Ulster American Folk Park

The Folk Park is easy to get to from Belfast International Airport. By car it takes around an hour and a half, but along the M1, a good road. I understand there are buses from Belfast or Omagh, but I drove. There is plenty of free parking on the site.

I booked my entrance ticket online (£9.75 senior) and it can be used at any point across the day.

The park is open from Tuesdays to Sundays: 10 a.m. to 5 p. For further information, see the website: https://www.ulsteramericanfolkpark.org/

Purpose of my visit

I had heard, through social media, of an exhibition called “Bad Bridget" that was set up last year to show the stories of some of the Northern-Irish female emigrants to America in the 19th century. It was interesting to me because I have a lifelong interest in Irish modern history, from the 19th century onwards. I have written a trilogy of historical novels about two young Irish women who were orphaned in the Famine years and had to leave Ireland. A second reason I found it interesting was that the exhibition used my name, Bridget and I was fascinated. It took me almost a year to get the chance to travel to Northern Ireland from the East Midlands in England, but I managed a couple of days on the 17th April, this year.


The front of the museum appears small, but inside it has lots of different areas for exhibitions and visitor experiences. It is easily accessible. I arrived in the afternoon on a rainy day. I had driven for an hour and a half and turned into a large entrance with plenty of parking. There was a tour bus parked up, so that boded well, plenty of visitors is always a good sign. When I stepped out of my hire car, my attention was caught by a beautiful copper sculpture created by Kevin Killan, to commemorate the connections between this part of Northern Ireland and America.

Sculpture in the entrance to the museum

I had been travelling since early morning, so I stopped into the cafe for a coffee and lunch. The service was warm and friendly, freshly prepared sandwiches at reasonable cost, in a beautiful surroundings with bluegrass music playing in the background to keep me company. While I ate, I took a few minutes to study the self-guided map I had been given on entry.


Bad Bridget Exhibition

Bad Bridget exhibition

My first stop was to view the exhibition that was the purpose of my visit. It is at the front of the museum in a prominent location just off the reception area and shop.

The exhibition tells the stories of Irishwomen and girls who emigrated to America, and the hardships they endured on arrival. Their story is told through a variety of mediums: clothes, objects e.g. sailing tickets for emigrant ships and letters. There were audio recordings of individual stories, as if narrated by the women themselves.

Objects on display
Storyboard plus audio

The stories were mainly sad and even heart-breaking. Stories of how many women came to grief in their new home in America, from poverty, prostitution, child murder, arrested for robbery.

I should not have been surprised by this as the title of the exhibition made it clear. ‘Bad Bridget’ told the story of those women who suffered greatly after they left Ireland. Bridget being a common name for Irish catholic females.

However, I was somewhat disappointed not to see examples of women who had thrived after emigrating. In my own researches for my novel set during the Irish Famine I’m aware of many success stories, such as the women who sent home money and tickets for their sisters and family to follow them to America, and women such as “Mother Jones”, a Union organiser and ‘hell raiser’, who is celebrated in Cork and Ellen Hughes, and inspirational nun and the sister of John Hughes

However, seeing the exhibition has inspired me to do further research on these positive stories of female emigration.

The Museum

This part is based on three famous local families from Omagh and surroundings. I was delighted to see the Hughes family, as Bishop Hughes features in my second novel, “Daughters in Exile.”

I was also fascinated to read about the Mellon family, whom I had never come across and who, as mentioned below, were the reason for this museum’s inception.

The Self-Guided Tour

Visitor guide board inside the museum

This was something I had seriously underestimated before I arrived at the Ulster-American Folk Park and was divided into three strands, Home, Leaving, and In America. First, the visitor will explore the four interior zones. I met a wonderful ship’s captain's wife who showed me aboard the emigrant ship. A fabulous piece of historical reconstruction.

Then I exited the museum and started on the self-guided part of my afternoon. It was still drizzling rain and I pulled up my hood and set off with my map to the first stop, a one room cottage. I was surprised to meet up with a historical reenactor who told me, and some other visitors, the story of how rural people lived prior to the Famine. The turf fire and the potatoes were poignant reminders of the only sustenance millions of Irish people relied upon until the potato crop failed.

Interior of single room cabin

I met up with a blacksmith, and the wife of a ship's captain who pointed me to their emigrant ship, then a local 19th century school teacher in his classroom, and ‘Mrs Mellon’, the mother of the famous John Mellon.

The use of historical reenactors is a wonderful way to tell different stories. I was totally enthused.

I also walked through the house where John Hughes was born before the family emigrated.

The final set of houses to visit was to the Mellon family, who started out as humble tenant farmers before emigrating to America to buy their own farm and send their son, John Mellon, to university. He set up the Mellon Bank which is still prospering today in New York.

The founding of the Ulster American Folk Park

In the 1950s I understand the US government wanted to commemorate the origins of people who had contributed to American life and their funding seeded this wonderful museum in Omagh in the heart of the island of Ireland. It is now run by Museums of Northern Ireland.

View across the Mellon Farm Landscape

I spent most of the afternoon at the folk park and completed it with a look around the beautiful shop and a cup of tea and a ‘fifteen’, a slice of gorgeous traybake that is a specialty of Ulster, (made with cherries, biscuit, coconut and marshmallows!). Bluegrass music in the background referred to Northern Ireland’s connections with rural America.


I left having experienced so much and having learned lots about this lovely part of the country and the people who emigrated to contribute so much to the United States of America.

Thanks to all the wonderful staff and reenactors for an unforgettable day.

Ulster-American Folk park website: https://www.ulsteramericanfolkpark.org/

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Bridget Walsh

I am a writer and have self-published three historical novels about the Irish Famine.

I wanted to write the story of the Famine as seen through the eyes of young women and girls.

When I retired from working in Further Education, I had time for travel, research and study. I enrolled on a Master’s degree in Creative Writing and began to write my first novel in 2018.

I am currently writing the fourth novel in the series.

Social media: X @bridgetw1807 Website: www.bridgetsjournal.com

Link to my novels on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3UgMgDy