Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Time Travel at the Armagh Museum

A good friend recently put me in touch with Sean Barden, at the Armagh County Museum when I expressed an interest in writing some short stories set in the past and based on actual events in history. We discussed how objects from the past had their own stories, and I was invited to come down to the museum to see the temporary exhibit they have at the moment entitled Telling People's Stories for 80 Years.

"You might remember Humpy the camel from Lenox's," he said.

"Oh my God, you have Humpy the camel!" I clapped my hands with delight.

Apparently, I wasn't the only one who had reacted like that.

Photograph courtesy of the Armagh County Museum

Every Armagh child who ever went into Lennox's Department Store knew Humpy. He was one of those coin-operated rides that made children beg their parents for the money to take a ride that lasted a fraction of the time it took to procure the funding - a lesson for life indeed!

I loved how Humpy looked - he wasn't humpy by nature - his face molded and painted in a friendly smile, his legs in a perpetual gallop. And he hadn't changed one bit when I spotted him in The Armagh County Museum. In fact, it was all I could do to stop myself from patting his nose, now worn bare of paint from years of people doing the same. Since I had my museum manners on, I quashed the urge to throw my arms around his neck and whisper, "Take me away!"

The museum has 3 temporary exhibit areas and at the moment all three are being used. We took a walk through the exhibit, Eye in the Sky - a display of aerial photographs from a time long before we could send a drone up for such snaps. It's fascinating to see familiar landscapes from that angle and era. I could happily spend more time browsing these - oh, but when would we have another rainy afternoon here in Armagh to do such things?

Humpy is one of forty objects as the signage at the museum explains...

"Armagh County Museum – Telling people’s stories for 80 years.

Armagh Natural History & Philosophical Society moved their museum into this building in 1856. However it would be another 60 years before the county museum was born.

When Armagh County Council took over the premises in 1930 and Council Secretary T.E. Reid was influential in getting local historian T.G.F. Paterson appointed as Honorary Curator. Paterson spent the next seven years building up a collection relevant to the history of the area and disposing of many of the Philosophical Society’s more unusual ‘curiosities’.
Armagh County Museum officially opened on 28 April 1937 and was the first dedicated county museum in Ireland.

To mark its 80th year we have chosen a selection of objects from the collection that tell the stories of people who have lived, worked and been associated with the Orchard County over the past 9,000 years."
A helpful booklet is provided that tells a little about what is known about each object (numbered for easy referencing) and I invite you to fill in the rest with your imagination.

Photograph courtesy of the Armagh County Museum

Take item number 6, for example. A human skull and reconstructed head. Who was that man?

We can see the hole in his skull, so no medals for guessing how he died.We are told that it was between 1000 and 1300AD and that he was aged between 25 and 35. The skull was found without a body during a dig in Market Street, which would suggest that he was decapitated.

Did his head roll into a ditch? Was a loved one left to wonder where that person (or even worse just the head) was until the end of their days? Was he a bad person? Had he deserved this end? Or is this the heartbreaking story of a man viciously wronged? Does his ghost still walk Market Street?

Beside the skull is a reconstructed model of what that man might have looked like. He was handsome and young.

Photograph courtesy of the Armagh County Museum

The little patch box (number 17), though tiny, spoke of much bigger issues. This little box was used to hold the beauty spots that women wore on their faces. If you read the pamphlet that accompanies the exhibit you'll learn from the clues on the container that this may have been quite the radical item to receive or gift to a secret lover perhaps! Find out more yourself at the museum.

Photograph courtesy of the Armagh County Museum

Object numbered 8 is a stick pin found in a garden in Callan street. Linger a moment here. Focus in on the head of the pin and examine the fine detail.

Photograph courtesy of the Armagh County Museum
Who took the time to make this and why spend so much time on tiny details that many might overlook?

Photograph courtesy of the Armagh County Museum

I like the idea that this workmanship did pay off, that somehow the craftsman in the afterlife knows that we are still admiring his work.

Photograph courtesy of the Armagh County Museum

These are but four objects in the exhibition - each if the others gave pause for thought in a similar way. It was so wonderful to get time away from the desk, from the screen (phone, tv, computer) and just have a look at real things. The museum is free in and a great change of pace. Often we don't appreciate the treasures on our own doorstep and the Armagh County Museum really is one.

For me, the biggest revelation was learning the true purpose of a museum. While viewing bronze axes for the story I was researching, I commented on how good it would be to have a bigger museum to display more of the objects in storage. I was surprised when told that although a larger museum would be great, the ultimate aim was not to put every item in the collection on display. Actually, when objects are in storage it is easier to control their environment and thus preserve them better.

