Ulster American Folk Park

Ulster American Folk Park

Photograph by Sean Lucas

Ulster American Folk Park

Omagh, Co Tyrone


You don’t need to visit the Ulster American Folk Park to understand quite what’s wrong with it. You see, the clue is in the name. It’s an attraction dedicated to American folk traditions… in Ulster. Ulster may have been fought over for generations, but never by America which has never laid claim to it.

But don’t visit the park in search of an answer to the question of quite why the people of Ulster should be more interested in American folk traditions than they are in, say, the folk traditions of Italy, or in archery, or in the recorded work of French synthesiser musician Jean-Michel Jarre.

Instead of answering it, the park merely bats the question away with a reference to the fact that many people emigrated to the United States from Ireland, before whisking you on to the exhibits before you ask any more awkward questions such as whether there are any more public tourist attractions nearby.

The list of events held at the park includes Thanksgiving Day, ‘when Americans all over the world turn their thoughts to home and family as they prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving’. True, but the point is that they are Americans, not Irishmen.

Confused? Well shut up and enjoy the ‘Days of Christmas Past’ event, which ‘takes the family back in time to experience the magic of a traditional Christmas’ – which is all good fun, but has nothing much to do with American folk traditions in or out of Ulster.

At the time of writing you can visit ‘Christmas in Castletown’, which uses archive photographs and film footage ‘to explore the emigrant experience of Christmas as told in the songs of Bing Crosby to Shane MacGowan’. Bing Crosby is included because his maternal great-grandparents were Irish. We’re not joking. And we’re not entirely convinced that Shane McGowan – who is from Kent and went to Westminster, one of England’s poshest public schools – ever emigrated from Ulster to America.

As you tour the exhibits, which are spread over 40 acres of rambling parkland, the whole experience seems more and more like a long anecdote from an elderly relative who has drunk his bodyweight in sherry.

‘Interested in American Folk traditions? Then you’ll love the “Through The Eye of a Needle” exhibition, which celebrates the history of the sewing needle and all its creations. Mostly textiles. Hang on, what was I saying? Oh yes, it includes embroidered pictures and needlework samplers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and some…’

Having allowed itself the themes of Ireland, America, emigration, migration generally, rural and town life, and the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there isn’t really much that the park can’t cover. But what it never explains is why it chose to.