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Claragh Heritage Centre. Celebrating rural history in Kilrea

Ronan Lundy talks to Tom Graham who has spent a lifetime collecting and restoring artefacts of rural life.

Cottage window at the Claragh Heritage Centre, Kilrea

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Article - M Johnston 2005
Tom Graham and his son Steven at 'Jamies Cottage' which Tom built in 1998
Tom Graham and his son Steven who run the Heritage Centre
Tom Graham says he has spent his whole life collecting and restoring things.

Much of his working life was spent travelling around Northern Ireland in conjunction with his poultry business. As he drove around the countryside he always kept a watchful eye for things which relate to a rural way of life which was fast disappearing.

He would frequently see things lying in fields, barns and houses which had been discarded and he would offer to salvage them. He has collected large things like tractors, ploughs, harvesters, binders etc... and smaller things like domestic appliances, utensils and personal belongings.

The result of his life's work is the
Claragh Heritage Centre in Kilrea.


The centre is set in beautifully maintained gardens which include a fountain, a bridge and a waterwheel
The centre is set in beautifully maintained gardens which include a fountain, a bridge and a waterwheel.



Very few of these were produced... a David Brown Tractor from WWII era, finished in soil coloured paint for camouflage
A very rare example of a wartime David Brown tractor
in the original camouflaged soil-coloured paint finish
Tom has achieved all of this in two main stages. During his working life he acquired the bulk of items that now make up his collection. "There wasn't a great lot of spare time then to get into restoration work." he says. Now in happy retirement, he has finally had the time to get down to the slow and painstaking task of restoring the hundreds of things he has gathered up. He says "..since I've retired I can spend six days a week working on my projects if I so desire."

On his four and a half acres, he has large sheds filled with artefacts of every description. One common thread links all of these items together... they reflect and celebrate a way of rural life in Northern Ireland that has passed into history. Some of his exhibits date to before the famine. Some are only thirty years old.


Oil & Fuel cans, lovingly restored, right down to the brass caps.
Antiques don't have to be made of precious stones or metal...
Oil & fuel cans which would have been used on farms, lovingly restored, right down to the brass caps.

But Tom's exhibition of rural memorabilia doesn't stop with farming implements. He has built his own exhibits too. "Jamies Cottage", so called because it was once the dwelling place of a local man called Jamie Mullan, is a typical example of a farmers dwelling of the 1800s.

The interior of "Jamie's Cottage", built by Tom Graham, exactly as might have looked 100 years ago
The interior of "Jamie's Cottage", built by Tom Graham, exactly as it might have looked 100 years ago.

What is not apparent at all is that this little home is in fact a reconstruction. It was built by Tom himself in 1998! This marvellous cottage, complete with its half-door and open fire, is appointed and furnished with a level of accuracy that many museums would envy. Inside, the cottage is filled with genuine artefacts of the era including a working “Gingerbread clock” from the famine of the mid 1800s. Tom used home made cement blocks to construct the shell and then used various inventive and creative techniques to “age” the finish inside and out which now looks - and feels - a very convincing hundred and fifty years old.

Throughout the season, Tom guides many visitors of all ages around his centre. He says that school children are the most fascinated. They ask “where is the sink and the hot water” and “is there no bathroom?” Adults are not so surprised about the lack of these facilities. Some of the older ones have their own memories of dwellings just like this and want to sit in the chair by the fire for a few minutes just to reminisce about an era passed by. It was an era when farmers worked the land with horses, chill ploughs, sowers and reapers.


The smallest church in Ireland?
1920 wooden washing machine
Tom has also built a little church in the centre. I'd feel safe in saying that this must be the smallest church in Ireland, measuring only about ten feet square!

It has all the authentic features though... a bell-tower, three stained-glass windows, a single pew, and of course, a pulpit. This structure too was built using home-made blocks.

Among the unusual artefacts in the centre, one which stands out for me is the 1920 wooden washing machine called "The Majestic". When you turn the handle a four-pronged agitator rotates back and forth in the tub.


It would easily take a full day or more to go around this centre and see everything properly. The inventory of Tom’s collection of implements and artefacts runs into many thousands of items.

Signs from local businesses, many no longer in existence.
Nothing is thrown away... here are some old signs of local businesses from around the Kilrea area


Whereas many collectors like to keep their precious collections private to themselves, Tom Graham believes that it’s important to open his up to the public so everyone has the chance to celebrate their history and heritage of rural life ‘on the land’.

Unlike a museum where the information is limited to what's written on plaques, if you go to Claragh and ask Tom about something, he's sure to say "Well now there's a bit of a story behind that item..." be ready to listen!

