“Let them see from the outset that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from a Protestant majority.” This was Edward Carson’s warning to Ulster Unionists amid the chaos of the Irish War of Independence. Carson had worked to keep Ireland in the United Kingdom, but the Government of Ireland Act 1920 put an end to that struggle. Nevertheless, his intervention had ensured the six counties of Northern Ireland were kept in the Union.
The new border divided former allies in the Irish Free State. Michael Collins, the nationalist hero, had signed the treaty with the United Kingdom, accepting a partition of Ireland and dominion status in the British Empire, without thoroughly consulting staunch republicans, such as Éamon de Valera. These two factions, pro and anti-Treaty, now turned on each other in the year-long Irish Civil War. Sectarian tensions remained high in Northern Ireland, despite Carson’s injunction.
Our collection includes customs notices, the new currency of the Irish Free State and political ephemera from this era.
Both states emerged from the maelstrom of the independence struggle and the First World War into the doldrums of economic stagnation. The war had been a boon to Norther Ireland’s ship building and linen manufacturing industries, but demand dried up with the peace. In 1932, Catholic and Protestant workers marched together to improve welfare payments. The two groups had so few songs in common that they reverted to singing ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’ at rallies, a popular song of the time. They succeeded in increasing weekly welfare benefits from eight to 20 shillings.
The Irish Free State had effectively become a republic in 1937, under a government led by Éamon de Valera, consummating the struggle he had started in the Irish Civil War. The new republic remained neutral during the Second World War, but Northern Ireland contributed to the United Kingdom’s war effort. Belfast endured German air raids, and sent men to the front. The war exposed weakness in the economy, and continuing tensions in industrial relations.
We have a significant Second World War collection, including uniforms, medals, and gas masks, as well as items related to Belfast’s war time industry.
After the war, Northern Ireland benefited from the United Kingdom’s newly expanded welfare state. The gap in living standards between Ireland and Northern Ireland widened. The Northern Ireland Labour Party enjoyed success at the polls in the 1950s and 60s, but traditional fears and community tensions undermined working-class challenges to the dominant Ulster Unionist Party.
Economic expansion led to the end of rationing in the early 1950s. “Britain’s never had it so good” declared Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister, in 1957. Television brought the world into people’s living rooms, while improved education widened horizons. Modernisation brought new roads and better housing, such as high-rise flats, but also destabilising social changes.
The prosperity of the 1960s encouraged a more permissive society, where freedom of expression was encouraged, and the old order repudiated. The social revolution sweeping the West also affected Northern Ireland. Here, of course, it was imbued with the themes of local politics. Community tensions were particularly high in 1966—the 50th anniversary of both the 1916 Easter Rising, and the Battle of the Somme. Our collection holds memorabilia produced by both nationalists and unionists to commemorate these events.