National Museums Northern Ireland

Metal archive shelves with different audio formats lined up on them.

National Museums Northern Ireland is one of 10 UK-wide partners who are helping save the nation’s sounds as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

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As part of UOSH since 2018, National Museums NI has already digitised and catalogued over 4,000 recordings from open reels, CDs and cassettes held in its sound archive at the Ulster Folk Museum, Cultra, County Down. These eclectic recordings were collected by curators of the Folk Museum since the early 1960s to capture ways of life that were disappearing.

National Museums NI is also digitally preserving the collections of six partner institutions, including:

  • Glens of Antrim Historical Society
  • Somme Museum
  • Larne Museum
  • Manx National Heritage

Project outreach work has involved engagement programmes for local community groups, and providing content from May Blair’s interviews with former Lagan Navigation workers for the Waterways Community’s Storymaking Festival.

Highlights include:

  • The 564 recordings on folklife made by curator Linda Ballard, and featuring tales of fairies, cures, births, weddings and wakes.
  • Dr Tony Buckley’s extensive interviews on religious societies and fraternities.
  • Past and present on Rathlin Island.
  • Diverse musical pieces, from the Belfast Harp Orchestra to blind and traveller fiddlers, and burly Lambeg drummers, assembled by curators such as Janet Harbison, Fionnuala Prosser and Robbie Hannan.
  • Famous flautists James Galway and Matt Molloy, uilleann pipers Séamus Ennis and Liam O’Flynn, and traditional singers Maighréad Ní Dhomhnaill and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh.
  • Accounts of domestic life, agriculture, fishing, turf-cutting, and the origins and vernacular buildings of the Ulster Folk Museum, recorded principally by Dr Jonathan Bell, former Director of National Museums NI.
  • Stories of crafts like embroidery, lacemaking and weaving.
  • Oral history of various Ulster industries, such as textile and linen factories, and transport – from Harland & Wolff’s shipyards to Belfast’s black taxis and the DeLorean factory.
  • The loyalist lion-tamer, ‘Buck Alec’ Robinson.

Language and dialect are also central to the collection. Brendan Adams, the original Curator of Language at the Ulster Folk Museum, was to a large extent the architect of the sound archive at Cultra. Many of his early recordings, newly digitised, sought to capture the nuances of the Hiberno-English and Ulster Scots dialects. These became the forerunners of the Tape-Recorded Survey, a study of Hiberno-English dialects around Ireland, 1975-81, comprising over 500 recordings. Many other recordings feature the Irish language too, one of these being Isabella McKenna, the last native speaker of the east Ulster dialect of Irish.

Most of these recordings coincided with the Northern Ireland Troubles, and while political figures such as Rev. Ian Paisley, John Hume, Richard Needham and Charles Haughey feature among the voices, few other recordings focus directly on the conflict. Nonetheless, the tapes provide valuable insights into how ‘ordinary’ life carried on throughout. There are also numerous clues to the causes and symptoms of communal strife, even in the sectarian lyrics to children’s playground rhymes in the late 1960s.

The recordings preserved in the archive also encompass many interviews relating to sport, from the origins of hurling to the story of Belfast Celtic F.C., and feature the likes of champion motorcyclists Stanley Woods and Philip McCallen; Olympic medallists Lady Mary Peters and Thelma Hopkirk; World Cup footballers Harry Gregg, Peter McParland and Pat Jennings; rugby internationals Dr Jack Kyle, Willie John McBride and David Humphreys; Jimmy Kirkwood and Stephen Martin, Olympic gold medallists in hockey; and Dawson Stelfox, the first Irish person to climb Mount Everest.


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Twitter: @FolkTransport

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Compressed magenta sound-wave graphic. Logo for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. National Lottery Heritage Fund crossed fingers logo


Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

Unlocking our Sound Heritage is a UK-wide project that will help save the nation’s sounds and open them up to everyone.

All projects