Hunger strikes put in context: a visit to Irish Republican History Museum

Can a republican museum in west Belfast help tourists understand the 1981 hunger strikes? And what are Orange and UVF paraphernalia doing there?

 

Ploughing my way through the labyrinth of taxis parked opposite the so-called International Wall, I duck below a mess of tourist cameras concentrated on the likes of Kieran Nugent and the “Hunger Strike Ten” in order to reach an altogether quieter, less photographed destination further up the road.

The Irish Republican History Museum, which has been a feature of west Belfast’s landscape for the past nine years, has neither the iconicity nor the high visitor figures of the murals surrounding its base in Conway Mill. And yet since its opening this small museum has been surprisingly popular with tourists to the city, to whom it is marketed as one of the few institutions willing to acknowledge Belfast’s troubled history.

Originally conceived of by Eileen Hickey, who was imprisoned in Armagh in the 1970s, the Irish Republican History Museum was developed after Hickey, curious about her father’s internment during the 1940 hunger strikes, realised it was virtually impossible to find material objects connected to this period. Reluctant to allow the histories of contemporary strikers and internees to fall into similar oblivion, Hickey began collecting items of note from those who had been in prison during the Troubles, in a bid to put together “a republican history told by republicans”, eventually establishing the Irish Republican History Museum in 2007.

A decade later, Hickey’s vision of a republican history told by those who lived it has been partly realised through the large number of artefacts donated by the nationalist community in Belfast, but the primary audience for these stories has diversified, posing new challenges to a museum which previously operated on a local level.

A brief glance at the visitor book reveals that nearly half of its signatories are neither from Belfast, nor Ireland, but overseas – Toronto, Melbourne and New York. A day spent in the museum easily confirms this; aside from the odd local coming by to chat with museum volunteers, or drop off their latest find from the family attic, the majority of visitors consists of tourists who have come to the museum while on a taxi or coach tour of the murals in West Belfast.

This begs the question of what, if anything, a museum dedicated to this period can add to global understandings of the 1981 hunger strikes. For certain watchful parliamentarians, commemoration of the strikes is one of the many examples of what Tunbridge and Ashworth (1996) call “dissonant heritage”, best summarised as the process through which one interpretation of the past dominates, and exclude others. Certainly, as previous articles in this series have indicated, loyalist contributions towards “special category” status have been forgotten within contemporary histories of the hunger strikes. Museums such as Hickey’s, which are unapologetically republican in their perspective, are often accused of perpetuating this amnesia, as well as contributing towards the mythologisation of the strikers more generally.

The potency of such myths is confirmed by other forms of political tourism in Belfast. The popularity of the International Wall, where murals of hunger strikers are situated alongside global icons, such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., often encourages overly simplistic readings of the Troubles, in which republican prisoners are represented as primary architects of the fight against internment, and sole victims of state violence during the Troubles.

Transitioning from this tourist stop to a museum down the road, which is awash with photographs of Catholic civilian deaths, only reinforces popular understandings of the strikes as a reaction to anti-Catholic, apartheid-style politics. The closure of the People’s Museum in the Shankill contributes towards such interpretations, as such an immersive experience of unionism is lacking.

And yet the Irish Republican History Museum remains strangely resistant to “dissonant” readings of the strikes. Indeed, despite the obvious curatorial opportunities presented by such a museum, the specific connection between the 16 republican hunger strikers and artefacts on display is often tenuous. Aside from the odd item owned by Mairéad Farrell and Martin Hurson, (and a particularly haunting blood pressure monitor used on the strikers), objects explicitly connected to the strikes are few and far between.

Instead, visitors are offered a contextualised overview of life in Long Kesh/Maze and Armagh prisons during this period, which is broad in its outlook, speaking to loyalist as well as republican experiences.

Across the museum’s tightly confined space is a treasure trove of handcrafted items, produced by prisoners throughout the history of internment and imprisonment of republicans in Ireland – they stretch from 1916 right through to the Maze’s closure in 2000. Arranged not by date, but by object “type”, visitors moving around the museum can gaze on cabinets filled with intricately carved Celtic crosses, before encountering a dazzling display of miniature harps, situated opposite eclectic collections of leather purses.

This is the real strength of the Irish Republican History Museum, and others like it. Curating items so that they appear, not in a chronological order, but in thematic “families”, some of the better-known names in republican history are re-absorbed into the broader experiences of internees during the period.

Also important is the museum’s attention to those voices usually excluded from narratives of imprisonment. Not only are women put at the forefront of the museum (the first exhibition is a reconstruction of Hickey’s own prison cell), but a display of Orange Order and UVF paraphernalia, rescued from the now-defunct People’s Museum on the Shankill, nestles between cases of leatherwork. The inclusion of these items, alongside the usually anonymous prison paraphernalia, inscribed with messages to unknown mothers, partners and children, are a stark reminder of what is so aptly referred to as the “human cost” of the Troubles.

For all its flagrant bias, the Irish Republican History Museum offers tourists a more democratic insight into the years surrounding the hunger strikes than its detractors are willing to admit. For those better acquainted with Belfast’s history, this more inclusive approach to the heritage of the Troubles is recognisably rare, and one which organisers of future commemorative events would do well to emulate.

Katie Markham is a PhD student at the University of Leeds

Ashworth, G.J. & Turnbridge, J.E. 1996. Dissonant Heritage: the Management of the Past as a Resource in Conflict. Chichester: John Wiley & sons

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