The Canon John Grainger Collection
This suit of Samurai armour was one of the thousands of objects in the collection of Canon Grainger. In 1891 he gave his collection to the city of Belfast. This forced Belfast Corporation to think about building a museum to house it. This resulted in a museum we know as the Ulster Museum. Canon Grainger can be considered ‘Father of the Ulster Museum’. This web tour describes Canon Grainger's life and collection.
Canon John Grainger
John Grainger was born in Belfast in 1830, the eldest of six children of David Grainger a wealthy ship-owner. He was educated at the Belfast Academy, where he showed his interest in natural history, often staying in school after hours to arrange the school museum.
John Grainger went on to have a distinguished academic career at Trinity College Dublin. Throughout his university years his passion for natural history and archaeology grew and his formal studies were interspersed with travels around Ireland, Great Britain, Europe and North America.
John Grainger graduated from Trinity College in 1859 and worked in the family shipping company until his father’s death in 1862. He then sold the business and trained for the ministry in the Church of Ireland. He was ordained in 1863 and in 1869 he became Rector of St Patrick’s Parish Church in Broughshane, County Antrim. He remained here for the rest of his life.
Canon Grainger, photograph from Centenary Volume of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society (1924)
St Patrick’s Church of Ireland, Broughshane, County. Antrim
Grainger’s interest in natural history and antiquities never waned. He wrote relatively little about his interests, but concentrated on collecting. Soon he had many thousands of natural history, archaeology, ethnography and history objects. These he displayed in the Rectory in cases and on specially made adjustable shelving. Grainger, who never married, was from the age of 18 a member of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society. He was the first president of the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club in 1863 and in 1876 he was elected a Member of the Royal Irish Academy. This portrait shows Canon Grainger in his study, pointing to some prehistoric weapons, just a fraction of his huge collection.
In the summer of 1883 members of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Society of Ireland toured County Antrim to examine its ancient monuments. They knew of fellow member Canon Grainger and of his collection of antiquities and they made a special visit to Broughshane Rectory to see it. In this photograph Grainger, who is seated fourth from the right, is posing for the camera with members of the Society, together with some of his collection which has been brought out of the Rectory. In view are quern stones, a log boat and a stuffed flamingo.
Canon Grainger in the Rectory study, portrait by A.C. Stannus. Accession number BELUM.U2007
Canon Grainger’s garden 2 August 1883
Canon Grainger: his death and his gift to Belfast
In 1890, when aged sixty, Canon Grainger became ill. Over the months he grew steadily weaker and he preached his last sermon on Easter Sunday 1891. Canon Grainger knew he was dying. Anxious for the safety of his collection, Grainger bequeathed it to Belfast Corporation. Over a period of months in the autumn of 1891, the collection was transferred to the newly opened public library in Royal Avenue, Belfast, the only accommodation that the Corporation could find to store it. Canon Grainger died on 24th November 1891.
In the 1880s Belfast was a rapidly expanding industrial city, with shipyards, mills and factories. To reflect the growing importance of the city, Belfast Corporation opened in 1888 a large library in Royal Avenue in the centre of the city. Significantly, the building had three display rooms on the top floor for use as an art gallery. It was to these rooms that Canon Grainger’s collection was first sent.
Belfast Free Public Library, Art Gallery and Museum 1891
Canon Grainger’s collection of antiquities assembled in Belfast Library
Canon Grainger’s collection was so large that it took three months to transfer it from Broughshane to Belfast Library. The photographer Robert Welch took these photographs of the collection in the Library on 22nd October 1891, shortly after it had been un-packaged and laid out in the display rooms. These are Grainger’s Irish antiquities: in view at the front is a tray of stone axes, four medieval pots and a Bronze-Age cauldron. Grainger’s archaeological collection, though of quality and extensive and beautifully arranged was not fully labelled and catalogued. This lack of information about provenance impaired its usefulness to later scholars.
Canon Grainger’s collection of antiquities assembled in Belfast Library 1891
Close-up view of Bronze-Age spear heads
Fossil Gastropods and Fossil Plant
In Grainger’s day there were many small local quarries in which fossils could be easily collected. His collection of fossils from the Carboniferous Limestone of Ireland was particularly fine. These gastropods have been finely preserved in the limestone of County Kildare. The specimen at the bottom has been cut down the middle, showing the gastropod’s chambers outlined in the calcite infilling.
In 1853 the fossil impressions of branches of fern-like leaves were discovered in the rocks from the quarry on Kiltorcan Hill, County Kilkenny. They are from small trees that grew by the side of lakes in Devonian times, 370 million years ago. The Kiltorcan plant fossils are amongst the earliest recognisable plant fossils in the world. Grainger had many of these beautiful fossils in his collection.
Fossil Gastropods - each about 7cms. Accession Nos. BELUM.K3945. BELUM.K3950, BELUM.K9807
Fossil plant - height 30 cms. Accession. No. BELUM.K12433.
