Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Ulster Museum - Part Two - Ulster Tartan

(Let's take the issues one at a time, my response to what I saw at the Ulster Museum on Saturday.)

In his excellent book Intimate Strangers - Political and Cultural Interaction between Ulster and Scotland in Modern Times - Graham Walker begins by quoting ATQ Stewart: "At the core of the Ulster problem is the problem of the Scots".

The new Ulster Museum exhibition galleries and interpretation clearly have a problem with the Scots. Example One is the Ulster Tartan. As you know from previous posts, I'm not really into tartan. But it is a solidly Scottish cultural phenomenon. And as this article by Matthew Newsome FSA Scot says, "... The only Irish district tartan that is truly historic is the Ulster tartan...".

In the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 1961/62, there's a 23 page academic paper about the Ulster tartan. It was discovered, preserved intact, in 1956 near Dungiven. It was peat-stained and discoloured but was taken to (guess where) the Ulster Museum for examination. A textile specialist, Audrey Henshall, carried out a detailed examination and even produced samples of the original colours - a vibrant green and red with fine details in black and yellow. The clothing was displayed at the Ulster Museum in 1958 as part of the big Elizabethan Ulster exhibition. It was an Ulster icon and graced the catwalks of swinging sixties London. Then in the early 1970s the Scottish Tartan Authority acknowledged its importance and authenticity by registering it as Ulster Tartan.

Initially I was pleased the see the garments back on display, in a glass cabinet. The leggings of the mannequin are of the reconstructed red/green/black/yellow. But then I read the small interpretive plaque, which reads as follows:

Dungiven costume
The reconstruction is based on the remains of clothing (in front) that was found in 1958 one mile north of Dungiven, County Londonderry. The find included a cloak, coat, trews and shoes of the sort that would have been worn by a male member of a Gaelic Irish family in the first half of the seventeenth century.

- No mention of tartan.
- No mention of Scotland.
- No mention of the early 1600s Ulster-Scots settlements of County Down or the tartan industry that sprang up near Newtownards.
- The only cultural reference is "Gaelic Irish".

With an artefact with such an obvious, non-contentious, credible and already thoroughly researched Ulster-Scots story to tell, the Ulster Museum has chosen to apply cultural exclusion, and you might argue cultural displacement, asserting a "Gaelic Irish" cultural connection and removing the solidly Ulster Scots.

I am both disappointed and angry. More to follow through the week...


Postscript: Ulster tartan is now produced commercially and available in these three colour schemes:

Ulster Modern Red (click to enlarge)

Ulster District (click to enlarge)

Ulster Weathered (click to enlarge)