Northern Ireland: Sectarian Footballs
Objects loaded with the history of the Troubles are scattered around Belfast, but sensitivity means the debate about how and where to exhibit them rumbles on, says James Morrison.
For many people, mention of the Troubles recalls televised images of flying bottles at Orange parades, car bombs and tub-thumping speeches by Unionist and Republican leaders. But for families embroiled in the conflict on a daily basis, it would seem the nittygritty of life under siege was both more prosaic and more sinister.
Homemade bombs, secret missives scrawled on toilet paper and footballs daubed with sectarian threats are among a macabre collection of recently uncovered relics that bear witness to a largely unrecorded ‘hidden history’of the conflict. Now, some of these privately owned items are to be unveiled publicly, as the community-based organisation that located their whereabouts unveils plans for an exhibition in light of progress in the peace process.
While grislier material may spark the keenest interest, it represents a tiny fraction of the thousands of objects pinpointed in an ‘artefacts audit’ by Belfast-based charity Healing Through Remembering. In all, the organisation – formed in 2000 to invite proposals for a cross-community Troubles memorial – has identified 79 hoards located in private collections across the British Isles.
But as it begins preparations for its showcase this autumn, mainstream institutions are proving rather more timid about biting the bullet. Late last year saw the opening of Northern Ireland’s first permanent non-sectarian Troubles gallery, housed in the newly refurbished Ulster Museum. Exhibits were to have included the shirt worn by founding SDLP leader Gerry Fitt when he was felled by an RUC baton at a 1968 rally, as well as the bullet-riddled boot of a loyalist paramilitary. Instead, in light of renewed outbreaks of sectarian violence and the fragile state of negotiations over the devolution of policing and judicial powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly, a late decision was taken to use text-only displays for the time being (to a chorus of disapproval from the Northern Irish media).
Jim McGreevy, director of collections and interpretations at National Museums Northern Ireland, says it remains an ‘intention’ to introduce objects at some point in the future, but insists public feedback so far has vindicated an ‘incremental’approach: ‘There are still issues about victims and communities that remain unresolved and the gallery might be seen as a metaphor for that unresolved situation. The gallery is where history comes up against memory.’
It isn’t just the Ulster Museum that is being cautious. Last summer, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland launched an online archive of work about the Troubles by artists and writers, but this has since been redesignated a ‘pilot phase’ project and can only currently be viewed in the Troubles gallery.
But, while the bigger venues and projects tread carefully, Healing Through Remembering is preparing to offer a glimpse into dozens of hitherto underexplored private collections, providing an illuminating insight into how individuals and communities at the grassroots survived and in some cases contributed to, the Troubles.
Kate Turner, its director, was astonished by the richness and variety of material unearthed in the audit and the obsessively ‘completist’ approach adopted by many collectors: ‘We didn’t know people were keeping all this stuff. We commissioned the audit because we thought there were big gaps in the material culture of the Troubles, but we’ve found there aren’t any real gaps.’
The audit itself was carried out by Kris Brown, a research fellow in the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. He has since compiled an exhaustive database of his findings, featuring taxonomic descriptions and details of their locations, which can be browsed via the Healing Through Remembering website. Dr Brown, who previously helped the Linen Hall Library catalogue its celebrated Northern Ireland Political Collection, a 14,000-strong archive of historical books, pamphlets and posters from across the sectarian divide, says even he had no prior knowledge of the existence of some items discovered in more ghettoised areas.
‘I’d seen lots of nasty hate mail sent to the bereaved during the Troubles, but I’d never before seen footballs densely covered in threats and pro-Republican graffiti and kicked into Protestant areas of Derry,’ he says of several such objects displayed in a small museum in the last remaining tower of the former Londonderry Jail on Derry’s Fountain estate. ‘The guy who showed me thought they were interesting, but didn’t think they were that unusual.’
Similarly intriguing are numerous privately held ‘souvenirs’ from the notorious Maze Prison, including ‘shoeboxes full of comms’ (communications) passed between inmates on cigarette papers and scraps of toilet roll and a cowboy holster bearing the legend ‘Long Kesh Provos’ (Long Kesh being part of the prison). Other finds are more gruesome: the Museum of Free Derry – an archive established by the Bloody Sunday Trust metres from the site of 1969’s Battle of the Bogside – holds a child’s Babygro bearing the stains from a wound it was used to staunch. Belfast’s Police Museum yielded an improvised mortar shell, fashioned from a gas cylinder, which was used to blow up nine officers.
Such items are now under consideration for inclusion in the upcoming exhibition which could pave the way for a permanent ‘tying together’ of the disparate holdings. Proposals range from a single ‘Living Memorial Museum’ to a heritage trail, allowing treasured objects to remain with their owners. Mindful of sensitivities, Turner feels it is vital for the community itself to determine the collection’s final form and for any resulting ‘Troubles history’ – or histories – to be presented in a balanced way: ‘Should we keep all the stories separate, or bring them together in one place – or through a web of linked collections? It’s not just about the end product: it’s about the process.’
James Morrison is a journalist and senior lecturer in journalism at Kingston University and the author of Public Affairs for Journalists (Oxford University Press, 2009).
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