A Global Research Institute of Queen's University Belfast


'On the road again' - Ulster American Folk Park


written by Stuart Irwin, PhD Student Assistant to International Summer Schools

Three buses departed from Queen’s at 8.30am as we made the journey towards Omagh, County Tyrone. Our destination was the Ulster American Folk Park, an outdoor museum that charts the story of emigration from Ulster to America across the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The folk park is located 5 miles north of Omagh. On arrival we were welcomed by our two hosts for the day, Dr Brian Lambkin (founding director of the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies) and Dr Patrick Fitzgerald (Lecturer and Development Officer at the Mellon Centre).

Before being let loose to explore the folk park, the class were given a brief overview of migration, where it was argued that the Irish diaspora (Greek for ‘scattering’ or ‘dispersion’) is important in understanding Irish identity. Brian and Patrick invited the class to consider the following whilst they explored the museum:

  • Identify one strength of the park
  • Identify one weakness of the park
  • Think of one question that comes to mind

‌In terms of layout, the Ulster American Folk Park is spread over 40 acres. The park comprises both an indoor exhibition and outdoor museum. Additionally, the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies is housed on the site, which provides research and education relating to migration services. Unsurprisingly, the most impressive and engaging aspect of the folk park is the outdoor museum. This allows the visitor to experience the life of the Ulster migrant, which is carefully traced over three stages: firstly, from their lives in rural Ulster (the ‘old world’); secondly, the transatlantic journey as illustrated by the dockside and ship (across the intervening space); and finally, life in North America (the ‘new world’). The park was developed around the Mellon House, which was the birthplace of Thomas Mellon, who was an Irish-American banker and lawyer.

The class thoroughly enjoyed exploring the park and taking in all it had to offer. The taste of rural life proved a welcome contrast to the big city. In particular, many were impressed by the array of costumed characters that told the story of emigrants and demonstrated traditional crafts, including baking. Indeed, I led a group of students who enjoyed soda bread from the ‘old world’ and corn bread from the ‘new world’. To finish off our dining experience, we went in search of W. G. O’Doherty’s grocery shop, where we were able to purchase sweet treats!

After spending a number of hours exploring the folk park, the class reassembled for an interesting and thought-provoking discussion with Brian and Patrick. The feedback from the class was overwhelmingly positive; students commented on the interactive and sensory benefits that this museum offers to the visitor. Many were impressed by the authenticity that the museum offered. On the other hand, the class were able to offer the staff advice on how the park can be improved. The discussion moved on to discuss migration more generally and its impact. After all, this fieldtrip was not simply geared towards the Irish Studies class; far from it, for the Conflict Transformation strand were encouraged to think about the impact of migration and how it has shaped the society in which we live today. In summary, this visit provided the class with an opportunity to consider the processes of globalisation and understand identity.

Our trip to the Ulster American Folk Park was a great success, as measured by the upbeat mood recorded on our bus journey home to Belfast. Many thanks to Brian, Patrick and all the staff at the museum for making our fieldtrip a success. 

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