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1 April 2004 Edition

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An obsessional collector

Belfast's Linenhall Library, a radical seat of learning and knowledge for over 200 years in the city, was the appropriate venue for a special evening of tributes last Monday to Belfast Sinn Féin Councillor Tom Hartley and to his family circle.

The Library's staff and management organised the public dedication of a 30-year archive, collected by Tom over the years, to his parents Hilda and Tommy.

They also awarded Tom honourary lifelong membership of the library, an accolade only 15 others can lay claim to, for his contribution to the library over the last 20-plus years.

The library was established in the 1790s, when Belfast was described as the Athens of the north because progressive republican and democratic thought was flourishing there.

It houses a collection of books detailing the history of Ireland in its broadest sense, second only to that housed in the national museum in Dublin.

It is a much used institution by Irish students and students from abroad keen to learn about Ireland and in particular the history of the conflict since 1969.

Evon Murphy, who administers the library's political collection, began the evening by describing it as an opportunity to "celebrate Tom's contribution to the library".

John Gray, chief librarian, said Tom was a "friend and an obsessional collector who knows when history is being made. A collector with an unerring instinct to select the right thing".

He described Tom as a private collector with a generous public spirit, catholic in a universal sense with his tastes, which produced, over 30 years, "the largest and most significant collection of its kind".

For John, it was an act of great generosity for Tom to name the collection after his parents.

David Porter, from the 'Evangelical Contribution of Northern Ireland' (ECONI), who has been working with Tom for almost ten years, spoke highly of his experience of Tom.

He spoke about Tom's other great love: rediscovering the dead for the living and organising tours of their graves in Belfast's City and Milltown cemeteries. He referred to one grave in particular, which Tom introduced him to, that of an Orangeman whose headstone had the inscription: 'True Irish Patriot'.

He viewed Tom in that light, "a patriot who had space in his heart and mind for people from my tradition".

It was left to Gerry Adams to remind those gathered that being an archivist, as Tom is, was a dangerous occupation from time to time.

Tom's keenness had led in the late '70s to Gerry, Danny Morrison and Danny Devenney being arrested with Tom and charged with a hanging offence, treason.

It also led to an attempt to arrest the entire staff of Republican News. To survive, the paper had to go underground for several years to avoid detection and disruption. The RUC raided the Public Records Office and confiscated the material, which Tom had been regularly depositing, and used it as the basis of the treasonable charges.

Gerry also recalled that nimble fingers are required to amass the over 3,000 items which Tom had "pilfered", many times under people's noses without them knowing.

Gerry took the opportunity to praise Tom's mother, Hilda, who kept an open house for republicans all her life. "She would have enjoyed the night, she would have been proud and rightly so of one of her beautiful sons."

The importance of the collection and its place in contemporary historical research, which makes it a living history of the conflict, was admired by Professor Richard English from Queens University.

The students he lectured were frequent visitors to the Hartley collection - a new generation born in 1985 who he said "learn more each time they leave the collection".

The collection itself lived up to the praise that was heaped on it.

It was like being in an Aladdin's cave of artifacts, where gem after gem was followed with nugget after nugget.

The hour we had to view it meant that we scanned the surface.

I dipped inside the many boxes holding the pamphlets. The first I picked out was about 'George Plant: Executed by Firing squad in Portlaoise March 5th 1942. In another box, 'Imperatives of Survival' by Seán MacBride, Nobel Peace Prize winner, 'British Army Terror' the killing of teenager Brian Stewart by a plastic bullet in March 1976, by Frs Brady, Faul and Murray, 'Our Own Red Blood': The Story of the 1916 Rising by Seán Cronin.

I could have stayed all night opening the boxes — such treasures yet to be uncovered.

On a small table was a permanent reminder of the duplicitous nature of the British Government.

In their original form, on the actual telex roll of paper, was a statement ending the first Hunger Strike in October 1980 and a statement from Bobby Sands saying that he was satisfied that if the proposals offered were implemented then they would "meet the requirements of our five demands".

In Irish, hand-written on cigarette skins inside a glass case, was another equally poignant statement "to be read by all political prisoners at 2pm Saturday 3:10:81 from the OC of the H-Blocks", ending the second Hunger Strike.

Everywhere you looked, your eye settled on yet another item of interest. The political badge collection has to be seen to be believed.

But it's to Tom, the creator of the collection, we turn for the final word: "My father and mother had ten children. We grew up in a two-up two-down in Harrogate Street on the Falls Road. We were shaped there. We got our values there.

"We grew up in an environment where we talked about 'Our Peter, Our Francis, Our Street'. The best way I could remember my brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents, was to name the collection after my mother and father.

"The collection is about memory, about our expectations and where we want to go."

I left the library thinking to myself that the recording of history is but a dedicated fingertip away.

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