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Canon Grainger - Father of the Ulster Museum

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In 1891 Canon John Grainger gave his collection of thousands of objects 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 story describes Canon Grainger's life and collection.

Canon John Grainger

Canon John Grainger

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The Collector

The Collector

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Canon Grainger: his death and his gift to Belfast

Canon Grainger: his death and his gift to Belfast

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Canon Grainger’s collection of antiquities assembled in Belfast Library

Canon Grainger’s collection of antiquities assembled in Belfast Library

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Fossil Gastropods and Fossil Plant

Fossil Gastropods and Fossil Plant

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Fossil Fish and Shark Teeth

Fossil Fish and Shark Teeth

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Mammoth Tooth

Mammoth Tooth

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Suit of Samurai Armour

Suit of Samurai Armour

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Minerals

Minerals

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The Grainger Room

The Grainger Room

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Canon Grainger’s Gravestone and Memorial Window

Canon Grainger’s Gravestone and Memorial Window

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Canon John Grainger

Image: Canon Grainger, photograph taken from Centenary Volume of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society (1924)
Canon Grainger, photograph taken from Centenary Volume of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society (1924)

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.

Image: St Patrick’s Church of Ireland, Broughshane, County Antrim
St Patrick’s Church of Ireland, Broughshane, County Antrim

 

The Collector

Image: Canon Grainger in the Rectory study, portrait by A.C. Stannus. BELUM.U2007
Canon Grainger in the Rectory study, portrait by A.C. Stannus. BELUM.U2007

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.

Image: Canon Grainger’s garden 2nd August 1883
Canon Grainger’s garden 2nd August 1883

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: his death and his gift to Belfast

Image: Belfast Free Public Library, Art Gallery and Museum 1891
Belfast Free Public Library, Art Gallery and Museum 1891

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.

 

Canon Grainger’s collection of antiquities assembled in Belfast Library

Image: Canon Grainger’s collection of antiquities assembled in Belfast Library
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.

Image: Close-up view of Bronze-Age spear heads
Close-up view of Bronze-Age spear heads

 

Fossil Gastropods and Fossil Plant

Image: Fossil gastropod molluscs, County Kildare. Grainger Collection BELUM.K3945. BELUM.K3950, BELUM.K9807.  Each about 7cms.
Fossil gastropod molluscs, County Kildare. Grainger Collection BELUM.K3945. BELUM.K3950, BELUM.K9807. Each about 7cms.

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.

Image: Fossil plant Archaeopteris hibenica (Forbes), Kiltorcan, Co. Kilkenny.  Grainger Collection BELUM.K12433.  30 cms
Fossil plant Archaeopteris hibenica (Forbes), Kiltorcan, Co. Kilkenny. Grainger Collection BELUM.K12433. 30 cms

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 Fish and Shark Teeth

Image: Fossil fish Dapedius monilifer from Lias rock.  Grainger Collection BELUM.K9219.  40 cms
Fossil fish Dapedius monilifer from Lias rock. Grainger Collection BELUM.K9219. 40 cms

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.

Image: Three fossil shark’s teeth from South Carolina, U.S.A.  Grainger Collection BELUM.K15519, BELUM.K16764, BELUM.K19714.  Each 10 cms.
Three fossil shark’s teeth from South Carolina, U.S.A. Grainger Collection BELUM.K15519, BELUM.K16764, BELUM.K19714. Each 10 cms.

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.

 

Mammoth Tooth

Image: Mammoth tooth from County Antrim.  Grainger Collection BELUM.K1362.  22 cms
Mammoth tooth from County Antrim. Grainger Collection BELUM.K1362. 22 cms

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”.

 

Suit of Samurai Armour

Image: Suit of Samurai armour.  Grainger Collection BELUM.C1298
Suit of Samurai armour. Grainger Collection BELUM.C1298

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.

 

Minerals

Image: Polished agate. Grainger Collection BELUM.I3792.  24 cms
Polished agate. Grainger Collection BELUM.I3792. 24 cms

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)

Image: Dungiven Diamond. Grainger Collection BELUM.I825. 7 cms
Dungiven Diamond. Grainger Collection BELUM.I825. 7 cms

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.

Image: Aquamarine crystal, Mourne Mountains. Grainger Collection BELUM.I2398. 3 cms
Aquamarine crystal, Mourne Mountains. Grainger Collection BELUM.I2398. 3 cms

This gem-quality aquamarine crystal is described as being from the Mourne Mountains. 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. It was recorded of Canon Grainger that he was over-trusting of dealers.

 

The Grainger Room

Image: The Grainger Room, at Belfast Free Public Library, 1890s. R.J. Welch photograph
The Grainger Room, at Belfast Free Public Library, 1890s. R.J. Welch photograph

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’.

 

Canon Grainger’s Gravestone and Memorial Window

Image: Canon Grainger’s gravestone in St Patrick’s churchyard at Broughshane. A.R. Hogg photograph
Canon Grainger’s gravestone in St Patrick’s churchyard at Broughshane. A.R. Hogg photograph

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.

Image:

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