Ulster Museum

Why, hello,

This is the first of what will probably be a whole series of blogs all about my trip to Northern Ireland. Plus of course Monday’s sojourn in Dublin. You should expect a whole lot of tales of visiting museums, being a klutz, reading intellectual magazines in fast food places and having aching feet. Rock and roll. So, let’s start where we mean to go on with the Ulster Museum. It merits a post of its own because of the four days I was in Belfast, I was in the UM for three of them. It’s just that bloody good. Where I was staying was about 10 minutes away from the place as well plus it has a gorgeous Botanic Garden next door so win-win.


The part of the museum I spent the most time in was the Art Zone. I was just saying to my friend that I was in more of a museum kick lately (so often I am in an art gallery mode) so I guess that trend is shifting. There are several sections, including a massively long room housing ‘The New Past’, which features paintings depicting the past of the island of Ireland based around different themes. If I’m honest, I wasn’t paying too much notice of the themes – I was too busy just staring at the art. Two that were particularly striking were both landscapes, the beautiful pastel-y Dawn, Killary Harbour by Paul Henry, a peaceful silhouette in shades of blue of a sea inlet between Galway and Mayo, and Basil Blackshaw’s The Field, showing a dark yellow wheat field bilding up to darker red soil under a looming, dark grey sky. The Field reminded me of East Lothian and in particular near the Brunt, not so far from Dunbar, where I spent a little time as a kid. It was also reminiscent of William George Gillies’s paintings of East Lothian, particularly one that is (or was before its refurbishment) in Aberdeen Art Gallery. Another one that struck me was The Olympia, Dublin by Maurice McGonigal, depicting the view from the stalls of the theatre, with men standing around having a fag to the right as the action happens on the stage to the left.

The adjoining rooms were also good. There was a Turner landscape of Venice. Turner’s paintings are dreamy in the best sense; his clouds and water are just breathtaking. Plus one of the other rooms featured abstract art, which I don’t normally like, but there was one painting stuck in a corner by Paul Nash, St Pancras Lilies, of lilies on a red vase on a windowsill with St Pancras Station in London in the background.

The UM also had an excellent temporary exhibition featuring the work of Gerard Dillon (1916-1971), an artist from Belfast who lived for much of his life in Connemara, in the west of Ireland. That simplifies things a bit, as the exhibition blurb states, since he was also working-class, nationalist and gay at a time when it wasn’t exactly politic to be such. One of the paintings in the exhibition, Self-contained flat, dates from around 1955, and shows three self-portraits within the flat he lived in in London. Also depicted is a naked figure lying on the bed, in a reference to Gauguin, with the figure’s backside pointing up and hands on the pillow. As the caption noted, the gender of the figure is ambiguous as a possible reference to Dillon’s homosexuality. Indeed it was so ambiguous that as I was looking at the painting, a man and his boy were looking at it too and the man commented on the woman on the bed.

You can’t go anywhere on the island of Ireland without some reference to 1916, the year Dillon was born but also when the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme happened. The UM featured two exhibitions about 1916. The main one, which covered the Easter Rising and the Somme, was excellent, very well-judged balancing perspectives on these two events which in Northern Ireland are still highly emotive and contentious. I wanted to share part of the exhibition text that captures beautifully the relevance of these events:

‘The Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme appear to be at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they are connected by the First World War and the profound social and political change that it brought about. Both form an important part of the complex weave of history that continues to influence our present and our future.’

The complex weave of history was also dealt with excellently downstairs in the History Zone, which covered the broader history of Northern Ireland (and the southern bit too) without flinching or showing any hint of emotion or partisanship. This began in the section about the Troubles. Printed on grey walls with white writing, it was scrupulously balanced, stating the facts and that’s it. The section pre-1968 was very similar, particularly in the 20th century sections, covering nationalism and the Irish Republic as well as the Unionist side. This was encapsulated by one of the walls having the Proclamation of Irish Independence on one side and the Ulster Covenant on the other.


I have neglected the middle bit of the UM, which is the Nature Zone featuring sections to do with geology, the Ice Age, plant and animal life plus a display about elements, all of which was written for the middlebrow, particularly for someone like me who isn’t scientifically literate.

Northern Ireland is where much of Game of Thrones is filmed and the UM doesn’t miss that out either with some beautiful dragons hanging high up in the rafters or indeed possibly the most clever use of paintings I’ve seen in a while. Take a look.

I thought this was excellent. The painting to the left is a modern reconstruction of a 19th century pastoral painting, only with a giant and a dragon. The caption for the revised painting, entitled ‘Landscape with Sheep (Giant and Dragon)’, states at the end: ‘It is unclear if he was a Game of Thrones fan.’ Class.

The Ulster Museum does a magnificent job. It covers all of the island of Ireland, mainly the North but takes in a broader sweep too. If I lived in Belfast, I would probably be in at least once a week but I had to settle for three times in four days instead. As a Scot, I am naturally more interested in the perspective of and from my own country but I am guilty, as I think many are, of forgetting the art, culture, history and archaeology of Ireland beyond the well-known and hackneyed. The only Northern Irish artist I had heard of was John Lavery, who was also considered one of the Glasgow Boys, but there is far more to be seen and considered, just as much as the history of the Province is more than just the Armalite and beyond that to harps and high kings. I get the same sense in the National Museum of Archaeology and the National Gallery in Dublin too. Luckily, I got to visit Dublin on this trip too and there will be at least one post about it soon. In the meantime, go to the Ulster Museum, whatever you do.


6 thoughts on “Ulster Museum

  1. Really liked this post. A few years ago I was in Ireland, including Northern Ireland and Belfast. Now I wish I had seen the museum -you did a great job of focusing on things that make it special.


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