A model exhibit

Monaghan County Museum is famous countrywide for the volume and quality of its exhibits. Seamus McCluskey reports.

Outside of the National Museum in Dublin, and possibly the Museum in Armagh city, Monaghan County Museum is unquestionably the finest museum in the 32 counties. Now just over twenty-five years in existence, the museum, which started in the Monaghan court house in 1974, now stands on an impressive site on “The Hill” just above the 17th century market house and tourist office, and almost in the centre of the town. It is probably the most visited building in Monaghan today and daily attracts tourists from all over the world.

Lay-Out of the Museum
The Museum exhibits are divided into ten sections, on the following lines: -
Section One covers “The First Settlers” age (5500BC - 2500BC), with artifacts from the Stone Age, found at Tully near Monaghan town, and at Derryhee in the parish of Donagh. Portal tombs and Wedge tombs are well illustrated, particularly the one at Lisdarragh. Section Two covers “The Metal Age” (2500BC - 500BC). Items from the Bronze Age, particularly from the Tydavent area, are on display here, as also in some “Funerary Ware”. Section 3 deals with “The Iron Lords” (500BC - 500 AD), and pride of place hero goes to the magnificent “Alcatarte Cauldron” which was carved from a single block of wood. Details of the “Black Pig’s Dyke”, which stretches right across Co. Monaghan from Scotshouse to Oram, are illustrated in this section. Excavations were carried out on this magnificent “South Ulster Defence Line” in Currin parish some years back. Art and Religion of the period as, well at “The Ulaid” are also included here.

Section Four covers “Book, Bell and Crozier” (500AD - 700AD), and outlines Monastic Monaghan life, with the High Cross of Clones, the Round Towers at Inniskeen and Clones, and Donagh High Cross, but the “Real Gem” is surely the magnificent Cross of Clogher, made during the 14th-15th century, which was first displayed in St. Macartan’s Seminary, and is now on permanent loan from the National Museum in Dublin. Section Five covers “The Gaelic Chiefs” (700AD - 1600AD) and tells the story of the McMahons, McKennas and other ruling clans of that era. Here too there is a magnificent model of the Co. Monaghan crannog at Killyvilla. The Battle of Clontibret 1595 and the ‘Nine Years War’ also come into this section.

Section Six covers “The New Order” (1600AD - 1800AD) and details the Division of Land, Land Ownership, The Protestant Nation, Life and Leisure, Defence and Loyalty, and the Linen industry. A lovely “Penal Cross” and uniforms of Grattan’s Volunteers are on display here, as well as an excellent model of Monaghan town as it was in 1610. Section seven is devoted to “The Land and the People” (1800AD-1900AD) which includes displays on “Revolt & Reform”, Nationalism, Administration, Economy and Transport, and the Ulster Canal, with many relics of the Great Northern Railway system which criss-crossed the county from 1850 to 1960.

Section 9 is entitled “A Border Again” (1900-1990AD) and covers the IRB, the Irish Volunteers, 1916 , War of Independence, Civil War, the Free State, and the advance towards a Republic, right up to modern times. Section 10, the final section is entitled “Places and Times” and covers all the societies in the county, as well as religion, commerce and recreation aspects of Co. Monaghan life.
The Beginnings

In 1970 there was a very active branch of An Taisce in Monaghan, which dealt with environmental issues. They got the idea that there should be a museum in Monaghan and gradually got pieces together for some local exhibitions which proved highly successful. The idea of a permanent museum was then discussed and it was decided that it should be in public ownership. The suggestion was brought to the Co. Manager, George Cannon, who immediately approved. It was decided to forge ahead, but funds were scarce and “An Taisce” raised much finance through carnivals and dances, with great assistance from people like Theo McMahon, Bertie Geary, Paddy Turley and Michael McCaughey. The Bishop of Clogher, Most Rev. Dr Joseph Duffy had also been involved with An Taisce and gave all the encouragement possible.

