Troubled Images (Hoover Digest)

Troubled Images: The Northern Ireland conflict as seen from the participants’ strikingly different perspectives
Cissie Dore Hill (Hoover Digest)
1 April 2004

Writing for the Hoover Digest, Cissie Dore Hill discusses the Troubled Images exhibition at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, “Troubled Images: The Northern Ireland conflict as seen from the participants’ strikingly different perspectives”:

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 Vitty, librarian of the Linen Hall Library, recognized a historical document when he saw one.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.