Connected Voyages, Shared Stories: Visit to Ulster American Folk Park (Namrata Sarmah, ITP 2018, India)

Written by Namrata Sarmah, Education Assistant, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi (ITP 2018, UK Partner Placement: National Museums Northern Ireland)

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – the title of the third installment of the Chronicles of Narnia series has always fascinated me. Probably the word ‘voyage’ is music to the ears of a traveller. Our connected histories on this planet are nothing but fables of travel, of movement of people, things and ideas from one part of the globe to the other.  The allure of travel reiterates these connected threads. However, while flying across the Irish Sea to Belfast, I was probably reminded of Narnia for an entirely different reason. I was going to the home of C.S. Lewis, the creator of the much-loved series.

Despite its turbulent past, Northern Ireland has a dazzling career in terms of popular culture. Lewis was born here, Titanic sailed from here, and of course, parts of Star Wars and Game of Thrones were shot here. Yet, tourists and expatriates from my part of the world generally gravitate towards England, and Ulster has remained an off-the-beat location. However, it did not take me long to find a South Asian connection, albeit in a manner I least expected. We met the Director of Ulster Museum, William Blair. An avid cricket aficionado, Mr Blair mentioned that most of the cricket bats used here are imported from India. Bats made of willow from the mountain slopes of Kashmir lined up on the store shelves in Belfast: small world indeed.

Ulster Museum, the largest in Northern Ireland, is another microcosm of this small world. Mesolithic and Neolithic tools, botanical and zoological specimens from Asia and Europe, ethnographic specimen from Japan and the Pacific islands, and a dinosaur exhibition; the museum has a multifaceted collection. A hand-woven tapestry detailing scenes from each season of Game of Thrones hangs majestically at the Museum. Stories from the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos woven in linen validate Ulster’s eternal love affair with fantasy. This affection is undeniably reciprocal, as Northern Ireland’s stagnating economy and film industry boomed after Game of Thrones was shot here.

Speaking of business, Belfast was the historical setting of the ship that was immortalised by James Cameron in his 1997 Oscar-winning masterpiece. Titanic was and is a cultural phenomenon. For my generation in the pre-internet era developing world, Titanic was often the first encounter with Hollywood. And for a student of History, to know about the tragic story that inspired the movie was an enticing prospect. The attraction Titanic Belfast showcases the maritime heritage of the dockyard from where the ship embarked in 1912.

The story of the Titanic is actually a part of a larger whole. The past couple of centuries of the island of Ireland is often told in terms of migrations and movement of people. Mobility has become endemic to Irish collective memory. The large collection of locomotives at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum opaquely alludes to this. However, none portray it more poignantly than the Ulster American Folk Park. The park is an ode to three centuries of Irish emigration to America.

Due to a tumultuous history punctuated by the Potato Famine and the Civil War, large numbers of Irish people emigrated to America in search of greener pastures. Around 2 million left Ulster in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their memories often oscillated between the ‘homelandish’ charm of the old world and the cosmopolitanism of the new world. The Park portrays this struggle through two simply and aptly named sections: Old World and New World. Developed around the house of Irish-American banker Thomas Mellon, the Park contains about 30 restored buildings with connections to families who left for America. Most of these houses were dismantled in their original locations, and then relocated to the park.

The Old World section has houses, a printing press, a bank, a police barrack, a school and two churches. A full-size replica of an immigrant ship connects this section to the New World section: a physical as well as a mental bridge linking two related but different sets of memories. The New World section has an old American street, a general store and a number of houses including an Appalachian log house and a brick plantation house from Tennessee. While the contrast of livelihood between the sections is stark, one is still aware of an underlying aesthetic resemblance.

On a concluding note, I am yet to look for a Kashmir willow cricket bat in Belfast. But to make the circle of life complete, I came across an incident in the city that has a somewhat oblique Kashmir connection. It has never ceased to puzzle me why Led Zeppelin has a song entitled Kashmir when it was written in and about Morocco. But of course a good number of inexplicable and wild things can be attributed to the band. And none can probably top their decision to play Stairway to Heaven for the first time in a politically volatile Belfast of the seventies. In 1971, many bands had cancelled their gigs in the city citing The Troubles. Led Zeppelin had just finished writing their magnum opus; and was not shying away from debuting it in Ulster. Ironically, the audience did not like the song at first as it was too ‘ballady’. Only when guitarist Jimmy Page dived into that crazy solo at the end the Belfast crowd went wild. And thus a rock classic was born amidst troubled times.

I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and watching Titanic. As an adult, the pressure is immense to not skip even a single episode of Game of Thrones. Hence there is no doubt that there were many high points during my current stay in Belfast. But I was amazed at how someone like me from halfway across the globe could also relate to stories of people like Mellon, or other emigrants trying to find their place in the world. It is maybe because we travel to tell our stories, and we tell stories of our travels. And whether in Ulster or in my hometown, through these stories and these journeys, we are reminded that we all have our shared pasts and a connected present.