On a foggy morning in late November 1891 a large assembly gathered at St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland Church in Broughshane, Co. Antrim, to attend the funeral of the local rector, who had died at the age of sixty-one after a year of serious illness. Whilst most of those who stood in the churchyard were local people, come to mourn the passing of their pastor and friend, others were distinguished visitors in public life, from Belfast and elsewhere, who had travelled especially to pay their tribute to a remarkable country rector. In his lifetime this clergyman established his reputation as a polymath and indefatigable collector, and became well known amongst learned society in Ireland. Today he is almost totally forgotten. The passage of time makes oblivion understandable, but it is regrettable, for this clergyman played—unwittingly — a major role in the events leading to the formation of the municipal museum in Belfast, which today we know as the Ulster Museum.

He was the Reverend Canon John Grainger, Doctor of Divinity, Member of the Royal Irish Academy, and Rector of Broughshane, Co. Antrim for over twenty years. During a lifetime of scholarly pursuits he amassed a truly huge collection of natural history specimens, antiquities, fossils, minerals, fine arts, ethnographic objects, books and curios all of which he somehow managed to arrange and display in the rectory. All these he bequeathed to Belfast Corporation in the summer of 1891, shortly before his death. At first the collection was stored in the Central Library in Royal Avenue, and the best of it was exhibited in a hastily constructed annexe at the rear of the building, which quickly became known at “The Grainger Room”.




But so vast was the collection — over 60,000 individual objects — that the City Fathers were forced to think about building a proper municipal museum to house the Grainger Collection and the other collections which, following Grainger’s example, the city was beginning to acquire. The result was the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery, built on an open site in the city’s Botanic Gardens, which was opened on 22 October 1929 by the Duke of Abercom, Governor of Northern Ireland. This became the Ulster Museum in 1962 when it was transformed into the national museum for the whole of Northern Ireland. Today objects from Canon Grainger’s collection are still on display in the Museum’s galleries, and two of his collections — of Irish Carboniferous limestone fossils and ancient Irish bronze weapons — remain important to science.

John Grainger was born at Queen Street, Belfast, on 19 March 1830, the eldest son of David Grainger, a ship owner and member of Belfast Corporation. Shortly after, the family moved to live in a large house in Henry Street, then in the northern suburbs of the city. From his boyhood days John Grainger showed a love for natural history and the outdoors world. At the age of nine he carried out his first scientific explorations, when he dug in the heavy clays in the family garden to search for marine shells. This was an interest that was to remain with him all his life, and later he was to compile scientific lists of the shells to be found in the Belfast estuarine clays.

Grainger received his early education at Belfast Academy (now Belfast Royal Academy), then located at Academy Street in the centre of the town. He was fortunate that one of the masters at the Academy was James Bryce, the noted geologist and secretary of the Belfast Natural History Society. He encouraged the boys to study natural history, took them on excursions in the countryside to search for fossils and butterflies and helped them form their own nature club at the school, where they exhibited their finds and gave their own talks.

Young Grainger was one of Bryce’s keenest pupils and he often remained in class after hours, to help arrange the school museum. He even set up his own museum at home, in a wing specially set aside to house his growing collection of shells, fossils, plants and insects, which even then amounted to a considerable size. This habit — of arranging and displaying the specimens he collected during his studies — was to remain with him all his life.

At the age of nineteen in 1849, John Grainger went up to Trinity College, Dublin, taking seventh place in the College Entrance Examination. Thereafter he had a distinguished academic career lasting ten years, including a special divinity prize in 1853 and a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1855 when he came second in his year. He left university about 1859 with a Master of Arts degree, and later in 1870 had the distinction of being made Doctor of Divinity.

Throughout his university years Grainger’s passion for natural history and science grew. At college he helped form the Dublin University Zoological Association, collected superb fossils from the Carboniferous Limestone quarries at Howth and Malahide, and captured rare moths and butterflies; during vacations at home he dredged the waters of Belfast Lough for marine life. In 1852 he took some English friends on a tour of the Irish coasts, visiting Wicklow, Cork, Kerry, the Shannon, Galway, Connemara, Donegal, Londonderry, the Giant’s Causeway and Antrim coast, finishing at Belfast Lough. Each stopping place furnished its quota of specimens, zoological, botanical or geological. He made walking tours through the south of England, collecting fossils from the classic localities, visited the famous museums of Paris, collected insects along the Rhine and Alpine plants in Switzerland, and in the autumn of 1858 visited North America, where he travelled through New York, Montreal and Quebec. At Niagara he collected fossil shell-fish 400 million years old, so finely preserved that their most delicate ornamentation was still visible. He made use of the family business, encouraging ships’ captains to bring back to him any unusual or peculiar objects. As the ships regularly traded in north and south America, Africa and India, Grainger soon gathered together an array of foreign corals, shells, fishes, skulls, nuts, leaves and native weapons and utensils. These and all his other specimens he carefully kept: he gave or threw nothing away, so that his lodgings and later his home gradually turned into a chaotic storehouse of scientific and archaeological objects.

