MUSEUM EYE: Áras Uí Chonghaile–James Connolly Visitor Centre

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2020), Reviews, Volume 28

374 Falls Road, Belfast

 Irish Republican History Museum

Conway Mill, Belfast

By Michael Quigley

Above: Áras Uí Chonghaile—the location is a lavishly converted former corner shop and post office, a few yards from Connolly’s own lodgings during his days in Belfast as an ITGWU organiser. (Áras Uí Chonghaile)

One recent addition to the renovation of West Belfast is Áras Uí Chonghaile—officially opened in April 2019 by President Michael D. Higgins—an exhibition centre dedicated entirely to the life and work of James Connolly. The location is a lavishly converted former corner shop and post office, a few yards from Connolly’s own lodgings (familiarly known at the time as Glenalina) during his days in Belfast as an ITGWU organiser. First proposed in 2016, the project was handsomely funded by Belfast City Council. Public financing was supplemented by support from North American trade unions, notably the Labourers’ International Union of North America and the Transport Workers’ Union—appropriately, as both organisations have long-standing Irish and republican connections. The site’s English name—the James Connolly Visitor Centre—was presumably chosen to distinguish it from Sinn Féin’s Belfast HQ at Connolly House, further west on the Andersonstown Road.

Above: The Centre’s library offers a quiet and reflective space for researchers. (Áras Uí Chonghaile)

The centre consists of three floors. The ground level contains an exhibition and reception area, including a café, which also serves as a community facility hosting monthly music sessions, lectures, a film club, book launches and public events. Upstairs, a comfortable library, developed with the help and support of Conor Kenny of Kenny’s Bookshop in Galway, is stocked with all of Connolly’s published work and a substantial collection of works on Irish trade union history. The library offers a quiet and reflective space for researchers, academics and those seeking to develop their understanding of James Connolly. This level also houses a seminar/board room. Finally, the renovation created a third floor with a large meeting room and an open-air terrace with panoramic views towards the Harland and Wolff shipyard cranes on one side and Black Mountain on the other.

Since it opened, the Centre has hosted several temporary exhibitions with trade union and republican connections, but the heart of the site is the permanent material on Connolly himself. This spans his life from childhood in poverty in Scotland, through his experience as an Irish Socialist Republican Party organiser in Ireland, a trade union and socialist activist in the United States, his return to Ireland and his work with the dock and linen workers of Belfast to the Dublin lockout of 1913, the formation of the Irish Citizen Army and his role in the Easter Rising in 1916. A particularly valuable element of the permanent collection is a set of interviews and video clips including moving interviews with his daughters Nora and Ina, drawn from the RTÉ Archives. The Centre claims to be the only place in the world that houses and displays a 1916 Proclamation, a half-Proclamation and their printing blocks.

In December 1919 the Centre launched a publishing arm—‘Connolly Publications at Áras Uí Chonghaile’—with the release of Citizen soldier: from Sevastopol Street to Soloheadbeg: Séumas Robinson and the Irish Revolution by Daniel Jack. The author, like Robinson, is from the Clonard area of West Belfast, and is related to Séumas Robinson through his mother. His study traces Robinson’s journey from West Belfast to Soloheadbeg, and his further involvement in the War of Independence.

A brisk twenty-minute walk away down the Falls Road, at Conway Mill, the Irish Republican History Museum is miles away in funding and presentation. In contrast to the Connolly Centre’s professionalism and embeddedness in the institutional structures of post-Troubles tourism, this little museum, dedicated to the memory of its founder and principal collector, Eileen Hickey, is an all-volunteer body. It was opened by the late Fr Des Wilson in February 2007. Incidentally, West Belfast has two other similar museums/collections of Republican memorabilia—in the Felon’s Club, Andersonstown Road, and Roddy McCorley’s, Glen Road.

A life-size replica of a cell in Armagh Jail, where Eileen Hickey, founder of the Irish Republican History Museum, was O/C of the Republican women prisoners from 1973 to 1977. (Irish Republican History Museum)

The museum occupies a tightly confined space, consisting of one room full of exhibits, a library and audio-visual centre, and a life-size replica of a cell in Armagh Jail, where Eileen Hickey was O/C of the Republican women prisoners from 1973 to 1977. The main exhibition is a treasure trove of handcrafted items produced by prisoners throughout the history of internment and imprisonment of republicans in Ireland, based on a collection begun by Hickey in the 1990s. It ranges all the way from a pike-head (excavated in Tyrone) and musket-balls from 1798 to Fenian bonds and stamps, to the Easter Rising and War of Independence, and to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998—200 years in one room.

Deliberately and self-consciously partisan, this is a Republican museum. The display of prison handcrafts includes, as expected, more than a dozen carved wooden Celtic crosses, alongside harps and round towers, as well as bodhrans, leather plaques and belts and artwork on handkerchiefs. Display cases are organised both chronologically and by topic: Cumann na mBan, plastic and rubber bullets, Tom Williams, the Fenians, internment at the Curragh. The Troubles poster collection, bound in four large folders, rivals that held by the Linen Hall Library.

A social historian might find useful work decoding the several hundred lapel badges, mostly but not only Republican. One display case features an Orange sash and UVF insignia from the 1910s, B Special cap badges, and loyalist cap badges and pins from the recent past. Similarly, alongside mannequins in Irish Volunteer and Irish Citizen Army uniforms the visitor will find RIC and British Army uniforms from 1916 and British paraphernalia from the Troubles. Another room houses a library and audio-visual equipment, open to researchers and the community. The library has a fairly comprehensive collection of works on Irish Republican history, with an unsurprising emphasis on the recent Troubles.

Both locations are unashamedly didactic, as reflected in their respective mission statements—Áras Uí Chonghaile: ‘Our mission in this Centre is to ensure that a new generation of Irish citizens and those who visit us from across the world are introduced to James Connolly and his ideas’; Irish Republican History Museum: ‘To educate, so that our youth may understand why Republicans fought, died and spent many years in prison for their beliefs’.

Both sites are wheelchair-accessible and easy to reach on public transport (bus and Glider service).

Michael Quigley is editor of the newsletter of the Canadian Association for Irish Studies.


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