A child's face amid 10,000 years of Irish at war

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The Independent Online

The fresh, open face of six-year-old David Hanna gazes up from the school yearbook in the glass case, alongside his poem about his teddy bear, Thumper.

David is in a museum now, 15 years after being blown up with his mother and father by the IRA. He is part of history, one of many poignant components at the Irish at War exhibition at Belfast's Ulster Museum.

Just around the corner from David's exhibit is another earlier victim of violence in Ireland, a skeleton. One of his vertebrae bears the mark of the spear thrust that pierced his body, beside a spear head of the sort that killed him. He dates from the middle of the Bronze Age, around 1500 BC, but even older victims are here. In the very first case sits what the staff call a "Mesolithic baseball bat" which was wielded thousands of years earlier.

The exhibition covers 10,000 years from the Stone Age until 1 November, 2003. Its final entry records the funeral of Jean McConville, who was missing for decades and who was buried last month.

A section on closure quotes an 18th-century Russian general who once remarked that no war was over until the last body was returned. It goes on: "The burial places of many civilian and military victims from 1919 to 1921, and of at least 10 victims of the recent troubles, are still unaccounted for. All societies value the rituals of funeral and burial in expressing grief and pride in the dead."

The carefully neutral tone of the commentary is important because of the extreme sensitivities involved. The exhibition deals with events which are the stuff of history, and of day-to-day life in Belfast.

Richard Warner, the head of archaeology at the museum, said: "We knew dealing with the troubles was going to be difficult.

"We had a strong opinion expressed to us that one couldn't do the job, that the Troubles are too recent. We didn't agree with that; we think it's necessary to face up to things, but we haven't been gratuitous in the way we've done it. We don't want this to be a celebration of warfare, so we've used objects to make people to look and think."

There are objects such as the award given to Dominic Pinto, the surgeon who tended the victims of the 1998 Omagh bombing. There are also reminders that over the centuries many Irish fought abroad, for example at Waterloo.

Paddy Mulvenna, the brother-in-law of Gerry Adams, has also taken a place in history, his name appearing on a roll of honour of IRA dead. The Irish who fought for Britain are also there, such as Field-Marshal Montgomery of Alamein, one of the many Irish-born generals in the Second World War.

Belfast itself abounds with vernacular reminders of conflict. Its Protestant gable walls still depict the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, while Sinn Fein regularly invokes 1798 and 1916, when republicans rose against the British.

The streets outside the museum are so full of living history it is not hard to bring the past to life: the difficult bit is in trying to ensure arguments can happen without weapons of war. The exhibition's final stop is a contemplation room where visitors can explore archives and record their reactions, and perhaps consider whether Irish history always has to feature the clash of arms and the death of innocents.