In fulfillment of one of my MA courses at Queen’s University as a Fulbright mtvU student, I have been participating in an internship at the Linen Hall Library, a place considered by many to be a national library for Northern Ireland because of its historical gems, its abundant collections, and its consistency as a powerful source of enlightenment to the people of Northern Ireland and the world.
Strong Ties: North America and Northern Ireland
The Linen Hall Library prides itself in its many connections to North America. One of its prized gems is included in the video above; the first copy of the Declaration of Independence printed outside of the U.S. in the Belfast Newsletter. Another item of interest is a pamphlet written by Benjamin Franklin explaining to prospective emigrants what they could expect upon arrival in North America. The library also holds, among many other works on historical discoveries in geography and science, Thomas Jefferson’s notes on Virginia. The library is currently working to reconstruct its original catalogue from 1793, in a way similar to the reconstruction of Jefferson’s own library by the Library of Congress in Washington.
Ireland Without Its Music?: Linen Hall’s role in Music Preservation
Linen Hall’s predecessors, the Belfast Reading Society, played a large role in the revival of cultural aspects of Ireland including language and literature, and in 1792 they realized that the tradition of the itinerant harpers of Ireland was dying, so they decided to host the first Belfast Harper’s Festival. They offered money prizes for the oldest pieces of music to draw the harpers in from all over Ireland and had Edward Bunting, renowned music collector, record the music in notebooks. The Reading Society commissioned Buntings work to be published as a book, which yielded his Ancient Irish Music in 1796. Without this collection of songs the tunes could have been lost, the tradition would have had very little hope for revival, and this could have spelled the end for Ireland’s iconic instrument. The song playing throughout the video is one of these ancient tunes called ‘Give Me Your Hand’ by harper Rory Dall O’Caghan written in 1603.
The Collections: ‘It’s what’s in them and how we use them that make us different’
Northern Ireland Political Collection
The most well-known collection in the Linen Hall Library is the Northern Ireland Political Collection containing 20,000 main items and few hundred thousand items of ephemera all in relation to the period of civil conflict in Northern Ireland from 1968 onwards known as ‘the Troubles.’ As well as academic books, some of the ephemeral items include plastic bullets, political leaflets, prison art, and other memorabilia. The collection also hosts the ‘Troubled Images’ political poster collection covering the walls of the staircase, which is shown in the video. Such images reflect the emotions, the conflict, and the important issues of the civil unrest with the vivid and artistic creativity of the time.
Irish Reference Collection
The Irish Reference Collections consists of books related to any and every aspect of Irish history from the year dot onwards categorized by century. It consists of works of fiction, poetry, and history from the North and South of Ireland. The collection also holds a genealogy collection with histories of the major families of Northern Ireland, passenger lists of the people who emigrated, and the unique birth, death and marriage index from the Belfast Newsletter containing any insertions from 1730-1863. There is also a newspaper archive containing all of the newspaper publications of the three major Northern Irish papers from the beginning of publication to present.
The Theater and Performance Arts archive dates back to the first printing of a play in Belfast in 1720. One of the library’s iconic pieces, mentioned in the video, is a play script by Jack B. Yeats, the foremost Irish painter of the 20th century. It is called The Old Sea Road and is signed with Yeats’ famous signature that he used for all his artworks. This piece represents the breadth and depth of the eclectic collection and its ability to provide items vital for research of Irish studies worldwide. Linen Hall is the only institution that actively collections theater material from Northern Ireland and is currently working on a website to digitize as much of the archive to make it available online.
‘The Communal Archive of Our People’: The Significance of the Linen Hall Library
The Linen Hall Library offers free access to all of the items in the collections to the public. It hosts many exhibitions including a series called ‘Local Art by Local Artists,’ which gives local artists the opportunity to present their work to the public. The library also runs historical exhibitions such as the recent ‘Titanic Exhibition.’ It also encourages reading groups and language classes. These are just a few of the ways that the library reminds the public that it is an accessible wealth of knowledge owned by the community for the community.
The Linen Hall Library not only serves as a representation of several areas of the past, it also holds information that can help enhance the future of Northern Ireland and the world. Its unique neutral perspective in a country of conflict has allowed it to serve as a receptacle of knowledge about creating peace while learning from the past. Because it is an open location to learn about history, it brings people from the two communities together to work towards a brighter future after 30 years of devastating civil unrest. The Linen Hall Library itself represents a steady and powerful step forward and institutions around the globe should take a page out of this library’s book.
Many thanks to interviewees John Killen, Ross Moore, Deborah Douglas, Hugh Odling-Smee, and Gavan Carbille.