Click below to hear Tom Graham talking to Ronan Lundy on "Your Place & Mine" on 18th June 2005.

Listen : Tom Graham speaking to Ronan Lundy about his collection


By the window in Jamies Cottage at the Claragh  Heritage Centre
Celebrating the culture and heritage of an era passed by - the Claragh Heritage Centre..

The Claragh Heritage Centre is a non profit-making venture. Visitor donations are given to charity. Visitors should book in advance - Tel: 02829 540370

Web Links

Naïve Art in Northern Ireland
The First Tractor in Lislea
Rural Ireland – Life and Work of Margaret Gallagher
(Includes footage of Margaret Gallagher at home)

Your responses:

Stephen Graham - Dec '07
Thankyou From Tom and all at the Claragh for all the kind comments. it makes it all worth while. Have a merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

Kevin Taylor - Nov '06
What a great idea. Indeed what a brilliant family with its priorities in the right place.
Keep up the good work. And well done to the team for highlighting such a little gem. Hopefully I will visit in the new year.

Andrew Milliken - Glasgow - Sep '06
A fantastic collection of historic memorabilia and from an educational perspective this is so beneficial for local schools and the surrounding community.

Congratulations Tom and Stephen for a smashing Heritage Centre. I look forward to visiting the next time i'm home.

Denis Hyde - Sep '06
I need to go and visit this wonderful place soon.

Helen Evans Western Australia - April '06
Hi Tom - I was alerted to your display by my cousin in Australia. Great to see this collection online, when I get back to Kilrea in the near future I will be paying a visit. My grandfather's business name plate is displayed - J Bloomfield & Sons- so I will let the family know they can see it online along with the many other interesting artifacts on display. Keep up the good work Tom for the younger generations to see. Grateful Granddaughter - Helen Evans.

Fionnbarr Diamond, the Erganagh - Dec '05
Hi there Tom and family. I'm looking forward to getting home next year with my son, Louis, and of course a visit to your museum which is quite something judging by the photos. I remember seeing your collection of tractors, especially the Allis Chalmers when I was a wee lad. I've a few stories to tell you of the machinery they use on the iron ore mines here in the Pilbara, Western Australia. Quite a different scale altogether. ("Hello Ruth, across the Tasman!!")

Kay Muirhead - Nov 05
I enjoyed looking through this website, as my Mother was from Kilrea. I now live in England but my parents live in Ballymoney, so on my next visit I intend to see the Heritage centre. Do you know of a family history centre where I could research my family tree????

Linda Long - Oct 05
I found your article very interesting. It's nice to know that someone is maintaining a piece of history in the town of kilrea. Each article of the past that is displayed became a small step into our present leading us to the future. I know someone that was raised in kilrea (Knipe is the name)and next time I see him I'll ask if he has paid a visit to Jamie's cabin. Keep up the good work you are doing!

Nigel Burtney - July '05
Visited Tom and his collection at the weekend, a truly remarkable showing of the times gone by. Tom himself was a wealth of knowledge knowing the history and dates of all items within his collection.

Tommy Collins - August '05
Tom A great collection and a great asset to the town of Kilrea , wonerful that you were featured on Your Place and Mine sending you this mesasage from THE BIG YELLOW BUS parked in Kilrea Diamond on 3rd July 205 as part of the Fairy Thorn Festival

Jean-Yves & Monique Meuric - July '05
We visited Tom's heritage center in last May.
We are living in Brittany and found there many tools we have seen and used in our youth, and also many ones we didn't knew it could exist , specially this surprising wooden washing machine ! Tom has hours and hours to spend with his visitors.

Thank you Tom !

Ruth Graham - NZ - June 05
Having grown up on these wonderful grounds I can only say that it still amazes me to go home (I live in New Zealand) and see what Dad has erected or added to the collection. As I walk around he is able to tell the story behind even the smallest item and it has given me an insight into days gone by. It is a treasure well worth a visit and he is a great historian.


Walter Crawford - June '05
A real treasure right on our doorstep. I have visited "The Claragh" Heritage Centre and found it almost impossible to tear myself away and Tom was the perfect guide.

Well worth a visit.

'Seventy Plus' - June 05
What a wonderful collection of memorabilia, a truly magical glimpse into the past. Visiting the centre, especially Jamies cottage, must be an absolutely amazing experience for school children growing up in today's technological age. This would give them a glimpse of how almost all of our forebears lived. Thank you for this extraordinary report and photographs and for the many other extremely interesting articles to be found on your web site.



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