Conflict—the Irish at war; Ulster Museum, Belfast

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 2004), Reviews, Volume 12

Making the best use of a relatively small exhibition space, Conflict contains hundreds of artefacts from the Neolithic period to the present. The visual aspect of the exhibition is most striking, and the artefacts—from flint arrowheads, swords and helmets to rifles, uniforms and gasmasks—are all displayed to good effect. The visitor is able to view them from different angles and some are very striking, the Bronze Age skeleton with its ‘broken ribs and cuts on the right shoulder and both wrists’ in particular. The captions are precise and imaginative. A skull with an axe wound lies alongside an axehead found at the same site. ‘Could it be the fatal weapon?’ asks the caption. In the section on the Normans there is a thirteenth-century Polish sword found in Armagh, indicating that the international arms trade is old indeed. The exhibition, however, is unbalanced in that most of the artefacts relate to the pre-modern period while the modern is represented more by information panels and pictures. Is this dictated by the availability of artefacts or is it a matter of policy? This part is concerned mainly with the two world wars, but the uniforms, cap badges and medals give it the air of a militaria fair.

Conflict also embraces other elements, such as works of art and a poetry competition for young people. There are ‘rest and study areas’ with books and teaching materials for groups. The high-tech elements, however, are not successful. The handsets relay the impressions of various people, adults and children, to particular artefacts, but they can become irritating as a visitor is well able to form his or her own opinion without being given guidelines on how to react. The two computer terminals for accessing a digital film archive were disappointing, as one was out of order and the other working intermittently.

Any exhibition has two aspects: the visual content and the interpretation. Interpretation intrinsically conveys a message, and the message here is that conflict is the natural state of the Irish. The prehistoric period is portrayed as an era of violence, while the medieval section contains the usual suspects of warring Irish kings, fierce Vikings and adventurous Normans. A panel mentions in passing that there was also peaceful interaction between native and invader. The modern section portrays the glorious Irish who would fight anywhere for any cause. Being ‘ferocious in battle and hardy, strong and insouciant out of it, commended them to warmongers’, we are told. The point is illustrated by a recruiting letter circulated by Lt Col. Tim Collins of Iraq war fame. However, elsewhere the tone is more personal, concentrating on individual experiences and the impact of conflict. The interpretation changes in the final section concerning the recent ‘Troubles’. Using artefacts and memorials from all organisations involved, including Republican and Loyalist, it concentrates on the terrible waste of lives.

Like any good exhibition, this one works on different levels. It could be taken simply as a Boys’ Own view of the Irish soldier, and many boys from six to sixty appeared to be taking that view on the day I was there. At another level it is an examination of the unfortunate legacy of conflict on this island, and tries to bring home its reality by making it immediate and personal. Yet there is little context given to the conflicts that the Irish were involved in, or any indication that there is more to our historical experience. The concept of war itself is not addressed and there is an implied acceptance of it. As an exhibition—a display of artefacts and objects—Conflict succeeds, but it fails to intellectually address its subject.

Tony Canavan is the former Museum Officer of Newry and Mourne District Council.


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