John Grainger did not immediately enter the Church on leaving university for his father had just died and he felt obliged to take over the family shipping company in Belfast. Consquently it was only after the winding up of the business a few years later that Grainger was free to accept the call to Holy Orders. He was ordained on 21 December 1863 in St. Anne’s the old parish church in Belfast, later demolished to make way for the cathedral of the same name.

The early years of John Grainger’s ministry were characterised by restlessness, for reasons we do not know. He was curate for four parishes in six years: first at Holy Trinity Church, Belfast (destroyed during the Blitz); then at Ballyrashane, near Coleraine; at Christ Church in Carysfort, near Dublin (where amongst the congregation was numbered George Victor du Noyer, the geologist and archaeologist from whom Grainger learned about some implements); and at St. Thomas’s in Dublin. It was during his curacy at St. Thomas’s that an unfortunate episode occurred. His main duties there were establishing the new parish of St. Barnabas in a working-class area of the city. This entailed the building of a new church and school-houses and the gathering together of a congregation. That this was done successfully was due, it is recorded, “to the untiring energy of the young curage”. Grainger expected to be the first Rector. However, “to the amazement and indignation of every right minded person concerned a rank outsider was thrusted in”. Just how much this pained Grainger we do not know, but it seems to have made him determined to find a parish in which he could settle and be content.

He found this the following year in 1869 when he was appointed Rector of Skerry and Rathcavan, in St. Patrick’s, Broughshane, Co. Antrim in the diocese of Connor. Here he remained for the rest of his life. He built the remarkable rectory at Broughshane shortly after he arrived, perhaps based upon designs by his friend and fellow amateur archaeologist, Thomas Drew, the diocesan architect. This large, rogue Gothic Victorian edifice, built of local black basalt, is dominated by a crenellated tower. Its attractive interior includes such unusual fixtures as built-in adjustable “artefacts cases”. Today it remains perfectly preserved and is happily still in use as the local rectory. Grainger’s ministry was uneventful. He was appointed a rural dean of Antrim in 1874, and made Prebendary of Rasharkin in the Chapter of St. Saviour in Lisburn Cathedral in 1879. For some years he sat on the Council of the diocese of Connor and represented it in the General Synod of the Church of Ireland. He was a friend and confidant of his fellow cleric, the Rev. William Chichester, later to become Lord O’Neill. As well as his scientific hobbies, Canon Grainger took a special interest in scriptural education and was active in the Church Education Society. An imposing figure in the neighbourhood, he was tall and distinguished-looking and we may be sure he discharged his duties faithfully. Though quiet and a little shy, with his friends he was open and always had a fund of anecdotes about the treasurers in his house.



Canon Grainger was a prominent figure in learned societies. He joined the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society at the age of eighteen and promptly read a scientific paper before it, on “The shells found in the alluvial deposits of Belfast Lough”; in later years he sat on the Council of the Society. Canon Grainger also read papers before meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science when it met in Belfast in 1852, and again in 1874 when he also exhibited a fossil mammoth tooth found in Co. Antrim. Grainger’s prowess in natural history showed itself in the early 1860s, when he attended Professor Tate’s geology classes in Belfast, organised under legislation to promote science education in the community. In the subsequent examinations Grainger came first in the whole of the United Kingdom but was disqualified from obtaining the gold medal prize, on the grounds that he paid income tax! These classes, however, led to the formation of the Belfast Naturalists Field Club, which elected Grainger as its first President in March 1863. Later, when he lived in

Broughshane, Grainger became a leading authority in the local Ballymena Naturalists’ Field Club, being admitted to membership during an excursion to the Giant’s Causeway. Also during the 1860s, Grainger wrote about archaeological finds made during culverting of the Farset River in High Street, Belfast. Years later, in 1885, his knowledge of archaeology was recognised when he was made President of the local reception committee for the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association, when it met in Portrush that year. He was also a member of the Senate of Dublin University, and in 1876 his eminence as a scholar was recognised when he was elected a Member of the Royal Irish Academy.

Canon Grainger never married. All his spare time was spent on exploring and collecting, and he made a point of never making an excursion or paying a visit without bringing something home with him. As the years passed by, the rectory at Broughshane became filled from top to bottom with antiquities, natural history specimens and all sorts of objects of science and art, past and present. Grass skirts from the South Sea Islands, Samurai warrior armour, Indian head-dresses, stuffed birds, fossils, petrifactions, cases of butterflies, polished jades, coins, panels of hieroglyphs, carved deities, beautiful crystals, rare minerals, shells, skulls, urns, spinning wheels, flints and more, were crammed into every room and space in the house. Archaeology occupied his later years and his collections of Irish prehistoric weapons and household utensils were particularly important.

