July 25, 2014
By Laura Brody
After DukeEngage and a short trip to the Netherlands, I returned to Northern Ireland last week to the realization that it was beginning to feel a lot like home. Feeling the relief of being surrounded by both a city that has stolen my heart and its people who have inspired me in countless ways over the past few months, I moved across town from West Belfast to Queens University in South Belfast to begin my research.
On a gloriously sunny afternoon (at least in this part of the world) I found myself navigating through a plethora of tourists marveling at the several murals that can be found along the Falls Road in West Belfast. Some seemed to be completely unaware of their political nuances, and many tour groups stopped to pose for photographs in front of the famous Bobby Sands mural on the side of a Sinn Fein gift shop advertising ‘Republican gifts’ in the window.
Just before turning onto Conway Street I passed a memorial garden to the IRA, one of several in this part of Belfast, and couldn’t help but notice the deluge of Irish tri-coulour flags waving in the wind on all sides of the street. Even to outsiders, it is clear that this is a Nationalist/Republican neighborhood.
The Irish Republican History Museum is located in the Conway Mills complex just off the Falls Road. Conway Mill, built in 1842, was one of the first linen spinning mills in West Belfast, and has now been transformed into one of the city’s most important historical sites. The museum is tucked out of sight in the back of the complex, and feels quite deserted compared to the streets buzzing with tourists just beside it.
Its location almost makes one feel that they are intruding, that they are wandering into an area that is not meant for tourists. I have indeed spoken to people here in Belfast who believe the museum not to have been established for the purpose of heritage tourism, but instead as a means of preserving a community’s personal memories of the Troubles in a way and in a place that could not be regulated by outside organizations.
In my own opinion the information pamphlets available in several different languages suggest otherwise. I will agree, however, that the location of the museum no doubt restricts the number of visitors it receives and that many of those visitors end up being locals. A member of the museum staff shared with me that the choice to locate the museum in this spot was simply due to the lack of funding and space availability at the time of its establishment.
Leading up to the main doors of the museum is a dimly lit archway filled with a diverse array of objects including Irish tri-coulour flags, Celtic crosses and Celtic harps. A memorial to women who lost their lives in the ‘struggle for Irish freedom’ is situated just before the main doors, and beside it is a replica of a prison cell containing an original door and bed removed from Armagh Women’s Gaol.
After finally making it through the main doors of the museum I spent a significant amount of time gathering over 400 photographs of the objects and their associated texts on display, all the while listening to the traditional Irish music and folk songs playing in the background. I asked a member of staff how the objects were collected, and he responded that most of them were donated by ex-prisoners and/or their families.
There is a library in the back of the museum housing books related to Irish history and the struggle of Irish Republican prisoners throughout the Troubles. Missing from this collection, I noticed, were books relating to the Unionist/Loyalist perspectives on Northern Irish history. I was beginning to see what Chris Bailey, the director of the Northern Ireland Museums Council (NIMC) whom I had spoken to earlier that day, meant about local museums in Northern Ireland being employed as “propaganda machines” within present-day politics.
From my few visits to this museum since, I have not seen any reference to the divisions that took place within the Irish Republican movement itself. The museum presents the movement as being purely unified, a contradiction to the narratives I’ve heard throughout the past few months. What happens when narratives of conflict preserved through museums contradict the personal memories of survivors?