January 16, 2013
The story of Northern Ireland in the late 20th century is one of civil unrest, political upheaval and an oppressed citizenry coming together to have their voices heard and rights realized.
It is a story that spanned decades, featured a number of bloody battles, and produced reverberations felt some 50 years after conflicts reached a tipping point.
The long, complicated tale marks a seminal moment in the history of the Irish people; and it is a story that Georgia Southern University’s Center for Irish Studies hopes to share this month with visitors to the Georgia Southern University Museum.
Dr. Howard Keeley, director for the Center for Irish Studies, and museum personnel have brought back to Georgia Southern a student-created exhibit that documents many of the turbulent events.
The exhibit is titled "From Protest to Peace: Murals by the Bogside Artists of Northern Ireland."
“Essentially, what this exhibit is doing is providing a snapshot of a much larger story,” Keeley said. “Northern Ireland is a very complicated place with a deep history. Over the centuries a great many tensions have sprung up with the communities, based on religion, ethnicities or even class.”
The museum display utilizes photographs — up to 6-feet tall — informational banners and a supplemental videotape to send viewers on a trip to Northern Ireland during a time that became known as “The Troubles.”
“We want to tell the larger story of Northern Ireland, and specifically of a town called Derry. In the 20th century, the city of Derry, like several parts of Northern Ireland, was predominantly Roman-Catholic in terms of its population, but controlled by a protestant minority,” Keeley said — noting that Catholics experienced discrimination in several areas of their lives (jobs, housing and voting rights). “The city is directly on the border of the Republic of Ireland. The Catholic population, seeing itself as discriminated against, wanted to be a part of the Republic. So, if any place was going to be a flash point for violence, it was going to be Derry.”
The exhibit chronicles a more 30-year-old fight over civil rights, that occurred in several parts of the country between British-loyalists (mostly Protestant) and Irish nationalists (most of whom were Catholic) — the British still maintained power in Northern Ireland.
In telling that story, the display showcases a phenomenon that gained popularity among artists looking for a way to speak-out.
Several pictures of murals, which have been painted on two and three-story housing projects throughout Derry, appear in the exhibit.
Most of the pieces were painted by the Bogside Artists, a trio of men who grew up amid the fighting.
“We try to capture as much of the history as we can. One way in which that long and complicated history has been expressed, particularly in the 20th century, has been in public art and in mural making,” Keeley said. “These murals come from the 1970s and onward, and reflect a phase of the conflict that began in the 1960s.”
Many of the scenes capture key moments of decades-long conflict.
“Activists wanted to make sure that the whole narrative of what had happened in their district was told and remembered,” Keeley said. “What they wanted to achieve, having made their voices heard, was to begin a realistic discussion about making peace.”
Eventually, peace in Northern Ireland, to some degree, was realized when talks led to the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
The exhibit at Georgia Southern tracks the conflict from its roots through to the agreement, which restored self-government to the region.
Keeley is hopeful students and members of the community will take time to visit the museum and become familiar with the history.
“A lot of people from this part of Georgia have Irish roots and this is their history. This really provides a connection for them,” he said. “And for our students, we would love for our students to be more internationally aware. It is one thing to talk in general terms to students about the world, but it is a whole lot more effective to look at an actual case study.”
“From Protest to Peace” will remain at Georgia Southern until Jan. 20.