The International Steam Pages
The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum
James Waite reports on a less well known Irish narrow gauge attraction.
The origins of the railway collection at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum go back to the late 1950’s at a time when the steam era on the island was rapidly drawing to a close, especially on the narrow gauge. Enthusiasts of a certain age will remember the old museum at Whitham Street in the east of Belfast. One steam loco each from the GNR(I), the BCDR and the NCC, the three main broad gauge systems operating in Northern Ireland before nationalisation, were saved from scrapping, restored to a high standard and put on display. On the narrow gauge the management of the County Donegal Railways’ Joint Committee was especially supportive and, with commendable foresight, began to donate examples of its more elderly stock some years before the system’s final demise in 1959.
It is, perhaps, ironic that while the province had embarked on the wholesale dismembering of its railway system as far back as the 1940’s it is now blessed with one of the world’s most comprehensive and representative collections of its railway heritage. Happily the museum’s ambit soon expanded to include items from the Irish Republic with the willing support of the authorities there so that today’s museum contains exhibits from all over the island.
That this is so is largely thanks to Roy Beggs, its first curator. Without his enthusiasm and willingness to bring pressure to bear at a time when many Irish people had little affection for the island’s railway past the collection would be very much the poorer. As things are its star exhibits include items as diverse as GSR no. 800 4-6-0 “Maebdh” (“Maeve” in English) complete with its nameplates in Gaelic script, one of three truly magnificent locos built in 1939 and possibly the only steam design on the island which took full advantage of its broad gauge, railcars from two of its pioneering narrow gauge electric lines and, quite remarkably, two industrial narrow gauge steam locos, some of the few of their kind ever to have run in the island.
The narrow gauge enthusiast is in for more treats with what is now an extensive collection of CDRJC locos, railcars and stock, a Cavan & Leitrim 4-4-0T and coach, a Kitson steam tram loco from the Portstewart Tramway (incidentally the sole representative of the Belfast & Northern Counties Railway before it was taken over by the English Midland Railway) and several industrial diesels. There are, of course, some sad omissions. The last of the beautiful NCC 2-4-2T’s was cut up as late as 1954, just a year or two before the museum got under way, and there are none of the superb carriages which they used to haul, undoubtedly the finest to have run on the island. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy amongst what’s left. The main broad gauge exhibits are arranged around a central turntable. Unlike the old Witham Street premises there’s plenty of room to stand back and admire most of the locos and carriages both at ground level and also from above.
Since 1993 the collection has been housed in purpose-built premises at Cultra. Sadly the museum which is not without its minus points. Its present building is a product of the British government’s policy of generous funding for cultural projects in the province. One consequence of this is that it is almost wholly devoid of natural light. In its place the museum is lit almost entirely with dark yellow sodium lighting, much like most streetlighting nowadays. Those of us who struggle to take effective colour photos can perhaps be dismissed as a small minority but none of the museum’s visitors can enjoy properly the excellent standard to which the exhibits are restored when everything is mired in the all-pervading yellow gloom. Just imagine what it’s like admiring a vintage car under a yellow streetlight at night and you’ll get a good idea of what it’s like. Talking of cars there’s an excellent collection of road and tramway vehicles of all kinds in addition to the railway exhibits. Close by is the folk museum referred to in the museum’s name which contains reconstructed buildings from all over the province – and they’re all the more enjoyable because they equipped with proper lighting!
The museum is within easy walking distance of Cultra station on the Belfast-Bangor line. It’s easy to reach from the British mainland thanks to Belfast City Airport, a little nearer the city centre on the same line and a Ryanair destination. Well worth visiting for the outstanding railway collection. It’s just a pity about the lightbulbs!