History spills out of Ulster’s attic
Chris Thornton (Time Magazine (Europe))
22 October 2001
Writing for Time Magazine (Europe), Chris Thornton describes the Troubled Images exhibition at the Linen Hall Library, “History spills out of Ulster’s attic”:
On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, two small, separate deposits of sad memory were laid down in Northern Ireland, as new memorials to the dead of its Troubles were unveiled. In Richhill, a tidy village 48 km southeast of Belfast, British regimental flags were dipped to honor four local men, all soldiers or police, killed by the Irish Republican Army.
In Castlewellan, 40 km away, a Sinn Fein member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, John Kelly, gave a military salute at a monument to 10 of his I.R.A. comrades. Both gatherings had the same air of proud solemnity and sorrow. But no one attending either ceremony could yet foresee when both sets of names could be carved on the same piece of granite.
Up a flight of stone steps in the very center of Belfast, however, is a place where history is not being laid in separate tracks but preserved, with care and passion, as a common heritage. The Linen Hall Library, 213 years old, is unique, and not just because it is the only subscription library left in Ireland, an island that prides itself on scholarship as much as on its ability to produce a saint or a drop of whiskey. Behind the high windows of the former linen warehouse lies what could be called the attic of the Troubles — the vast Political Collection.
Like many Irish tales, this one began in a pub. Back in 1968, just before the latest cycle of the Troubles began, the Linen Hall’s then chief librarian, Jimmy Vitty, was handed a leaflet supporting Catholic civil rights. He kept it and decided to acquire more such material for posterity. “The staff have literally climbed up lampposts and cut down posters after every election,” says Yvonne Murphy, the librarian in charge of the Political Collection, which now numbers 250,000 items from both sides of the sectarian divide.
Among the posters, photographs, press clippings, pamphlets, manifestos, books, journals and other documentation are ephemera that reflect the generational continuity of the Irish conflict. An infant’s bib proclaims its wearer a “Baby Prod,” or Protestant. Citing a favored rifle, a republican children’s primer begins: “A is for Armalite that sends them all running.” Included too is a message — tightly written on cigarette paper — that I.R.A. men smuggled out of prison to announce the end to their 1981 hunger strikes. Such “comms,” or communications, were used routinely by republican paramilitaries in the notorious Maze Prison, closed under the Good Friday agreement.
Now, in a move to raise the visual profile of the Political Collection, the library has launched “Troubled Images,” a traveling exhibition and a multimedia cd-rom of more than 3,500 posters and other objects depicting events from Northern Ireland’s recent history. The posters, which make up the bulk of the exhibition, are striking evidence of a sophisticated propaganda war. Belinda Loftus, a researcher on graphics who wrote the introductory notes for the CD-ROM, says the posters reflect “the extraordinary outpouring of political imagery in Northern Ireland.” She adds: “They are very representative of everything that was put up during the Troubles. The Linen Hall is rightly proud of it. They’ve got something very valuable, and they have it because they got their act together at a very early stage.”
Ironically, it was an act of republican violence that led to the decision to record the material digitally. Early on New Year’s Day 1994, two I.R.A. incendiary devices exploded on the library’s shelves, incinerating almost 1,000 books. The blaze nearly reached the building’s attic, where the Political Collection was then housed. “It underlined that one of the dangers of archiving a conflict is losing everything to the conflict,” said Murphy.
While I.R.A. apologies are rare, embarrassed republicans said “Sorry” three times after the fire, which they blamed on younger members who were ignorant of history. Reflecting a golden age before Belfast became consumed by sectarian conflict, the Linen Hall was founded in 1788 by radical Presbyterians. Inspired by philosophies of liberty and individual freedom then sweeping Europe, the city’s 18th century Protestant reformers and radicals helped to build the city’s first Catholic churches, campaigned for equal rights for Catholics and founded the Belfast Charitable Society, which exists to this day. They also ignited flames of rebellion. The Linen Hall’s second librarian, Thomas Russell, was arrested on the premises and hanged in 1803 after trying to organize an uprising against the British. Several of the library’s governors narrowly escaped the same fate. The Linen Hall also suffered at the hands of the I.R.A. in the 1970s. When violence forced people away from central Belfast, the library’s membership dropped, precipitating a severe financial crisis. A new management team, public funding and changes in the political climate reversed the situation.
Today the library is a cultural treasure that counts Nobel Prize winners in peace and literature, as well as former gunmen, among its champions. Gusty Spence, founder of the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force, calls it “the only knowledgeable oasis in a historical and informational desert.” Recognized as a neutral repository of indiscriminately gathered material, the library — despite its small acquisitions budget — grows steadily, thanks to benefactors ranging from such central players as the I.R.A. and the British government to individuals unlikely to rate even a historical footnote.
“People have just given things to us,” says Murphy. “They’ve left material at the front desk, shoved things through the letter box, carried them in from their attics.” She is delighted by the idea of “charismatically challenged” librarians of years past picking their way through the rubble on Belfast’s streets to add to the Political Collection, which has earned an international reputation among researchers. With funding from the European Union and the U.S. Institute of Peace, librarians spent two years photographing most of the collection for inclusion on the CD-ROM. The exhibition, which opened in Belfast on Oct. 11 and features about 70 items, seemed a natural outgrowth of that project. While plans for it to travel elsewhere in Europe and to the U.S. early next year have not been finalized, interest has been expressed by institutions in Paris, Berlin, New York and Boston.
Poet Seamus Heaney, one of the Nobel laureates who is a regular visitor to the Linen Hall, sees the collection as one of the reasons the library represents “a better future” for Northern Ireland. “In our cultural and our historical understanding,” says Heaney, “the very words the Linen Hall Library represent not just books, but better hopes for the way we live, for a just and inclusive society.” By patiently and impartially recording the Troubles, the Linen Hall encourages hope that Northern Ireland can finally overcome them.