The archive of the Irish Agricultural Museum is as old as the museum itself which means it is just over 40 years old. The museum’s origins though go back much further than that as it is product of how the Estate was handed over 75 years ago this month.
The Lakin family, the last private owners of Johnstown Castle thought that the Estate would make an ideal college for agricultural students and so the handover to the state was wrapped up in an Act of the Oireachtas known as the ‘Johnstown Castle Agricultural College Act’. It was officially written into law on 17 October and the Department of Agriculture took possession of the site soon after. Horticultural students moved into the castle the following year and it was not long before laboratories were created in the old courtyard buildings (now home to the Irish Agricultural Museum) and in the castle itself for agricultural scientists to carrying out research into soil samples.
The horticultural students lived in dormitories of the second floor of the castle, had lessons in rooms on the first floor and received practical instruction in the gardens from Lady FitzGerald’s former gardeners such as Jimmy Murphy who were retained by the Department.
Meanwhile, the Department’s soil research centre was renamed ‘An Foras Taluntais’ or the Agricultural Institute (now known as Teagasc) under Dr Tom Walsh in 1958. One of the many young field researchers who came to work at Johnstown was Dr Austin O’Sullivan. His work took him to the four corners of Ireland visiting farmers’ fields for the research project. It dawned on him that farming was becoming increasingly mechanised and that the old horse-drawn equipment, much of it made in Wexford, was quickly becoming obsolete and lying around idle at the farms. It seemed a pity that there was no dedicated museum of agriculture in the country to record and preserve this heritage. Back at Johnstown, the labs that had been created in the old former stable courtyard were relocated and the buildings became unoccupied. Austin seized the opportunity and with permission from his employers, set about creating a new museum of agriculture in these fine old buildings – breathing new life into them.
He collected many rare old machines from the farmers he encountered on his travels up and down the land to go into the new displays. He was also offered archives and old books to be made available to researchers studying the history of rural life in Ireland. Since then, the collection of machinery has expanded to include 1950s tractors, bicycles, rural crafts, veterinary and equine items, country furniture and paraphernalia relating to farmhouse kitchens. There is usually some form of archive to support some of these artefacts – for example, an instruction manual, log book or advertisement.
The collection also contains many periodicals and specialist publications that were used by the agricultural scientists working for the Department of Agriculture. The scientists themselves also produced books and pamphlets relating to the cutting-edge science that they were undertaken in the labs here and the archive collection contains some of their publications too.
In conclusion, the archives are quite broad and varied containing everything from manuals about pig breeding to farming newspapers and machinery catalogues to old telephone directories. We have catalogued the collection of books in recent years and have just over 6,000 titles. We now intend to catalogue the other archives in the coming years so we can make the collection more accessible to visiting researchers.
Matt Wheeler, Curator, Irish Heritage Trust
Johnstown Castle Estate Museum & Gardens