In a garden in a quiet cul-de-sac in north Armagh, a nondescript brown shed contains the Irish republican version of the Imperial War Museum.
The private collection contains the toilet-roll holder from the room where IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands died in May 1981, letters from supporters to Sands, an original rebel uniform from the 1916 Easter rising, secret communications smuggled out of the Maze prison and a 19th-century cell door from London’s Pentonville jail where Irish republican prisoners were incarcerated. There are piles of original black rubber bullets fired during riots in the early 1970s. There are even Airfix-style models recreating the Maze prison.
All visits are arranged quietly on the “republican grapevine”, but have managed to bring together former republican rivals who were once deadly enemies. Former members of the Provisional and Official IRAs as well as the Irish National Liberation army have met again during private visits to the collection. Earlier this month the surviving “hooded men” – republican suspects used as “torture guinea-pigs” by the British army early in the Troubles in 1971 – gathered together for the first time in a reunion at the museum.
The Guardian was given access last week to the privately owned museum which also hosts visits by foreign tourists and even some Ulster loyalists.
Will the day ever come when the Ulster Museum is able to borrow some of the memorabilia to display as part of a local history exhibition?