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Eric Montgomery (1916 - 2003):
Civil servant; museum administrator

Eric Montgomery

Eric Montgomery had a long career in public service whose contributions included his interest in the connections between the Scotch-Irish in Ulster and in America; the most obvious manifestation of this is the Ulster-American Folk Park and Mellon Centre for Migration Studies near Omagh, County Tyrone, behind which he was one of two prime movers.

William Eric Wolfe Montgomery was born at the Moy, Co. Tyrone, son of Rev John Montgomery, a Methodist minister and president of the Methodist Church in Ireland in 1952, and of his wife Minnie Wolfe from County Cork. He was educated at Methodist College, and Queen's University, Belfast. After working for two local newspapers, the Impartial Reporter in Enniskillen, and the Banbridge Chronicle, he joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers in 1940, later transferring to the North Irish Horse. He spent part of his war service in Washington DC, overseeing the supply of American war matériel to the United Kingdom. After the war he remained in the army, in a public relations rôle, before leaving, with rank of Major and a military MBE, for the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

He set up the Government Information Service in 1956, whose purpose was to combat what was seen as incorrect or slanted information from the Government's point of view. Another scheme concerned youth employment. In 1971, he had been in charge of "Ulster 71", an exposition which was intended to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of Northern Ireland. As part of this event, Montgomery, prompted by his acquaintance in his American time with the Civilian Conservation Corps founded by President FD Roosevelt to tackle the problem of unemployment, had the idea of a similar scheme in Northern Ireland. This became in 1973 Enterprise Ulster, a successful government-run training for work programme.  

The exposition though was rather, though not seriously, marred by the political and security situation which had deteriorated sharply, though a number of events did nevertheless take place. He was also interested in the history of transport and worked to establish what became the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, which grew to become one of the leading museums of its kind in The British Isles.

A special interest was in the Scotch-Irish people, also known as Ulster Scots. This term, broadly speaking, refers in Ulster to those largely lowland and Presbyterian Scottish settlers in Ulster, and their descendants, of whom significant numbers emigrated (principally) to what became the north-eastern United States of America; Montgomery is itself a common name in Scotland and the North of Ireland. In 1956 he was one of the founding trustees of the Ulster-Scots Historical Society, later the Ulster Historical Foundation. One of the more significant Ulster Scots to settle in America was Thomas Mellon, who was born to his farmer parents in a stone cottage in County Tyrone and as a child moved with his family to Pennsylvania. Thomas demurred at farming and became a lawyer, judge, businessman and banker, founding the Mellon Bank, which became one of the largest banks in the world.

Like many Americans, not least Scotch-Irish Americans, descendants of Thomas Mellon were interested in their ancestral homestead and houses in Ulster, and a grandson of Thomas, Matthew Mellon, became acquainted with Montgomery through the latter's project to restore such homesteads. The Government of Northern Ireland - including Prime minister O'Neill personally - along with the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland and the Ulster-Scots Historical Society were positively supportive and co-operative; the National Trust also took an interest in the specific plan to restore the Mellon homestead, and Matthew Mellon visited personally his grandfather's original home at Camphill, then Camp Hill, near Omagh, County Tyrone (Camp Hill was so named as it was a site where troops of King James II paused while retreating from the siege of Derry in 1689). Montgomery and Mellon worked closely together, Montgomery logistically and organisationally, Mellon financially supportive. He managed to include several relatives in the plan; the owners of the cottage proved ready to sell it to the new body, the Scotch-Irish Trust of Ulster, whose funds were provided by members of the Mellon family. The idea of the Mellon family themselves taking a direct rôle in the restoration came from another Pennsylvania lawyer, Judge Elder Marshall, whose ancestors were from County Down. Montgomery was a founding trustee, and later Secretary to the Trust after his retirement in 1976.

Hence, the cottage from where young Thomas Mellon had emigrated became the nucleus of the Ulster-American Folk Park near Omagh, County Tyrone, much of which was constructed by personnel recruited from the Omagh area by Enterprise Ulster. The Mellon homestead, restored, was opened by General Richard K Mellon in 1968 at a grand ceremony attended by the Prime Minister Terence O'Neill and some fifty members of the Mellon family who travelled specially from the United States. The park complex was opened in 1976 - Montgomery its first Director - and continues to expand, with the acquisition of new buildings as exhibits in the distinctive Old World/New World layout; the visitor passed from reconstructed Ulster landscape and villagescape, via replica emigrant ship, to the "New World" on the American eastern seaboard. These are typically original buildings, dismantled and rebuilt on site. The Matthew T Mellon Foundation also provided funding for a new Visitor Centre. The current Centre for Migration Studies grew out of an earlier manifestation, combined with the Library at the Ulster-American Folk Park; it also offers an MSSc degree in Migration Studies accredited by Queen's University, Belfast.

At all stages, Montgomery took a close personal interest, frequently covering the distance from his home near Holywood, County Down to the Park (about 70 miles) in rather less time than most drivers (even as an octogenarian). He was also instrumental in a similar project in the United States: 1978 the American Frontier Culture Museum opened in Staunton, Virginia in 1978. Montgomery's idea was that the U.S. needed an outdoor living history museum like the Ulster-American Folk Park, but more international in scope, with its basic goal to remind the American people of their Old World origins, not only from Ulster; the layout aims to follow that of the Ulster-American Folk Park.

In 1991 he was appointed OBE for services to the cultural life of Northern Ireland.

Born: 19 April 1916
Died: 29 September 2003
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann

Dictionary of Irish Biography; Eric Montgomery: How It All Began, Ulster-American Folk Park, 1991;; private information; personal knowledge