Step into the past and unearth Northern Ireland’s hidden heritage

From secret nuclear bunkers, to stately manor houses, castle ruins and ancient forts, Tourism NI is encouraging people to explore the fascinating history on their doorstep with the European Heritage Open Days taking place from September 6-12.

Monday, 6th September 2021, 5:00 pm
Updated Monday, 6th September 2021, 5:24 pm

Over 250 heritage buildings are set to open their doors to guests as part of the upcoming 24th annual event, which celebrates local architecture, history and culture.

And there is no better time to uncover Northern Ireland’s unique heritage and discover amazing facts about local history, as Tourism NI’s director of Marketing Naomi Waite explained: “Northern Ireland is brimming with a wealth of history and culture and this year we want to encourage people to get out and discover that for themselves by visiting some of the many sites that are open for free as part of European Heritage Open Days.

“There are so many hidden gems right under our noses, and this is a fantastic opportunity to really explore and connect with our landscape, culture and heritage.”

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Florence Court

To inspire those interested in setting out on their cultural heritage journey, here is a list of just some of the quirky culture and hidden heritage that exists right here in Northern Ireland:

Clifton House, Belfast: Having opened its doors almost 250 years ago, the imposing Clifton House is a truly remarkable building that has a fascinating story to tell. Set in tranquil landscaped gardens in the heart of Belfast, this impressive Georgian building was established in 1774 by The Belfast Charitable and served as the city’s original Poor House, a safe haven for the neediest in society. Belfast in the 18th century was a tough place to live, with famine, illness, appalling living conditions and lack of welfare authorities ensuring the necessity of the work of the Poor House. This work took many forms, including nursing those who were ill, giving skills to those who were unemployed and educating children who had known desperate circumstances. Today, Clifton House still provides residential and sheltered housing for older people and is also home to a heritage centre. A tour of this splendid venue, which was entirely renovated in 2000, will give visitors a glimpse of life in Georgian Belfast.

Secret bunker, Co Armagh: A non-descript field outside Portadown may seem like an odd place to find a relic of the Cold War, but that is exactly what awaits visitors at this refurbished underground fallout shelter. The bunker was once part of a network of monitoring posts set up across the UK and manned by volunteers from the Royal Observer Corp. Their job – if the Cold War had turned hot – would have been to study the effects of nuclear explosions and the resulting fallout, as well as helping any survivors. The facility has been lovingly restored in recent years, allowing visitors to step into the past. Guided tours by original crew members dressed in period uniform are available.

Sentry Hill, Co Antrim This historic farmhouse provides a rare insight into life in rural Ulster during the 19th and 20th centuries. Located within beautiful grounds near Glengormley, the property is steeped in history and contains an array of fascinating artefacts and memorabilia. It was the home of the McKinney family, who came to Ireland from Scotland in the early 1700s. Remarkably, the Victorian house and its contents have survived largely intact, with furniture, books, paintings, personal diaries, letters, photographs and souvenirs from trips abroad all helping to tell the story of the McKinney’s, recording life at Sentry Hill and its surrounding areas. Tours of the house and craft activities will take place throughout the day on Saturday, September 11, between 11am-4pm.

Garvagh Museum, Co Londonderry: There is no shortage of top-class museums across Northern Ireland, but perhaps the most surprising museum of all can be found tucked away at the edge of Garvagh Forest. One of the region’s best kept secrets, this rural folk museum offers a truly unique experience, featuring a treasure trove of objects and images from a bygone age. Exhibits range from the pre-historic, with Stone Age artefacts from the Bann Valley, to aspects of rural and domestic life in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including a blacksmith’s shop and displays rare farming equipment and stained glass. The venue will be welcoming visitors from 2pm-5pm on September 10-11.

Florence Court, Co Fermanagh: Enjoy free entry on 11 September to one of Fermanagh’s most famous historic houses, The National Trust’s Florence Court Mansion. At over 300 years old, the mansion is steeped in mystery as the architect or architects are unknown. It is believed the main block probably dates to the 1760s and its colonnades and wings to the 1770s. The gardens and parkland of the mansion are equally as impressive, perfect for a day out and something for all the family to enjoy, whether you are a historian buff or a nature seeker.

Kilclief Castle, Co Down: A fantastic day out for all the family come and join the fun as musicians and actors bring to life Celtic mand Irish legends in the stunning surroundings of the castle situated on the shores of Strangford Lough. Built in the 15th century by the Bishop of Down John Sely, Kilclief Castle is the perfect location to return to the mystery and heritage that surrounds Northern Ireland. Packed with Celtic mythology, watch as an out of work musician enters Kilclief Castle playing his flute, awakening an ancient ancestor from the mists of ancient Irish history! The event takes place on Saturday, September 11 from 1pm-4pm. In keeping with the social distancing regulations, visitors are required to reserve spaces for the performances due to limited capacity. There will be two shows each hour and limited parking is available in the car park by the beach.

Saint Macartan’s Church (The Forth Chapel), Co Tyrone: This beautiful church is located in the heart of the Clogher Valley and dates from 1838 – 1846. It is notable as its site is referenced in the writings of William Carleton and it is home to four recently discovered Clarke Studio Stained Glass windows dating from 1922. On Saturday, September 11 and Sunday 12 the church will host a free guided tour, starting at the car park at 3pm and concluding at 4.30pm.

Garvagh Museum

St Macartans (Forth Chapel), Augher, National Churches Trust: This year’s European Heritage Open Days celebration has been extended from the usual weekend to a full week of online events, with access to heritage buildings on the weekend of September 10-12.

While all events are free many require pre-booking.

To find out more about the list of those properties open in your area for European Heritage Open Days and to get involved visit European Heritage Open Days 2021 (tourismni.com)

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