Ulster American Folk Park

Bringing Emigration to Life

Meeting the locals at the Ulster American Folk Park is educational and fun
© Bernd Biege 2016

The Ulster American Folk Park is one of the largest museums in Ireland – spreading itself across a landscaped area of no less than 40 acres in County Tyrone (Northern Ireland), with a smallish indoor exhibition area and original, recreated, as well as relocated buildings from Ulster and North America … plus a sea passage to connect the two. Well, not really, but you will board a ship in the Ulster American Folk Park, to “sail” across to Americay …

The Ulster American Folk Park – a Museum Landscape

The normal visit to the Ulster American Folk Park kicks off in the Matthew T Mellon Visitor Centre, which provides information and all the necessary visitor facilities, as well as access to the indoor galleries. The Exhibition Gallery hosts changing exhibitions and displays complementing the permanent collection, but always connected to emigration. The permanent Emigrants Exhibition explores the story of more than two centuries of emigration from Ireland to America, of which the period of the Great Famine is just one part. While the displays in this museum area are realistic, they show a balanced picture, with the positive and negative aspects of emigration highlighted.

Once you are finished indoors, it is time to head for “old Ireland” … the museum area given over to a recreation of historic Irish places and life. You will be guided through this on an easy-to-follow trail, which snakes its way through farm- and woodland. Starting at a single room cabin, the most basic of Irish dwellings. Following on from that, you’ll see rural Ireland recreated – with a forge, a weavers’ cottage, a Meeting House, a vestry, and the original Mellon Homestead (birthplace of Thomas Alexander Mellon, later founder of the Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh). Other exhibits to visit include the Campbell House, the Tullyallan Mass House, the Hughes House and a school house.

Once you have explored the rural bit, you’ll come into a townland, starting with a post office, and including several shops, complete with furnishings and goods. This more urban landscape finally brings you down to the Ship and Dockside Gallery, an enclosed space with offices and … yes, an emigrant ship moored at the dock. Well, not really, but it is quite a convincing set-up, and you get to board the ship. Which is also your way into the new world. Again starting with an urban North American area, complete with shops (the goods on sale are noticeably different), and even e replica of the very first Mellon Bank.

Once you escape the city (in which you might also have spotted your first non-white person … which in the old days must have been a culture shock for many Ulster emigrants), you are back in open country. And will, again, be guided through an assortment of homesteads such as immigrants erected once they found a place to settle.

The first house is actually a luxury dwelling – Samuel Fulton built it for himself in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (from where it was transported wholesale to the Ulster American Folk Park, and re-erected in full glory). The unusual bits? It is not a wooden shack, but built of stone (maybe the only way Fulton knew how to build a house), and it also has an in-home water supply and cooling system, being built on a spring. Other houses are more conventional. Like a log cabin, a Pennsylvania log barn and farmhouse complete with outbuildings, and wooden houses from mainly Pennsylvania and West Virginia – all of which you can explore at your heart’s content.

During which explorations you might just run into the owners …

Living History at the Ulster American Folk Park

Owners? Yes, one thing the Ulster American Folk Park is great on is living history – all over the park you’ll meet costumed guides, who will enthusiastically tell “their” stories, and introduce you to the world of yesteryear. From the shopkeepers in the towns to the baker in one of the Irish houses, from the trapper in the Fulton house to an Irish-American farmer shooting the breeze on his “Virginian” porch. Many of them are great storytellers, and they certainly like to answer all sorts of questions … mostly in character.

On special event days, reenactors will also flock to the park and do living history displays with a North American theme – these are detailed on the Ulster American Folk Park’s website and usually draw some crowds. On other days, however, you might find yourself walking through the park in near solitude.

Is the Ulster American Folk Park Worth a Visit?

Well, yes, on many levels – it is educational, it is entertaining, and it is a good walk. Like many open-air museums, e.g. the Irish National Heritage Park or the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, the Ulster American Folk Park is, first and foremost, a great day out, a place to explore, to get to actual grips with history. And as such, it can be fun for the whole family, as well as for the serious historian and connoisseur of simple architecture. See some images of the Ulster American Folk Park here to whet your appetite.

The incorporation of elements of living history, mainly through the costumed guides, makes the old times come alive, a bonus especially for younger visitors. It also gives the whole park a “homely” feeling. And even the most painstakingly restored cottage will always benefit from a small turf fire, the olfactory sensation alone transporting one back in time (shades of Marcel Proust and his madeleines here).

To get the best from the park, come early, go exploring, then have a meal or snack in the café – and you might decide to revisit your favorite bits afterwards. For this you don’t necessarily have to follow the signposted route, there are shortcuts you will spot yourself or at least on the map you’ll get at the entrance. But one word of advice … never rush it! The Ulster American Folk Park website estimates that you need three and a half hours for a visit, it’ll more than likely be more. Especially if you have inquisitive kids in tow, who will want to hear all the stories.

Essential Information on the Ulster American Folk Park

  • Location: 2 Mellon Road, Castletown, Omagh, County Tyrone, BT78 5QU.
  • Public Transport: The Goldliner Express Bus No. 273 from Belfast-Derry passes the main gates of the Ulster American Folk Park, but will only stop on request outside. There are local services from Omagh Bus Station, as well as a taxi rank there.
  • Parking: a free car park can accommodate up to 350 cars and coaches.
  • Opening Times: March to June Tuesday to Sunday 10 AM to 5 PM, July and August daily 10 AM to 5 PM, September Tuesday to Sunday 10 AM to 5 PM, October to February Tuesday to Friday 10 AM to 4 PM, Saturday and Sunday 11 AM to 4 PM.
  • Admission Fees: adults £ 9, children (over 5) £ 5.50, concessions available, slightly higher prices on special events days.
  • Estimated Time Needed: budget for three to four hours.
  • Food & Drink: there is a designated picnic area adjacent to the car park, as food and drinks are not permitted on the museum site. In the visitor centre a café can be found, providing a range of hot and cold meals, tea, coffee and scones, soup, freshly made sandwiches and confectionery.
  • Souvenir Shop: located in the lobby, with a good selection of topical and general souvenirs.
  • Website: www.nmni.com
  • Phone 028-82243292

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary tickets for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.

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