Fossil Fish and Shark Teeth
The Lias division of the Jurassic Age rocks is noted for the quality its fossils. This fossil fish is from the Lias at Barrow-upon-Soar, Leicestershire. Dapedius had a rounded body covered in bony plates, which have been well preserved in this specimen. In his younger days, Grainger took walking holidays in England, collecting fossils.
The rocks of South Carolina are famous for containing the fossilised teeth of giant sharks that lived 40 million years ago. They are all that remain of these fish, for the soft shark skeleton was not preserved. Grainger had nearly one hundred of these fossils in his collection. He may have obtained them when he worked in the family shipping business.
Fossil fish Dapedius monilifer from Lias rock - 40cms. Accession No. BELUM.K9219
Three fossil shark’s teeth from South Carolina, U.S.A - each 10cms. Accession Nos BELUM.K15519, BELUM.K16764, BELUM.K19714.
In 1864, workmen digging in a gravel bed at Ballyrudder, near Glenarm found this mammoth tooth. It was the first evidence that mammoths lived in Ireland. The tooth soon came into Canon Grainger’s Collection. In 1874 Grainger attended the meeting in Belfast of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and gave this lecture: On the post-Tertiary fossils of Ireland. During his lecture he exhibited the Ballyrudder mammoth tooth which it was reported “led to a very animated discussion and enquiry”.
Mammoth tooth from County Antrim - 22 cms. Accession No. BELUM.K1362
Suit of Samurai Armour
This armour belonged to a member of the Japanese Samurai, a class of military nobility which flourished from medieval to modern times. Samurai armour is made of many small parts and a variety of materials. Steel, leather and wood typically form the protective plating, which is laced together using leather or silk cord. This suit which has been dated to the eighteenth century period was restored for the 1991 Canon Grainger Centenary Exhibition.
Suit of Samurai armour. Accession No. BELUM.C1298
Canon Grainger had many fine mineral specimens in his collection.
This is a mass of agate which has been polished on one face to show the internal layering in the mineral. Here the cut reveals two circles of banding, leading to this piece being called ‘Eye Agate’. On the back of this specimen Grainger has pasted a label containing a verse from Holy Scripture: For behold the stone that I laid before Joshua; upon one stone shall be seven eyes. (Zechariah, Chapter 3, verse 9)
Crystals of clear quartz have been found in the soils around the town of Dungiven, County Londonderry. They became known as ‘Dungiven Diamonds’. The source of the crystals is not known. Clear quartz, known as 'Rock Crystal' is used in jewellery as a substitute for diamond.
In the old museum register books, this gem-quality aquamarine crystal was recorded as being from the 'Mourne Mtns'. But there has to be doubt about its provenance. Aquamarine crystals are found in the Mourne Mountains, but they are cloudy in appearance and not translucent as in this specimen. The suspicion is that this gem quality crystal is from abroad, but sold as ‘Mournes Aquamarine’ to fetch a higher price.
Polished agate - 24 cms. Accession. No. BELUM.I3792
Dungiven Diamond - 7 cms. Accession No. I825
Aquamarine crystal, Mourne Mountains - 3 cms. Accession No. I2398
The Grainger Room
An annexe called ‘The Grainger Room’ was built at the rear of Belfast Library to house the Grainger Collection. It survived for about thirty years. The crowded state of the displays in the Grainger Room prompted calls for a proper museum and art gallery in Belfast. This pressure led to Belfast Corporation opening in 1929 the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery in a corner of the city’s Botanic Gardens, on the Stranmillis Road. In 1962, the museum was taken over by the Northern Ireland government and renamed ‘The Ulster Museum’.
The Grainger Room, at Belfast Free Public Library, 1890s. R.J. Welch photograph
Canon Grainger’s Gravestone and Memorial Window
Grainger was Rector of St Patrick’s Parish Church for twenty two years and he is buried in the church’s graveyard. With his interest in Irish antiquities, it is not surprising Grainger chose for his gravestone this elaborately carved cross, styled after the Medieval Celtic High Crosses of Ireland.
The memorial window to Canon Grainger in St Patrick’s Parish Church, Broughshane is a depiction of 'The Last Supper'.
The window is inscribed:
TO THE GLORY OF GOD AND IN LOVING MEMORY OF JOHN GRAINGER DD, MRIA, CANON OF CONNOR, PREBENDARY OF RASHARKIN, RURAL-DEAN OF ANTRIM FOR 22 YEARS, RECTOR OF THIS PARISH WHO OBTAINED REST FROM HIS LABOURS ON THE 24TH OF NOVEMBER 1891, AGED 61 YEARS. THIS WINDOW WAS ERECTED BY A FEW FRIENDS 1892
Canon Grainger’s life-long scholarship is alluded to in the further wording: I HAVE GLORIFIED THEE ON EARTH I HAVE FINISHED THE WORK WHICH THOU GAVEST ME TO DO
Canon Grainger’s gravestone in St Patrick’s churchyard at Broughshane. A.R. Hogg photograph
Memorial window to Canon Grainger in St Patrick’s Parish Church, Broughshane.