Recovery of Ulster’s Gaelic Material Heritage as a Resource for Contemporary Cultural Expression

Ulster Landscape.  Peter McElhinney

Ulster Landscape.  Peter McElhinney

In the early 17th century, English forces deposed the ruling Gaelic nobility in western Ulster, marking the end of a long struggle for sovereign control of the island of Ireland. Western Ulster had retained a distinctly Gaelic character, having resisted the Anglo Norman settlement of Ireland in the 12th century. While the regions topography, bogland, and areas of dense forest may have discouraged further Anglo Norman and English encroachment in the centuries thereafter, it also influenced the culture of the Irish and Scots Gaelic population that lived there. A combination of the marginal nature of the land, and politically unstable systems of succession in Gaelic Ulster, contributed to the development of a pastoral economy. The western Ulster landscape remained largely unenclosed, and devoid of towns, until the region was developed by English and Scottish settlers from the seventeenth century plantation of Ulster onward.

Despite an increasing academic interest in historical Gaelic culture in Ireland, we still know relatively little about the life-ways of the poorest members of these societies. The poor are underrepresented in Gaelic written accounts, and while English and European sources provide glimpses of everyday Gaelic life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these often derogatory descriptions require careful interpretation. From an archaeological perspective, the poorest groups in western Ulster are unlikely to have left a significant archaeological footprint, and much of their material culture would not have survived unless deliberately collected, or buried in preservative bog. As large scale settlement was relatively uncommon amongst the poor, the ongoing focus on built heritage in late medieval and early modern archaeology in Ulster has revealed much more about the Gaelic nobility, the church, and post-plantation Ulster, than it has about the Gaelic lower classes. While some material has been recovered from Irelands bogs through turf cutting activities, these objects, as yet, lack the provenance necessary to assign the material to a particular time period or cultural group.

The lack of surviving Gaelic material culture raises questions about continuity and change in Ulster after the plantation. How were interactions between indigenous and settler communities reflected in the everyday objects of the time? Was the material culture that followed a hybrid, or were traditional Gaelic things replaced with newly available imports? How have folk traditions developed from early modern Ulster to the present day? Popular mythology amongst both Nationalist and Unionist communities in Northern Ireland highlights the plantation of Ulster as the origin of the regions social and political unrest. The development of a clearer understanding of early plantation cultural interactions therefore, has implications not just for heritage, but for social cohesion in contemporary Northern Ireland.

This research employs object conservation and heritage science methodologies to document and evaluate museum and archaeological artefacts considered to form part of the material record for the 16th century Gaelic culture in the north of Ireland. The work aims to characterise raw materials, understand processing and production techniques, and stylistic influences expressed in the available archaeological remains as a means to establish links with the material culture that followed. A parallel ethnohistorical and historical landscape study will inform understanding of the conditions under which Gaelic objects were produced and used. The project will engage cultural practitioners, artists, and makers in Ulster to trace links between archaeological holdings, and contemporary Irish folk material traditions.


I am an object conservator with research interests in the scientific analysis of cultural material. Following graduation from the BA in Conservation of Organic Materials at the University of the Arts, London, I spent a number of years working as a conservation research fellow at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C., completing research on material culture ranging from Native American baskets to WWII German aircraft. More recently, I have undertaken technical analysis of organic components from the Staffordshire Hoard at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Over the course of an Andrew W. Mellon fellowship at the National Museum of the American Indian, I became increasingly aware of cultural recovery initiatives administered by the museum, and of the value of these projects for nurturing culturally disrupted communities. This inspired me to investigate the impact of historical cultural disruption in Gaelic Irish communities, and to examine the role of heritage science in recovering cultural information lost in the transition to Irish modernity. These questions and enquiries form the basis of my current PhD research within the School of Archeological Sciences at the University of Bradford.