A Soft Day in Ireland
There’s a sharp breeze rolling in off Belfast Lough, it’s what we call a ‘soft’ day in Ireland; grey-blue sky and a mizzly rain that doesn’t fall in droplets but hangs around you like a mist. In the corduroy field before me a farmer in period costume is following a hand held plough pulled by two ornately dressed shires. Their master is bent over his plough, turning the sod with an accuracy Seamus Heaney would be proud of, ‘his eye narrowed and angled at the ground, mapping the furrow exactly’.
Behind me chickens scratch across muddy paths strewn with straw, occasionally squalling and furiously flapping their wings as a passing child casts a handful of grain their way. Other children squeal with delight as they chase an escaped piglet back towards its wooden pen.
I’m visiting 'Discovery Farm' at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. It’s a living history experience brought to life by costumed locals who demonstrate traditional crafts, and portray life and routine on the farms of Ulster at the turn of the 20th century.
A slow way of life, as I walk narrow winding trails through the countryside the only traffic is a donkey and cart transporting hay across the farmland. The driver doffs his tweed in thanks as I press into the brambles to let him by. At a whitewashed farmhouse a farmer sits on his three legged stool, plucking a bird. In the distance, across brown fields, the school bell chimes to call a start to lessons.
The sweet scent of burning turf rises in a thin line from the chimney of a cottier’s thatched home, the last roses of summer still clinging around its door. Inside the wife is making bread. Little can compare to the smoky taste of Irish soda bread cooked on the griddle over an open fire. Keen youngsters with outstretched hands ask for another slice.
The sweet scent of burning turf rises in a thin line from the chimney of a cottier’s thatched home
Further down the wooded path the distinctive sound of a fiddle being played for a small crowd of foot-tapping tourists, crammed around the kitchen hearth. The roaring fire heats the body, while traditional music warms the soul. One visitor tries a little Irish dancing, to roars of encouragement from the gathered group.
In the forge a hard working smithy, beads of sweat on his brow, presses giant bellows while the farrier fashions out a horseshoe on the anvil. With each clink of metal on metal red hot sparks fly across the dimly lit workspace like fireflies. No health and safety here; water bubbles and hisses as he cools his tools in the fizz trough.
The roaring fire heats the body, while traditional music warms the soul.
This museum, with stone cottages, farms, schools and workshops dating back one hundred years, is located just ten miles outside of Belfast. Redevelopment of the city centre has included the opening of newer tourist attractions, and fewer people seem drawn to this site. Yet it offers something unique; a visit to the Folk Museum is not just an education, it is an interactive experience that stimulates the mind and entertains all the senses.