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.
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.
The museum is set along a few kilometres of pathways winding through fields. On a fine day, a fine place to stroll and picnic.
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.
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.)
From there it’s back to the entrance, as the entire day has slipped by.
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.