The Ulster American Folk Park is an open-air museum which focuses on the history of Ulster migration to America in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Out of all immigration occurring in the United States during that time, it was this particular breed of Irish that adapted most quickly and prominently into society, as seen by the three first-generation U.S. presidents (who were all of Ulster origin) and 13 overall who could trace their roots back to here.
The park begins in a standard building, which thankfully comes with a canteen filled with ready-made sandwiches, cakes, and standard hotplate wares. After a quick lunchtime bite, we walked through the indoor gallery and saw exhibits detailing the history of Ulster and how events such as the Famine forced thousands of families to establish new lives abroad. With drought and potato blight ravaging crops and causing mass starvation throughout the country, there wasn't much else left to keep anyone from leaving. Historians estimate that Ireland's population fell by 20-25% between 1845 and 1852.
The real draw of this place is the outdoor attractions that replicate what Northern Irish life was like in the past. Using original buildings that have either been transplanted or rebuilt in the style of the old era, the park aims to take you through such locations as if you were literally stepping back in time.
Thankfully, this being a weekday afternoon during the school term, the place was pretty quiet, which meant that most of the time we were the only people at any given exhibit, so the staff had time to pass the time of day with us. This really added to the experience, as they're knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their subjects, and do their best to bring the past back to life.
Jess wasn't prepared for how seriously they took the roleplaying, and was completely scared out of her wits as we walked to the first abode, a 19th-century log cabin, and were greeted by an old woman sitting in a rocking chair in a dark corner, welcoming us to "my home". We stood there, completely enraptured by her stories of "Mother and Father sleeping on the single mattress whilst my brothers, sisters, and I made our bed in the corner on a dusty blanket", and eating potatoes with their bare hands straight out of a wicker basket, because owning cutlery and crockery was an impossible dream for people like her. By the time she was done with her monologue, we were thoroughly convinced that we were indeed back in 1850.
The magic only continued with each of the 40-odd buildings along the trail. From the blacksmith demonstrating his craft, to single-room cabins that were a typical scene in any Ulster town, to the Mellon Homestead (one of the sons, Thomas, set up the modern day Bank of New York Mellon), to the Hughes House (John Hughes became the first Catholic Archbishop of New York in 1842), you really get an in-depth look into domestication around these parts back in the day, as well as how conditions improved the more prominent you became in the world.
The best part of the park is the complete reenactment of a standard Ulster town street with its various shops and sundries. We walked into an actual pub, a real-life post office, and negotiated with the owner of a general store about how much a kettle should cost. Everything was accurate to a T, from the types of goods and services you would find in a store of that kind in that age, to the typography and packaging of said things. It was awesome.
We finished the trip sitting around a fireplace as a historian dressed the part told us the long and improbable tale of the man who built the house we sat in. Originally a weaver from just up the road, he had moved to America and somewhat by accident made his fortune in the American War of Independence. After the dust settled, he brought his family over from Ireland and put down roots in Tennessee, building himself the sort of grand home he could only have dreamed of back in Strabane. It must have been the only brick house for miles around.
It doesn't matter how old you are - there will always be a kid inside of you, and that kid will thank you for visiting this place.
By the time we finished seeing everything, it was getting close to dinner time and we needed to check into our bed and breakfast. When we were figuring out our route originally, we had planned to cycle all the way to Donegal, as we needed a stopover point between Derry and Enniskillen. Riding into the Republic was our best bet for finding a town interesting enough to be worth spending a night, the flipside being that it would take us about 20 kilometres out of the way. But then we thought about riding to the Folk Park and staying in Omagh instead, and from there, came across Mountjoy, a tiny town one mile away from the park which comprises of a handful of houses, a gas station, and a massive Presbyterian church. One of those houses happened to be a guesthouse. Sold.
We were the only guests upon checking in and had our choice of rooms, all of which were large, beautifully decorated and spotless. £60 got us a warm double for the night, with ensuite shower, TV, free WIFI, and an abundant breakfast the next morning. The friendly proprietress near jumped out of her skin in delight when she realised Neil was a local boy, and from then on, her reception towards us was even more welcoming. It's a very neighbourly place, this country. They remember and look after their own really well.
As mentioned previously, Mountjoy is a tiny dot on the map, so there wasn't much going on. The one and only hotspot was a gas station and convenience store, which came with an attached road house called The Sperrin Restaurant. We took our customary seats by the window and spent the rest of the evening playing cards, supping* Guinness, and trying to find accommodation for our next few days in Enniskillen. Given that this is a popular spot for weekend getaways and even summer holidays, we figured we would have no trouble finding a berth out of season.
Everything was booked. As the night wore on, we became increasingly frustrated at the thought that we might have to move to a different hotel for each of the three nights we were there due to lack of availability. It's not very relaxing if you're constantly on the move. In the end, we were able to secure housing for the first two nights, with the plan to visit the town's information centre once we arrived to see if they could help us further.
Small towns like this all seem to shut down around 9 PM, so it was an early night back to the B&B for us again, filled with the latest and greatest from ITV. Walking home on the main road under the stars in the pitch black made us realise yet again just how far away we were from the beating heart of city life.
*Supping - local speak for "sipping".