Troubled Images (MetroWest)

Troubled Images: Exhibit illuminates complex struggle for power, peace in Northern Ireland
Chris Bergeron (MetroWest)
9 March 2003

Writing for MetroWest (daily local paper in Boston area), Chris Bergeron presents his review, “’Troubled Images’: Exhibit illuminates complex struggle for power, peace in Northern Ireland”:

For years, Americans of all faiths viewed “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland across a gulf of misunderstanding, unable to untangle the conflicted loyalties and passions tearing that divided land apart.

Images of masked paramilitary, starving hunger strikers and children throwing rocks at soldiers only clouded the origins and issues of a bloody crisis that seemed beyond healing.

Now, a provocative exhibit of “Troubled Images” and artifacts from those tragic times is beginning an international tour at Boston College.

Comprising political and propaganda posters printed by Catholic, Protestant, government and peace groups to stir emotions and prompt action, the exhibit illustrates how turbulent times inspire a unique kind of art.

With clenched fists and fire in their eyes, the faces of Bobby Sands, the Rev. Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams, Margaret Thatcher and others adorn 70 posters at the John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections in B.C.’s Chestnut Hill campus.

The images are memorable:

  • A pile of black-and-white skulls topped by the slogan, “Remember Derry.”
  • Two children play amid wire and ruined buildings, beneath the slogan, “Think of Their Tomorrows: Join Alliance Today.”
  • A charred and blackened corpse is sandwiched between the caption, “Murder: This is what the bombers did to a human being.”
  • Looking as if she swallowed a lemon, Margaret Thatcher is falsely quoted, saying, “Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley.”

This first-of-its-kind exhibit to the U.S. will be at the library through April 15 for its premier engagement before moving on to Washington, D.C., and six stops across America before moving to Canada and, possibly, South Africa, France and England.

“Troubled Images” is free and open to the public.

Library Director Robert O’Neil said the exhibit “provides an opportunity for everybody to see this treatment of ‘The Troubles’ through popular posters.”

“The exhibit’s organizers made an attempt to be as realistic and representative as possible,” said the Holliston resident who also teaches a course in the politics of Northern Ireland. “I think these posters give a balanced historical perspective.”

The exhibit, “Troubled Images,” was organized by the three-century-old Linen Hall Library of Belfast, the city’s oldest library, which holds the Northern Ireland Political Collection from which this project was made.

Because of a “special relationship” with the Belfast library, Boston College will be the only North American stop to display 100 additional artifacts from “political buttons to rubber bullets,” O’Neil said.

“The artifacts, in combination with the posters, will give visitors a unique glimpse of one of the longest and most bitterly contested internal conflicts in modern European history,” he said.

The posters represent a sometimes unwholesome amalgam of folk art and sophisticated propaganda.

Yet, with visual references to Bloody Sunday, riots at Long Kesh and the bombing deaths of 29 civilians at Omagh in County Tyrone, the posters also provide a popular chronology of the violent highs and lows of a three-decade long struggle.

In the vast majority of cases, their object, as the wall notes state, was “to make people think and often inspire them in a course of action.”

In some cases, they are calls to support violent political actions that often included bombing civilian targets, sniping soldiers or “knee-capping” traitors.

The exhibit poses several interesting questions.

At what point, if any, does art become propaganda?

Should such objects be judged by aesthetic principles or only by their political effectiveness?

What combination of message and image are most likely to inspire the intended actions?

Many of these questions are answered in an attractive and informative catalog, “Troubled Images,” by Belinda Loftus, of the Linen Hall Library.

Curiously, given the levels of partisan animosity, the posters do not generally dehumanize their opponents or their religion as is often seen in other bitter civil conflicts.

Whether the figure with the gun is from the Irish Republican Army or the Royal Ulster Constabulary, he is generally represented as a man — however misguided — and not a demon.

O’Neil explained, “By and large, the people who made the posters wanted to get their message across to an audience reared in a Western democratic tradition.”

There are, of course, exceptions, as in one 1971 poster that superimposed a black swastika over a red saltire, the official emblem of Ireland in British heraldry also found in the Union Jack.

Another flagrant Protestant example shows Pope John Paul wearing a bright orange vestment, emblazoned with the number, “666,” a Biblical symbol of the Antichrist.

Though the posters may have been intended to fire up passions, O’Neil suggested their principle purpose was “to communicate a statement without much verbiage.”

In that narrow sense, the medium of the posters was, indeed, their message.

For example, a picture of a schoolboy throwing rocks at an English armored truck is accompanied by the caption “Smash English Rule” — further words would be redundant.

To protest the Special Powers Act which allowed interment without a trial, Catholics printed an effectively simplified poster of a Christmas candle wrapped in barbed wire over the slogan, “600 imprisoned without trial.”

One of the most visually effective posters attacking strip-searching by police simply shows the stark image of a naked woman, hiding her eyes at the approach of two jailers.

While the exhibit doesn’t require a comprehensive understanding of “The Troubles,” the wall notes — and posters themselves — illuminate the impact of events like the Stormont March, the Drumcree Parish parade and the murder of attorney Martin Finucane.

By the exhibit’s end, visitors can be excused for not knowing with certainty whether they’ve been exposed to art, propaganda — or both.

The author of five books, O’Neil said, “The one thing I hope is that the exhibit will whet the appetite for understanding a somewhat unique situation in modern times.”

Offering powerful images explained with non-partisan clarity, “Troubled Images” provides a sad yet compelling insiders look at the multifaceted role of art in the ugliest of times.

Perhaps, it will explain the hate, heal some wounds or rekindle buried hostilities.

As long as humans disagree, this variety of art will flourish.