Etudes Irlandais review

Etudes Irlandais review
Wesley Hutchinson
1 April 2003

Writing for Etudes Irlandaises (Printemps 2003), Wesley Hutchinson presents his review of the Troubled Images CD-ROM and exhibition book:

The Troubled Images CD-ROM is a remarkable resource. It has been compiled from the internationally acclaimed archive of the Northern Ireland Political Collection held at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast and brings together over 3,000 images (posters, photographs, murals, banners, etc.), produced since the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The CD-ROM — which has just won the 2003 Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize — is part of a broader initiative involving a touring exhibition of a selection of the originals of the material featured on the CD-ROM and a 120-page illustrated exhibition catalogue. The person in charge of this multi-facetted enterprise is Project Manager, Yvonne Murphy, Librarian of the Northern Ireland Political Collection. She has been assisted by a small team of collaborators, notably Allan Leonard, Gordon Gillespie and Andy White. The project was made possible thanks to funding from PROTEUS, the United States Institute of Peace, the Community Relations Council and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Fund.

The CD-ROM contains a huge variety of images. Each one is accompanied by a brief explanatory note giving details as to its origin and the immediate political context in which it was produced. Some, such as the pared-down, stylised black and white image calling for an to strip searches (1984), are remarkably effective from a purely iconographic point of view. Some are deeply disturbing, such as the photograph of the charred remains of a victim of the IRA bombing at the La Mon hotel in 1978.

The user may access the images from a number of starting points. Apart from the well-organized index system (>Browse all images>), which allows you to search the base by organisation, by theme, by key-word, etc., the CD-ROM proposes several other very useful search modes. The “timeline search”, for example, allows consultation of images on a year by year basis. An examination of the intensity of production of images at any given period provides an interesting reflection of the perceived status of political events on the ground. Thus, campaigns for political status, or on behalf of the hunger strikers represent peaks of particularly intense propaganda activity. Another mode, the “map search”, allows the user to access material on the basis of geographical origin. The latter search mode is extremely instructive. Among other things, it demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of images on the Troubles produced outside Ireland are republican in origin. Indeed one is only slightly surprised to be unable to find a single pro-unionist image produced outside the British Isles, a fact which says as much about the effectiveness of the various propaganda machines as it does about the relative networking success of each of the “two traditions”.

The CD-ROM also includes no less than 50 short essays by specialists in various fields or activists working with key political organisations, e.g. Glen Barr, Paul Bew, Steve Bruce, John Darby, Adrian Guelke, Neil Jarman, Belinda Loftus, Martin Lynch and David McKittrick, to name but a few. A further feature of the CD-ROM is a series of 9 voice recordings of interviews with those involved in the elaboration of political campaigns, e.g. Danny Morrison, former publicity director for Sinn Fein, and Cedric Wilson, author of the “Ulster Says No” campaign.

The book released at the same time as the CD-ROM, entitled Troubled Images: Posters and Images of the Northern Ireland Conflict, is the catalogue of the exhibition. It contains an essay entitled “Visualising the Troubles” by Belinda Loftus, author of Mirrors and one of the most interesting people working on political image in Northern Ireland. There is also a highly informed and meticulously presented commentary on the exhibits by John Gray, Librarian of the Linen Hall Library.

The CD-ROM and the accompanying exhibition catalogue would make invaluable additions to any university library. Indeed their interest goes well beyond the strict field of Irish Studies to include such areas as propaganda, graphic design and communication studies. As for the exhibition which is currently touring in the United States, those of us in France can hope that, at some time in the not too distant future, it will finally make it here.