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World Perspective | EUROPE

Library Has All 'the Troubles' in the World

Belfast's Linen Hall houses a 90,000-piece collection of pins, posters and printed propaganda from all sides of the Northern Ireland conflict.

April 24, 1998|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — When "the Troubles" here are finally the stuff of history books and not the daily newspaper, the dedicated, intrepid people who work at a private library in this provincial capital will be counted among the heroes.

Sometime in 1968, the story goes, at the onset of what would turn out to be three decades of bloody clashes between Roman Catholics and Protestants, Jimmy Vitty, then the head of Belfast's Linen Hall Library, was handed a civil rights leaflet at a bar in the city center.

Vitty kept it. That sheet of paper became the genesis of what may be a unique collection in the libraries of the world--an archive of fliers, posters, buttons, newspaper clippings, outright propaganda and objective reports that strives to present a local conflict, in this case Northern Ireland's, from the viewpoint of all sides involved.

"It's been said about this collection that we have enough to offend everyone," said Yvonne Murphy, 37, who has been in charge of the archive since September 1995.

With more than 90,000 items, Linen Hall Library's Northern Ireland Political Collection has become an unparalleled resource for academics, politicians, journalists, diplomats and anyone else endeavoring to understand what is happening here and the historical roots of the conflict.

Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and hard-line Protestant leader the Rev. Ian Paisley may not agree on this month's peace settlement--Adams supports it; Paisley is against--but both are fans of Linen Hall Library.

Adams has recommended the archive with "great pleasure," and Paisley praised it for delivering "the goods and the goodies."

When Brad Pitt was tapped to play an IRA fugitive in the film "The Devil's Own," the American actor spent three days doing research in the collection's cramped facilities, staff members recall. But the most bizarre tribute to the archive's value came on New Year's Eve 1993, when the IRA firebombed the library, destroying 1,000 books.

The political collection, housed in a fourth-floor attic, was unscathed. Nevertheless, a contrite IRA apologized for the attack--three times.

The collection's staff, meanwhile, coolheadedly started a new file called "Library Firebombing."

Librarians, Murphy jokes, are sometimes said to be "charismatically challenged." But in the early years of Linen Hall's collection, staff members sometimes made the rounds of the barricades and other trouble spots, grabbing any printed items they could find.

"We will talk to anyone and collect material," said Murphy, a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University in 1993.

Such stubborn courage and dedication have given Linen Hall, an institution more than 2 centuries old that people can join for about $50 yearly, truly unusual holdings.

The building across from Belfast City Hall now houses such items as the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1981 message of solidarity to dying IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands; plastic bullets used by British soldiers to fire on republican demonstrators; and a lollipop shaped like a foot that invites the user to "kick the pope."

There are 30 boxes of documents on the peace negotiations chaired by former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell, 1,800 periodicals and 4,000 political posters, which Linen Hall intends to put on CD-ROM, thanks to a grant from the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace.

Many items are one of a kind, such as the clandestine messages written on cigarette paper or toilet tissue and smuggled to and from IRA members in British prisons.

The peace deal reached on Good Friday has generated a new inflow of thousands of items, which Murphy, aided by a full-time colleague and an intern from Minnesota, is now struggling to cope with. She is also in search of funding--her book budget this year is a mere $6,500. But Murphy's dearest wish is that the next file begun in Linen Hall's collection can be labeled: "Peace."

"I would just like some sort of solution that would stop people from getting killed," she said.

For further information:

The Librarian

Northern Ireland Political Collection

Linen Hall Library

17 Donegall Square North

Belfast BT1 5GD, Northern Ireland

Tel: (011-44-1232) 321707

Fax: (011-44-1232) 438586

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