The Bishop along with the St. Macartan’s Diocesan Trust generously bequeathed “the heart of the museum” to the Co. Council. The organisers were also very indebted to a good friend in Armagh Museum, Roger Wetherall, who gave valuable help in the formation days of the museum. So also did the “Friends of the Museum” who rounded up hundreds of artifacts for display. The sheer size and scale of the collection in Monaghan Museum can now match that of any other museum in the country.
Milestones in museum history

1974: - The preliminary work is completed and the museum is finally established. Monaghan Courthouse is the venue and the ‘Official Opening’ ceremony is performed by the Minister For Local Government, Mr James Tully, on 27th September 1974. First Curator of the Museum is Galway-man, Aidan Walsh.
1980:- The Museum wins its first great award - a major international distinction, winning the Council of Europe Museum Prize.
1981: - Disaster strikes on March 30th 1981, when the Courthouse is burned to the ground. The Northern Troubles had frequently over-spilled into Co. Monaghan and this was at the height of the H-Block Protest. Fortunately, most of the section housing the Museum artifacts escaped the ravages of the conflagration. New premises must be now obtained and eventually the Council Offices on The Hill are converted into a New Museum, but the Museum itself remains closed for some years.
1987: - The New Monaghan County Museum, Phase One, at The Hill, is officially opened by Mr. Padraig Flynn TD, Minister for the Environment, on Friday 30th October 1987 at 6pm, with a reception afterwards in the Westenra Hotel.
1990: - Aidan Walsh resigns as Curator of the Museum and is succeeded by Pat Long.
1990: - The Official Opening of the completed Museum and Exhibition Gallery is performed by Dr. Patrick Hillery, President of Ireland, on June 22nd 1990, Monaghan Heritage Year.
1993: - Another prestigious award for Monaghan County Museum when it won the Gulbention/Norwich Union Best Collections Award.
1999: - On Tuesday 7th December 1999 the Museum marked the 25th Anniversary of its existence with celebrations at The Hill and later in the Hillgrove Hotel. The celebrations opened with a Special Exhibition, putting on display some pieces rarely seen by the public. Pat Long first welcomed everyone to the Exhibition and recalled the founding days of the Museum, stating that, at a time of great difficulties, the Museum was established as Ireland’s first ever “County Museum” and so was a pioneer in this respect. He paid particular tribute to George Cannon, who had been a ‘pioneering official’ of the County Council and the key figure in getting the museum established. He also acknowledged the contributions of Frank Keelaghan, Theo McMahon, the Darcys, Jim Jenkins, Mrs. Killen, Sean Murphy and Tony Murphy. Paying tribute to the professionalism of his back-up staff, he said “Life in the Museum could be a lot more hectic than what one imagined from the peaceful elements of the display.”

Co. Council Chairman Brendan Hughes was lavish in his praise of the museum, saying that all members of the council were extremely proud of it. He had been chairman of the Council Estimates Committee since 1999 and when it came to budgetary requirements for the museum, members never found any difficulty in providing the funds needed to keep it going. Co. Manager Joe Gavin also paid tribute to the staff and to former Co. Secretary Tony Murphy, as well as to all who had set up the museum in 1974.

Following an anniversary meal, the celebrations continued in the Hillgrove Hotel where a special presentation was made to one of the great supporters of the museum, Mrs. Killen.

Frank Keelaghan said that a museum without exhibits or donations “was not a museum at all” and he paid particular tributes to Eamonn and Joe Smith from Castleshane, who had contributed an enormous amount of material to the original museum. George Cannon paid tribute to the then Minister of Local Government, James Tully, who had agreed that Monaghan Co. Council should have its own museum and who got immediate cash from the Government of the day. Frank Keelaghan finished with the quote “Without George Cannon there never would have been a museum.”

2000: - Curator Pat Long moves to Dublin and is succeeded by Omagh archaeologist, Roisin Doherty as Curator. In an interview with a local newspaper, Roisin outlined her future plans for the Museum and stated that “Museums are not boring - they are very exciting places to be, and I want this Museum to have one foot in the future.” Already she has established herself as a go-ahead young lady who is sure to put Monaghan County Museum on the world map in the not too distant future.

The Museum is ably assisted by “The Friends of the Museum” under the chairmanship of go-ahead Jim Jenkins, while the “Museum Supervisory Committee” acts as a Governing Body and also keeps a close eye on the daily goings-on at the history making Museum. It is under the chairmanship of Theo McMahon and meets four times a year. Curator Roisin has a very able helper in conservator Noel Breakey, as well as assistants Padraig Clerkin and four part-timers.