a lot of care making a decorative ram’s head fire poker.


We’re stingy, we Dutch tourists. We’re only visiting the Ulster Folk Museum because it’s cheaper than Titanic Belfast and the parking is free.

We expect an hour or so poking around a cheesy open air museum will be plenty, then we’ll go looking for a cafe with affordable coffee and scones and fill in the rest of the day somehow.

It turns out we need a change of plan. We love the folk museum!

We’ve seen a few of these open air museums in the Netherlands. They can be entertaining enough, though they often feel phoney, catering to busloads of tourists, with presenters gabbling spiels they’ve apparently given far too often and visitors hustled to the gift shops as soon as possible.

The first surprise for us is to find the Ulster Folk Museum, a short drive east of Belfast, is anything but crowded.

Houses have been lovingly transported here and rebuilt brick by brick.

Houses have been lovingly transported here and rebuilt brick by brick.

If we assume there are no people because it’s not very interesting, we have to think again.

In the reconstructed cinema we find a Charlie Chaplin film playing.

There's only one other visitor - a young Irish girl who finds Chaplin hilarious.

There’s only one other visitor – a young Irish girl who finds Chaplin hilarious. We like him too.

The museum is set along a few kilometres of pathways winding through fields. On a fine day, a fine place to stroll and picnic.

Plenty of room to move.

Plenty of room to move.

In each house we find a guide in appropriate costume. There’s nothing so special about that, but what we love is the obvious enthusiasm they show for their work. They’re pleased we dropped in, and they want to tell us about it, in their musical Irish voices of course.

Weaver at work, with care, love, and a beautiful Irish accent.

Weaver at work, with care, love, and a beautiful Irish accent.

'He's a bit boisterous, so stand back.'

‘He’s a bit boisterous, so stand back.’

The printer shows us his work.

The printer shows us his work.

A revelation to us is the spade mill. Why would anyone need a mill to make a spade?

Here’s the thing. A large proportion of Ireland is covered in peat bog, which can be cut into blocks, dried and burned. For centuries, peat has been the fuel that warmed every cottage and powered every industry. Someone has to dig it out. If you’re going to spend a large proportion of your life doing this, you’ll want the perfect spade; right- or left-handed, with the blade angle and handle the correct length for your height. And the depth of your bog.

Irish spades were the best in Europe, and when itinerant Irish labourers spread out across Europe and overseas, they brought their spades with them.

We love the black and white documentary that explains all this, especially the footage of the spade-making family relaxing with music and dance in their lunch-break. (I’ve tried to find it on YouTube, but failed so far. If anyone knows how to find it, I’d love to see it again – and share it.)

The spade mill.

The spade mill.

From there it’s back to the entrance, as the entire day has slipped by.

Back in the 'town' part of the museum we loved the school desks with the inkwell holes and names carved into them.

Back in the ‘town’ part of the museum we love the school desks with the inkwell holes and names carved into them.

If we needed souvenirs, the sweet shop had plenty,

If we need souvenirs, the sweet shop has plenty…

...and someone who was very pleased to sell them to us.

…and someone who is very pleased to sell them to us.



Entry to the Ulster Folk Museum costs GBP9 (GBP7 for those of us over a certain age).

TIP: The National Trust has reciprocal rights with the Historic Houses Trust of NSW, of which we are members in Australia. This would have meant free entry…had we remembered to bring our cards.

4 Comments

Filed under Ireland

4 responses to “ULSTER FOLK MUSEUM – Charlie Chaplin and why spades matter

  1. I still want to see Titanic Museum but I might have to find time for this now as well. I need a new spade!

  2. Oh, I am soo putting this on my Must Do list – if we ever travel to Northern Ireland again. It looks wonderful. Thanks for telling us about it, Richard.

  3. Back now from NI. Missed this. Did the Titanic and the Political Murals tour and then headed north to Londonderry. Need to go back again to see this.

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