When Jimmy Vitty, sitting in a Belfast pub, was handed a political flyer in 1968, he put it in his pocket. Vitty, librarian of the Linen Hall Library, recognized a historical document when he saw one. That flyer went on to become the genesis of the library’s collection of thousands of flyers, posters, brochures, newspapers, and memorabilia documenting the Troubles of Northern Ireland and representing ideas from the country’s entire political spectrum.
In 1995 Yvonne D. Murphy became director of this collection. Two years previously she had visited the Hoover Library and Archives, being aware of the similarities between the two institutions (although, in contrast to the Linen Hall staff, Hoover curators normally don’t have to climb over barbed wire and barricades to acquire documents). Observing the basic procedures for preservation and storage, the exhibit program, and the educational use of the materials for students gave Murphy ideas to implement back in Belfast.
Despite the similarity of their collections, however, the jobs of librarians and archivists at the two libraries were vastly different. As tensions and violence continued in Belfast, even a library that was considered neutral ground could be a hazardous place. A 1994 letter from Murphy to the Hoover Institution details the events of New Year’s Eve in which firebombs exploded, causing the loss of a thousand books. Among the many letters of support the library received after the bombing was an apology from Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA. Yvonne wrote, “Some young activists had been given bombs to plant in town, and for a laugh had decided to leave a couple in the library. The IRA admitted that the bombing had been a mistake and that local businesses, not the library, had been the intended target.” Later a Loyalist bomb went off in the neighborhood, intended for Sinn Féin members. It rocked the library, badly shaking both staff and researchers; as Murphy recently remarked, “I remember that day as if it were yesterday.”
As the collection grew, Murphy extended her mission of building bridges between the two communities in Belfast by organizing an exhibit, appropriately named Troubled Images. The exhibit was such a success that she took it on the road, to Washington, Boston, Chicago, and, for a month between mid March and April, the Hoover Institution, its only West Coast venue. She chose Hoover because the idea for such a show had been directly inspired by her time spent in the Hoover Library and Archives. After going on to other American venues, the exhibit will travel to South Africa and other parts of the world that have experienced conflict. At each stop she hopes that visitors seeing these posters—some violent, others conciliatory, all emotionally charged—will think about the nature of the peace process and the language and space necessary for two sides to come together to discuss the issues meaningfully.
The posters that follow are from the exhibit Troubled Images: Posters and Images from the Linen Hall Library, Belfast. The exhibit ran at the Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion from March 16 through April 17, 2004. For more information on the exhibit, visit the Hoover Institution web site at www.hoover.org.
For God and Ulster, 1960s
With fist raised, Ian Paisley, a Free Presbyterian minister who founded his own church, was at the center of street opposition to the civil rights movement. In 1971 he formed—and continues to lead—the Democratic Union Party, which has consistently opposed any political settlements that give increased rights to the Nationalist population.
Remember Derry, 1974
Thirteen unarmed civil rights demonstrators were shot and killed (a fourteenth died later) by the British Parachute Regiment on Sunday, January 30, 1972, known afterward as “Bloody Sunday.” The killing dramatically strengthened opposition to British policy in Northern Ireland, contributed to the rapid growth of the Provisional IRA, and helped precipitate the introduction of direct rule from London in March. The Widgery Tribunal, which issued its report in April 1974, largely exonerated the army; the issue continues to be an unhealed wound.
Joe McCann, 1972
Joe McCann—a member of the leftist Official Irish Republican Army—was viewed by the British as one of the most dangerous IRA operatives. On April 15, 1972, close to his home and unarmed, he was shot dead by troops. Widespread rioting followed. His West Belfast funeral, which featured a mile-long cortege led by an Irish wolfhound, was one of the largest Republican funerals seen to that date. In 1997 a memorial to him was unveiled.
Think of Their Tomorrows, 1972
Cartoonist Rowel Friers designed this recruiting poster for the Alliance Party, a moderate organization bringing together both Unionists (Protestants) and Nationalists (Catholics) from the Ulster Liberal Party and the Northern Ireland Labor Party. Although the Alliance Party claimed some electoral success, the perpetually polarizing influences of Northern Ireland politics has reduced its impact over time.
West Belfast Festival, 1993
The West Belfast Festival was a Sinn Féin initiative established in 1988 to provide an alternative to the rioting that had habitually marked the August 9 anniversary of the internment of 1971 and to foster pride and self-development in the area’s cultural life. The artist, Robert Ballagh, uses traditional Republican symbolism—the Easter lily, which represents the Easter Rising of 1916—and turns it into a dove of peace, cracking the concrete roadblock, a symbol of contemporary Belfast.
Whiles the Richt Wurd Is “Naa,” 1998
This variation on the “Ulster Says No” campaign—opposing the Belfast agreement—uses the language of Ulster-Scots to parallel the use of dual language in many of the Sinn Féin posters. The language was given effective parity with Irish in the Good Friday Agreement. The heart symbol was used by the Democratic Union Party in its “Have a Heart for Ulster” campaign.
The Long March, 1999
This poster commemorates the Unionists who saw the Good Friday Agreement as a betrayal of the victims of paramilitary violence and, to protest, marched through Unionist towns to Portadown. Additional Unionist marches opposed the Patten Report and its proposals for transforming policing in Northern Ireland. A London march opposing Sinn Féin gaining places in the Northern Ireland government ended at the House of Lords.
President Clinton: Belfast City Hall, 1995
President Clinton visited Belfast two days after the British and Irish governments had issued the November 28 communiqué announcing the American-brokered peace process. In Belfast he switched on the Christmas lights, shown on the poster as part of the American flag (the stars have six points, representing the six counties of Northern Ireland). Clinton returned to Northern Ireland twice more during his presidency.
The Parade of Innocence, 1989
This caricature of a British judge became the centerpiece for a campaign against the miscarriages of justice against the Irish in British courts. The poster advertises a political parade in Dublin protesting the treatment of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, both jailed in 1975 for pub bombings, and the Winchester Three, jailed in 1988 for plotting to kill the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Douglas Hurd. All three groups were eventually released.