The day promised to be a good one as we met and started our experience at the Turning Point sculpture on the Mall. We had an informative, if chilly, introduction to this fabulous piece of public art. We then made our way down the Mall to head into the Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum.
The Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum
Inside, we were welcomed warmly before we started our tour and explore. Our guide Billy began by telling us about the building itself. Called the Sovereign House, it was traditionally the mayor’s house when it was built in the early part of the 1800’s. It was built by Frances Johnston, the same man responsible for the GPO in Dublin and the Armagh Courthouse. Interestingly, Sovereign House was built with left over stone from the Courthouse and these two buildings earned the nickname of the ‘Cat and the Kitten’. The entrance wasn’t always where it is today; it was originally facing the mall but was moved to its present location in 1840. The building remained a private residence until the MOD bought it for barracks in the 1950’s before turning into regimental offices and a small museum in the 1960’s. When the MOD stopped using the location for offices, it was turned into the museum. In 2002 a lottery grant was received for the beautiful modern cases that house the incredible collections and in 2003, the museum was awarded Best Exhibition in Ireland for its Eagle Takers exhibition.
All that architectural history aside, we got a nutshell version of the history of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. The regiment was started in 1793 during the Napoleonic Wars and has seen many episodes of military restructuring since its formation. After being shifted this way and that, merged with the other Irish regiments (namely the Enniskillins and the Ulster Rifles), the current formation and name of what began 300 years ago is the Royal Irish Regiment.
After our introduction to the space and the regiment that the museum honours, we were set loose to wander and explore as we desired. The vast array of items in the collection at this compact but extensive museum is truly amazing. Ranging from maps, advertising, personal mementos and uniforms to bullets, bombs, and medals there is no aspect of this regiment and its contributions to the British military, and indeed the world, left unturned.
While the exhibitions cover the early beginnings of the Fusiliers, it is perhaps what is on display regarding World War I and World War II that are most poignant; I overheard more than one of my fellow ambassadors recounting family stories of those who were involved. One cannot help but be struck by the vast human involvement in these two terrible wars, the loss and terror each and every soldier must have felt. This small museum has truly brought these men and their lives to life for the visitor, through the personal items on display, quotes on the walls from diaries or letters home and the many medals and badges that have been donated by families left behind.
In addition to the beautifully and lovingly curated displays, this is a family friendly museum. There are worksheets for the kids to colour in and to help them learn about this bit of history in a fun way; an interactive computer and dress up helps too! Visitors from all over the world are drawn to this museum, especially in these years that WWI is being commemorated. There is an in house genealogist to help with any family history enquiries, or any other research enquiries. There is an archive on hand in the museum to assist with this research but the very knowledgeable and helpful staff know all the places to look for information.
We left the Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum and walked down towards the south end of the Mall to the Armagh County Museum.
Nosh and Knowledge
While enjoying a welcomed cuppa and a delicious scone, our Nosh & Knowledge speaker this week was Paul McAvinchey, a well know Armagh poet, who told us about the John Hewitt Society and the summer school that is held every July in Armagh’s Market Place Theatre since 2000. This event attracts and welcomes anyone interested in story writing, poetry or just being able” to tell a good yarn”
Armagh County Museum
We were then warmly welcomed by Sean Barden, the museum curator who told us the story of the building and an overview of some of the many objects they hold in this building.
This museum is the oldest County Museum in Ireland, officially opened in 1937. The building was originally established as Charlemont Place National School and the architect may have been Francis Johnston’s pupil, William Murray. However the school was not a success and the trustees transferred the lease to Armagh Natural History and Philosophical Society in 1856. They utilised the premises as their reading room, library, lecture hall and museum. It was their museum that formed the foundation of what would become Armagh County Museum’s collection.
After being split into two groups, we were let loose to investigate the second floor which held the displays of old, obscure and wondrous. Ranging from Victorian jewellery, period dresses, military weapons and uniforms, taxidermy wildlife, Victorian toys and by no means least to household appliances.
Norma Foster, Front Office Manager at the Armagh City Hotel was particularly interested in some household items here and commented:
“I spied a clothes mangle wringer exactly the same as the one my mum used on the washing many a year ago and also a tin bath brought back fond memories of my siblings and I having our Saturday night bath in front of the open fire when we were at grannies.”
Our groups then were taken “behind the scenes” by Sean and were invited into the many store rooms which held hundreds of more treasured objects from the past. One Armagh Ambassador asked “Do you rotate the display so that each object gets it’s day?” but as Sean explained the job of the Museum is primarily to preserve as many items as they can, and putting them on display may jeopardise them, due to heat, humidity and light fluctuation.
All in all, this is a great attraction, which takes you on a journey from pre-historic to the present and the bits in between. You will walk away in awe with a smile on your face and a wealth of knowledge that you didn’t have when you walked in. The Armagh County Museum will leave you with a hankering to come back and feed your soul some more.
Tuesday 15th March 2016
Written by the Seven Hills group of Armagh Ambassadors – Norma Foster, Malachy O’Neill, Joanne Shilliday and Amanda Young