Charting extraordinary local history at James Connolly House

The James Connolly House Museum in Derry has been attracting visitors from across the world curious about the unique collection of historic artefacts on display at the city centre facility.

The museum, located within James Connolly House on Chamberlain Street, hosts a wide-ranging collection of unusual and unique historic artefacts, much of it pertaining to the Irish revolution and the Conflict here.

Tony O'Hara and  Danny Morrison with photographic exhibitions from the funerals of local men who died on Hunger Striker, with the Papal cross in the background

Tony O'Hara and Danny Morrison with photographic exhibitions from the funerals of local men who died on Hunger Striker, with the Papal cross in the background

Among the most striking objects is an extremely rare Papal Crosses from Pope John Paul II gifted to Derry INLA Hunger Striker Patsy O’Hara, and which he subsequently, in his dying days, passed on to his mother Peggy. The cross was one of four given to the first four Hunger Strikers by Fr. John Magee, who was then a Papal envoy, and it is the only one which can be viewed today as it is believed the other three dispatched by the Pope were buried with the men they were given to.

Other items on display in the museum include artwork from artists across the world who have donated their depictions of the Derry people and events that made history, large scale pictures of the funerals of the local men who died on Hunger Strike, miniature model recreations of prison conditions and street scenes, as well as posters from the Conflict.

The extraordinary and increasingly rare artwork created by Republican and Loyalist prisoners in Long Kesh and elsewhere over those years, including distinctive needlework pictures, hand carved Celtic wooden crosses and leather objects, is also on display, alongside video installations pertaining to the Conflict here.

The visitor book meanwhile demonstrates that recent visitors to the museum have come from right across the globe, from the USA, Germany, Italy, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Catalonia, the Basque Country, France and Colombia.

A former prisoner's artwork on display.

A former prisoner's artwork on display.

Danny Morrison from the Irish Republican Socialist Party, who is based at James Connolly House, said that while featuring contributions from different Republican and Loyalist groupings, the Museum was set up to focus on the fact that three of the Hunger Strikers - Mickey Devine, Patsy O’Hara and Kevin Lynch - came from the Derry area and were INLA prisoners who were often wrongly represented as Provisional IRA prisoners.

“Patsy O’Hara would have come in and out of these offices in the 70s,” he said. “Patsy was the leader of the INLA Hunger Strikers.

“Nowhere else in town was showing the history, that Republican Socialist history. That was being lost and was being rewritten. We had Patsy and Mickey from this city and we had nothing here so this was our way of commemorating them, and other Republican Socialists such as Colm McNutt and Neill McMonagle who were killed by the SAS. There is nowhere else people can go and see that history.

“There’s a political message - not to encourage people to go back to where it was, but to show the hardship and pain endured by the men and the families who took part in the War. We don’t want to see it going back to 20/ 30 years ago. This gives the sober reality.”

A painting depicting Patsy O'Hara.

A painting depicting Patsy O'Hara.

Patsy O’Hara’s brother Tony was himself on the blanket protest and came close to securing the Dublin West seat in the 1981 election.

Mr O’Hara said that people will sometimes come to see the cross in the museum for a special intention, and some believe they have actually received a ‘cure’ from it.

Mr O’Hara recalled how his mother had wanted her son to come off the Hunger Strike near the end as Patsy was falling into a coma, but that Patsy had told her, ‘Please Mammy, let the fight go on’, a phrase oft repeated since in commemorations and also enshrined in song.

Mr O’Hara also recalled how over 60,000 people attended his brother’s funeral and how the impact of the deaths of Patsy and the other Hunger Strikers was felt and commemorated across the globe, while their names have been memorialised in street names and markers across the world.

Tony O’Hara has written a new book about his life which will be launched at the James Connolly House Museum during 2020.

Mr Morrison said that the team running the Museum are always interested in new material, and thanked the many families who have loaned them important historical artefacts and treasured possessions to date.

“People coming in here from every part of the world have been overwhelmed with what they find and we want to thank everybody that has donated.

“Without them we wouldn’t be here to show the collections to anybody,” he said.

*The Museum on Chamberlain Street in Derry is open daily, Monday to Saturday, 11am to 4pm.