To modern experts his methods and his collections are somewhat unscientific although he himself knew the origin of all his specimens, and as an authority on Irish antiquities and geology he was frequently consulted, he was a collector rather than a writer, and apart from some short papers and newspaper reports he left few written records of his collections or of his wide and varied knowledge. When he died, this knowledge died with him.

It was in late 1890, at the age of sixty that the symptoms of the “terrible disease” that was to kill him first appeared. The disease was probably cancer. A number of surgical operations were tried but to no avail. Canon Grainger preached his last sermon on Easter Day 1891. He became progressively weaker and by the summer of that year knew that his worldly life was drawing to an end.

He became anxious for the safety of his collections, for he knew that if they remained in the rectory they would, in all probability, be discarded by the next occupant. The question was where to place them. His first idea was to give them to the Church, but the ecclesiastical authorities, for legal reasons, refused his offer, a decision that with hindsight can be seen to have been a wise one. There was then the possibility of placing the collections in the Museum of the Natural History and Philosophical Society, in College Square North, Belfast. Grainger knew however, as a member of the Society, that the Museum, which dated back to 1831, was in decline, as the Society could no longer afford to fund it.

Instead Grainger turned his attention to the Belfast Corporation which at this time, as Belfast was expanding into a major industrial city, was undertaking additional municipal responsibilities. In fact the Corporation had just opened a large, modern public library in Royal Avenue, in the very centre of Belfast. Grainger knew that the library contained several small galleries for the display of paintings and objects, and he concluded that this building, which today we know as the Central Library, offered the best chance for the safe-keeping of his collections. He determined that this should be the repository for his life’s work and accordingly approached the city authorities. For its part, Belfast Corporation, imbued with a growing sense of its importance and keen to establish a public museum in the city, eagerly took up the “magnificent offer” of Grainger’s Collection, and the donation was officially accepted on 2 July 1891.

Aware of his approaching end, and knowing that time was short, Grainger insisted that his collection be removed to Belfast immediately. He especially requested that his friend, the naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger, should come to Broughshane to superintend its removal, and for several weeks that autumn lines of horse-drawn carts could be seen carrying his life-work down to Ballymena railway station. Grainger was now in pain as he watched the removal of his collections, but it was recorded that he remained “ever cheerful, giving information about the various treasures, with quaint stories of their acquisition and continually assisting the work”. By the end of October they were safely lodged in Belfast Central Library. A few weeks later on 24 November 1891 the good Canon passed peacefully away.

John Grainger’s contribution was not his scholarly researches, but rather his vast collection of scientific and artistic objects. His gift to Belfast forced the city councillors to think about building a proper museum, for it quickly became clear that there was insufficient space in the Central Library to house it properly. Indeed the condition of the Grainger Collection soon became something of a scandal, with concern about its overcrowded and chaotic condition being publicly voiced. Typical was the letter from William Gray, a local worthy, which appeared in the Northern Whig in November 1900. Gray, who was the force behind the building of the Central Library in the 1880s, described the Grainger Room as a “gross blunder”, sardonically calling it “a shed . . . not large enough to display the Grainger Collection”, which collection, Gray plainly stated, was “not properly arranged, displayed, catalogued or labelled”. He concluded that what Belfast needed was “a good, large, properly-fitted city museum”. Though pompous and something of a charlatan, Gray was a successful agitator, and his criticism and that of others struck home. The Corporation determined to build a museum. By 1912 it had secured a site, and after many vicissitudes and delays arising from the Great War and political turmoil, Belfast’s first publicly owned and purpose-built museum was opened in 1929. Today, much enlarged and modernised, it is known as the Ulster Museum.

In Broughshane churchyard there is a replica of the famous tenth century Cross of Monasterboice. It is Grainger’s gravestone. It was the Canon’s dying wish that his memory should be recorded in this manner, as an indication of both his Christian convictions and his love for learning and history. Few, except perhaps the more observant parishioners, realize the significance of the memorial. Few too of the 400,000 visitors who annually come through the doors of the Ulster Museum realize the debt they owe to the man buried beneath the Crdss, and of the part he played posthumously in the early days of the foundation of the Museum. John Grainger — country rector— magpie collector and the Father of the Ulster Museum—is today forgotten.

NOTE: To mark the centenary of Canon Grainger’s death, a travelling exhibition telling Grainer’s life-story, and illustrated with objects from his own collection is being prepared. It will open in the Ulster Museum in November 1991, and will be shown in other venues in Northern Ireland later.


I would like to thank the following who kindly helped me with my researches: Mr. Roger Dixon, Mr. Brendan Sharkie and other staff of the Central Library, Belfast; Sheila Regan, Diocesan Registrar at Church of Ireland House, 12 Talbot Street, Belfast; Mr. Raymond Refausse, Archivist, Representative Church Body Library, Braemar Park, Dublin; and the Rector of Broughshane, The Venerable T.V. Stoney, M.A.

Leave a Reply