Political broadsides from Belfast’s Linen Hall (Irish Echo)

Political broadsides from Belfast’s Linen Hall
Steven McKinley (Irish Echo)
26 May 2004

Writing for the Irish Echo, Steven McKinley presents his review of the Troubled Images exhibition, “Political broadsides from Belfast’s Linen Hall”:

An alien visiting the traveling exhibition “Troubled Images: Posters and Images of the Northern Ireland Conflict” would be forgiven for thinking the province was inhabited by pessimistic killjoys.

Of course it isn’t, but “No,” “Stop,” “Out,” “Smash,” just happen to be some of the most frequent words apparent in the striking exhibition, which continues at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park South in New York City through Saturday, before a five-month hiatus after which the exhibition heads for Florida.

So often these images — their violent, hopeful, petty and gut-wrenching array of emotions a vivid reminder of how recent it was that the Troubles seemed unstoppable, in full swing — remind us of the ways in which people in conflict lose perspective, failing to acknowledge an alternative point of view or persuasion.

This myopia is often the source of the particularly grim Northern Irish sense of humor: waking past some of the most lurid images from the loyalist tradition, this reporter was reminded of UDA chief Andy Tyrie’s comment from the 1970s, in response to appeals for reason and restraint: “We will not be intimidated by moderates.”

The exhibition, from the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, is curated with a rough timeline in mind, starting with some of the earliest political sentiment of the 1960s that gave way to anger and violence in the 1970s, “Ulsterization,” hunger strikes, Margaret Thatcher’s comment about Northern Ireland being “as British as Finchley,” “talks about talks,” to the present state of peace process.

For every well-meaning person in Northern Ireland, ready to champion peace, it seems there had to be a sinister mirror image: thus one poster tells the reader how voting by proportional representation, or “PR,” is “as easy as 1, 2, 3 . . . ” This image appears next to similar poster produced by the Revolutionary Marxist Group, which warns darkly: “Collaboration is as easy as 1, 2, 3 . . . ” The smiling cartoon man of the first poster weeps in the second one as he is whacked on the head.

Then there is the Belfast Telegraph placard of Dec. 18, 2000 that could be from any year in the last three decades. It says everything and nothing in one go: “Man Shot Dead.” Thus was 29-year-old William James Rockett entered into the record of history after he was found on — where else? — waste ground, near the loyalist Ballysillan estate, with a bullet in the back of his head.

A booklet, extremely informative, accompanies the exhibition and tells the reader, perhaps apocryphally, that: “reasons for the killing remain obscure.” Rockett had £2,000 in his pocket, UDA associations, and not much else.

Such information is, like that on the placard, everything and nothing at the same time: that someone was shot dead in Belfast is hardly news. But everybody wants to know who he was, where he was from, how he was shot — precisely because a man was shot dead in Belfast.

All the images in this Linen Hall Library production are striking and fascinating, but most often it’s the myopia that is most striking. A Progressive Unionist Party election poster from 1986 urged people to vote for victory, displaying the Morse code for “V.” At the time, few Ulstermen under the age of 70 would have remembered wartime Morse code.

Then there is Michael Stone’s drawing of a Long Kesh prison ward from a loyalist perspective, vivid with red, white and blue, all seen as if Stone’s perspective was looking down the sights of a gun — perhaps he was.