This newly opened Modern History gallery explores the making of Ulster through the period 1500 to 1968.
The new Modern History gallery at the Ulster Museum explores the making of Ulster through the period 1500 to 1968. It reveals not only turbulent times of war and conflict, but also long periods of peaceful development and progress. These themes are illustrated by a remarkable range of objects from the history collection, many of which are on display for the first time. They are interpreted through a rich combination of interactive exhibits and audio-visual film presentations. A diverse range of people, places and events are interwoven into the fabric of the gallery. Together they reflect the remarkable and compelling story of our shared history.
Birth of the Modern Era 1500 - 1700
Developments five hundred years ago might not sound very modern, but modern history really begins in the dynamic period of change that followed the ‘medieval’ or ‘middle ages’. People were on the move all over Europe, for political reasons and in pursuit of economic opportunities. It witnessed the birth of what we today call a market economy and a consumer society.
In the 1600s, thousands of people from England and Scotland were ‘planted’ in Ulster to create a new type of society and replace the old Gaelic rulers with new settlers loyal to Britain. The DNA of Northern Ireland’s present day cultural diversity can be traced to this era.
Between Two Revolutions
Our view of the eighteenth century in Ireland is often dominated by the major rebellion in 1798 that cost 30,000 lives. But it’s wrong to judge the eighteenth century by how it ended. Actually, from the Glorious Revolution in 1688 to the French Revolution of 1789, Ireland enjoyed over a century of largely peaceful development and progress. Whilst an appetite for radical change would lead to an explosion of conflict in 1798, few could have predicted this at the time. More generally, the 1700s witnessed important social changes with a growing middle class, more rights for women and expanding educational opportunities. Sectarian tensions were never far from the surface in parts of Ulster, but community relations between Catholics and Protestants improved significantly in the cities of Belfast and Londonderry.
An Industrial Giant and the Shadow of Poverty
In the 1800s, the economic fortunes of Ireland took very different paths. The industrial revolution took hold in the north east of Ulster and Belfast grew dramatically. Trade and industry brought great prosperity and wealth, but at a price. Many people lived in the shadow of poverty in poor housing, experiencing harsh working conditions in the mills and factories. Famine scared the face of Ireland in the mid-1800s, causing huge loss of life and leaving painful memories among those who survived or emigrated. By 1900, Belfast had become one of the great cities of the British Empire, but that Empire was itself facing challenges from growing national movements – with many in Ireland leading the demand for change.
Home Rule to Partition
Political divisions on whether Ireland’s future lay within or outside of the British Empire and United Kingdom came to the boil in the period before, during and after the First World War. This was a revolutionary period of change, accelerated by the impact of the war itself.
Before the war, the issue of Home Rule had brought Ireland to the brink of civil war, inflaming a wider crisis within British politics. The outbreak of war changed this situation, but created the opportunity for Irish Republicans to rebel at Easter 1916 and proclaim a Republic. The Ulster Division’s loss of life at the Battle of the Somme and the execution of the leaders of the rising provided both Unionists and Republicans with potent symbols of sacrifice for their respective causes.
Political divisions hardened still further and after the war Ireland was partitioned in 1920 followed by civil war in the South and civil conflict in the North. The die was cast for twentieth century Irish politics. Its legacy remains.
Living on a Divided Island
It’s easy to think that the two new states established in Ireland following partition were wholly different, but they actually shared the same fundamental problems and challenges. Both Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State struggled in a global economic downturn and faced the problems of establishing themselves amidst internal opposition. Security concerns dominated in an atmosphere of distrust.
Following the Second World War, people in Northern Ireland benefited from the establishment of the Welfare State in Britain. Quality of life improved and new opportunities emerged. The 1960s began with much optimism, but the demand for change outpaced the ability of the Unionist government to reform. Influenced by an international culture of protest and social revolution, the campaign for civil rights descended into bitter civil strife amidst local opposition. Old enmities and suspicions fuelled the explosion of conflict at the end of the decade.