Hidden Treasure Trail 10 - The People's Museum In Northern Ireland

By Caroline Lewis | 15 May 2006
People's Museum logo

Welcome Culture24's Hidden Treasure Trails, exploring the hidden treasures of the People’s Museum.

The BBC series People’s Museum explores the most fascinating objects on show at museums all over the country and asks the viewer to vote for their favourites - what they would put on display in a museum. A masterful portrait, a scientific first, or perhaps a touching journal? It's up to the people!

Culture24 is revisiting the featured venues and more, taking another look at at some of the amazing artefacts also featured in the People's Museum programme.

We have arranged them into region-by-region trails. Read on to discover some of Northern Ireland’s rich collections and surprising finds – we hope it inspires you to get out there and visit them for yourself.

We take a look at the Down County Museum with its grisly tales of past executions and more inspiring story of St Patrick. At the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum you can learn about not Greenwich Mean Time but Dublin Mean Time and find out all about the Enniskillen 100 race.

Queen’s University Belfast has long been a seat of learning and its collections contain many artefacts including rare silverware and unique musical manuscripts.

photo of a large white Georgian institutional building

The old gaol where Down County Museum now resides. Courtesy the museum

History hangs heavily in the air at Down County Museum, in the former Gaol of Down. Its touching World War One brass matchbox holder with a personal story behind it is on the short-list for the People's Museum.

The museum collection documents the culture of the county through the centuries, while the building itself has a rather grisly heritage. Thousands were imprisoned there between 1796 and 1830, sometimes for very minor offences, and others were executed on the site.

If that hasn’t put you off a visit, you’ll find some intriguing artefacts inside as well as preserved cells and the story of the gaol.

photo of three stone slabs bearing different shaped crosses

The medieval stone slabs on show at Down County Museum. Courtesy the museum

The museum’s very first public exhibition in 1984 told about the life and times of Ireland’s patron saint, Patrick. Still on show are the large medieval stone slabs carved with crosses, then loaned from the Church of Saul, situated close to where Patrick first landed in Ulster. The crosses date from the 7th to 12th centuries and are thought to have been used as a focus for worship or have commemorative significance

Some centuries later, religious discrimination in politics led to two rebellions against Protestant rule in Ireland. The Society of United Irishmen campaigned for more co-operation between Protestants, Catholics and Dissenters and led their first, failed uprising in 1798. A second uprising was attempted in 1803, under the leadership of United Irishman Thomas Russell. Again, it failed and Russell was hanged at the gates of County Down Gaol, where the documents from his trial are now displayed.

The Ballybranagh Quilt paints a picture of life in Northern Ireland in the mid-19th century, from a woman churning butter to the arrival of a train complete with driver and passengers, making the quilt a wonderful historical document

Early steam locomotives are just one of the things on show at Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. Its collection of vehicles is comprehensive, ranging from horse-drawn carts to ships and aircraft, while the folk side of the museum tells of the traditions and ways of life of Northern Ireland. Its Titanic design drawings are in the running for the People's Museum.

In the rail and road galleries is the largest locomotive built and operated in Ireland, Maedb, used to pull the Dublin to Cork Express. The railways had a profound effect on life in Ireland, as they did over the world. The major change they brought about was bringing all places into line with Dublin Mean Time, 25 minutes behind Greenwich Mean Time, which became the standard later.

Shows a photograph of a small boy looking up at a huge locomotive. It is a dark image and all we can see of the locomotive is one large wheel and a name plate.

Maedb is a 4-6-0 express passenger loco built in 1939 for the Great Southern Railway. She ran until 1958, clocking up 480,000 miles. Courtesy Ulster Transport and Folk Museum.

Another interesting fact you’ll learn at UFTM is that the DeLorean car was built in Belfast. Starring alongside Michael J Fox film Back to the Future, the car has a futuristic design with 'gullwing' doors that open upwards. The jetsetting activities of the company director, John Z DeLorean also made the car famous.

Another local celebrity was George Brockerton, who won the Enniskillen 100 race in the 1930s despite looking like he had little chance on his large Zenith V-twin. It is claimed he even stopped for a pint in the middle of the race. Brockerton went on to be a despatch rider in the Second World War, most notably leading a convoy of Allied vehicles to safety at Dunkirk. A 'Bitza' motorcycle he and WR Chamberlain constructed from the parts ofabout ten other bikes is on show in the road transport gallery.

Queen’s University Belfast is a prestigious institution with some equally significant collections - its 24-carat-gold ceremonial mace is up for nomination to the People's Museum.

The university also looks to a rich musical heritage and the library holds an important collection relating to one of Ireland’s greatest composers, Sir Hamilton Hardy, who was born in Hillsborough, County Down.

photo of an engraved silver plate

A plate from the Empress of China's Silver, donated to Queen's by a descendant of Sir Robert Hart. Courtesy QUB

A holograph (original handwritten) manuscript of his most famous work, An Irish Symphony (1904), is to be found in the Special Collections along with notes, letters and other papers. There is also a rather magnificent recital room named after him with a beamed, vaulted ceiling and two Steinway grand pianos, in the university’s School of Music.

Queen’s graduate and enthusiastic alumni Sir Robert Hart had a long career that took him far away. In 1908, he was presented an elaborate set of tableware referred to as the Empress of China’s Silver to mark his 43 years of service as Inspector-General of the Imperial Customs Service in China. His family gave the beautiful silver to Queen’s in 1971 and some of it can be seen in QUB’s .

More museums with fascinating collections to be found in Northern Ireland…

North Down Heritage Centre in Bangor has a fine collection of work by local artists past and present.

The Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum explains the historical development of Ireland's linen industry from its origins to the present day. In the weaving workshop, damask linen weavers demonstrate the handlooms.

A rare 16th century goblet made of yew and locally made pottery and metalwork are on show in Fermanagh County Museum at Enniskillen Castle.

Find out more about the featured artefacts from The People's Museum on the BBC History website at

Click here to go to the BBC People's Museum website and find out more about the featured objects.

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The Hidden Treasure Trails have been produced for The Campaign for Museums by Culture24 with support from the Foyle Foundation.

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