The job of a museum is not in fact to display everything it has collected but to keep that collection safe. Storerooms are not just some "dusty oul' sheds" somewhere. Museum storage is working storage, accessible storage where each object is easy to find. Even when in storage each object is there for anyone who wants to look at it. A museum is essentially a collections resource centre, a library of objects. The Armagh County Museum has been collecting objects for 80 years and some of these objects date back as far as 9000 years ago.

It is not about restoring an object either - this implies that you are changing the object. It's about making the object stable - taking a snapshot of time then trying to preserve the past - making time stand still. I joked with Sean telling him he was, in fact, a time lord - Armagh's very own Doctor Who!

A tour of the stores had me fascinated. It was so tidy and clean and - joy of joys - labelled! A clutterphobes heaven in an oxymoronic way. The museum has an ongoing project to photograph everything it holds - like the stick pin. If you were doing a project, the museum will let you use their photos - all the photos on this post have been supplied by the museum. They are much better than anything I could take.

I learned something eye-opening on that visit - the museum is for more than browsing on a rainy day (though that's cool too.) But if you wanted to research anything that has its roots in the past the museum is the place to go. Sean made me laugh out loud with his next truism - "It's about getting past the posh frocks and the stuffed fox..."

Photograph courtesy of the Armagh County Museum

So do yourself a favour, tear yourself away from your screens and get down there - in person - to have a poke through moments in time.

On Saturday 31st March 2018 they are having a Family Fun Day and there will be owls - live owls! For more information click this link - https://visitarmagh.com/whatson/easter-family-fun-at-the-museum/

Maybe see you down there on Saturday.

Byddi Lee

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Flash Fiction Armagh – The First of Many…

When I was young, I thought that all things literature were boring and decidedly stuffy. Many people, having suffered through Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy at school, still think like that about the literary world but Flash Fiction Armagh turned that idea completely on its head!

Eleven talented writers wowed the socks off the audience in the upstairs room of Mulberry Bistro in Armagh.

Let me begin by describing the gorgeous venue. Mulberry Bistro is in an old but beautifully restored listed building right across the road from one of Armagh’s cathedrals. Decorated in a simple rustic fashion, touches of glamour such as crystal chandelier light fittings and plush velvet seating in a range of fun colours add the right amount of pop.

Réamonn Ó Ciaráin, author of Cúchulainn, Ulster’s Greatest Hero, and co-host of Flash Fiction Armagh was already there when I arrived to set up for the evening. Mulberry handed over their upstairs room, offering to move chairs and tables into any configuration we wanted – they were happy to let us complete rearrange the room to suit our needs. It didn’t take long – the place already the perfect venue.

The Cathedral, lit up as night fell, looking in the windows at us as people arrived. It was pure Armagh – looking beautiful and majestic. My home.

All the writers arrived on time and to our great delight, the audience filled the room. The table closest to the mic the only one with no takers – people hate sitting at the front!

None of us had expected such a good turnout, but Mulberry Bistro rose to the occasion feeding and watering everyone as needed. Nerves had prevented me from having a big dinner but a tasty caramel square and a coffee set me up. All in and settled, it was time for our first reader.

Local writer, Jay Faulker got us off to a great start with his story Rain, an emotive account of a firefighter’s attempts to save two little boys from drowning. 

Brilliantly told, I knew the story would strike a cord when I’d read it during the selection process and I wasn’t disappointed. I could actually see members of the audience relax into the evening as they listened – none of us had known exactly how this venture would go, but as Jay read I knew we’d done something right.

Christopher Moore from Broughshane enthralled us with the magic of his piece Dark Hedges.

I particularly loved his hints at a magical other world and felt that he’d claimed those hedges back from Game of Thrones and made them ours again. His mastery of language and sense of flow captured our interest and imagination, bringing some solace after the intense drama of the first piece.

Réaltán Ní Leannáin from Belfast via Dublin read Dílis,

...expertly switching from between the Irish and English languages so that everyone could enjoy and appreciate the zesty humour in her story about a little protestant girl so enamoured with the holy communion dresses the little catholic girls are wearing that she begs her mother to let her be a Catholic – just for a day!  Réaltán left us all with smiles on our faces.

Keady man, Damien Mallon read a selection of his poems that were such a hit he sold out of his book, Reading the Trees, at the intermission!

His combination of humour, sensitivity and vivid imagery took us through awkward encounters at parent-teacher meetings, wistful reminiscing at graveyard Sunday and a walk through Carnagh woods such that you felt you were there.

Donegal/Derry writer Pamela Brown’s Mansfield House was so skillfully rendered that it made the audience chuckle in places then fall pin-drop silent with emotion in others.

This story pulled us in, led us around a blind corner then smacked home some tough but unavoidable truths. Engaging and honest, Pamela pulled no punches and we were richer for it.

Before going into the break Réamonn Ó Ciaráin from Armagh read from Laoch na Laochra a book in modern Ulster Irish about Cúchulainn...

 ...and followed that with reading the corresponding passage from the English Language version Cúchulainn, Ulster’s Greatest Hero

In both languages, the power of the writing and the story it carried shone through. We headed into the intermission filled with wonder and awe.

People mingled, bought books, congratulated readers and the general atmosphere was a delightful hub-bub though I wondered how I’d ever get everyone settled back down again for the second half. 

No need to worry – so the 15-minute break drifted into 25 minutes – soon everyone was ready to listen to Trish Bennett from Enniskillen read Power of a Peeler. 

Her entertaining performance provoked belly laughs from her audience as she explained how important a certain kitchen utensil was to her and her extended family. She even produced the subject of the story to gales of laughter. 

Lisburn writer Karen Mooney’s A Fond Farewell moved every person in the room with her emotive piece remembering her father.

The words beautiful and heartfelt dripped upon a captive audience like honey from a spoon, sorrowful yet soothing. When she finished, the momentary silence was as much an accolade at the spontaneous applause that followed.

Reading in Irish, Armagh man Seán Ó Farraigh gave a beautiful rendition of his story Neamhchiontach go dtí go gcruthaítear a mhalairt

I grasped at words and phrases I recognized, desperate to understand this lilting and musical language. This young man’s bilingual skill inspired me to consider attending Irish language classes myself – with the new Irish Language centre on its way here in Armagh, I really have no excuse!

Catherine Carson from Crossgar made everyone’s ears tingle and skin goosebump with the power of Spectrum, a story of a mother with her grown-up autistic son. 

A collective “Awe,” at the end of her account, gave instant, and I’d imagine, gratifying feedback to the writer of a story outstanding in its perception, construction and delivery. This new writer is one to watch. (You heard it first at Flash Fiction Armagh!)

Malachi showing a picture of the suits in Scoring in the Seventies
Though it was a hard act to follow, Malachi Kelly from Armagh brought the house down with his amusing story Scoring in The Seventies, about how a new suit sets hearts and minds alight in 1970’s Armagh. 

Leaving us smiling and uplifted, it was a perfect way to end the evening.

By the time we brought the evening to a close, it was decided that this would not be the last Flash Fiction Armagh. It turned out that Mulberry Bistro loved hosting us as much as we loved being there – an event marriage in the making. The feedback forms begged us to have another evening as soon as possible. When people were asked about the venue, the vote was in – Mulberry Bistro was ideal – classy, intimate and welcoming.

There were about half a dozen people in the audience who were there because I’d asked them to come as my friend/family to support our first event. At the outset, I looked upon their attendance as a favour to me – it may not be their cup of tea. I worried that I was putting them out but valued their support, loved them for it in fact. But by the end of the evening, I realized something – this event, these readers, our selections had reached every member of the audience, more than once and in more than one way. The event had been a success for all of us because good writing is about describing the human condition and connecting us to one another, no matter who we are and what we believe. Flash Fiction Armagh extended beyond my preconceived ideas of what literature should or should not be. Flash Fiction Armagh connected us to one another however fleetingly and I am confident it will do so again.

We are having the next Flash Fiction Armagh on Thursday 14th June 2018 at 7 pm, upstairs in Mulberry Bistro.

See you there!

Byddi Lee

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Flash Fiction Armagh Presents

We had a fabulous response to the call for submissions for Flash Fiction Armagh.

The high standard of writing gave us some difficulty making our final selection, but we are delighted to present the following writers at our inaugural Flash Fiction Armagh on Thursday 22nd March 2018 at 7pm.

In no particular order, congratulations to:

Jay Faulker, Rain
Catherine Carson, Spectrum
Réaltán Ní Leannáin, Dílis
Damien Mallon, Reading The Trees
Pamela Brown, Mansfield House
Réamonn Ó Ciaráin, The Boy Corps of Eamhain Mhacha
Trish Bennett, Power of a Peeler
Karen Mooney, A Fond Farewell
Seán Ó Farraigh, Neamhchiontach go dtí go gcruthaítear a mhalairt
Christopher Moore, The Dark Hedges
Malachi Kelly, Scoring in the Seventies

Sharon Dempsey*, The Watcher 

So please come along and be a part of the first ever Flash Fiction Armagh.

A big thank you to Mulberry Bistro for generously hosting the event in their gorgeous upstairs room allowing us to keep the event free. No better location, with our beautiful Cathedral looking on through their windows! 

Byddi Lee


* Sharon Dempsey is unable to make it to the event in March, but we hope to see her at a subsequent event.