Gendered graffiti at Kilmainham

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 20th Century Social Perspectives, Features, Issue 1 (January/February 2015), Volume 23

Main Entrance of Kil#1E86AB

As we move through the ‘decade of commemorations’, the problems in ‘remembering’ the Irish Civil War become apparent. Civil conflicts pose challenges to communal remembering of the past owing to their inherently divisive nature and thus are often considered best forgotten. This is ably illustrated in one of the troubling legacies of the Irish Civil War, Kilmainham Gaol. Although now a national heritage site, it was left in a state of abandonment for decades after it closed in 1924. Successive governments were unable or unwilling to make decisions as to its future, leaving the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society to restore it voluntarily in time for the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966. It was eventually taken into government protection in 1986. In keeping with this reticence, the narratives emanating from Kilmainham Gaol that are unique to the Civil War period—such as the mass incarceration of women as political prisoners—have equally suffered neglect.

Historians have begun to reinsert the role of revolutionary women into public understanding of this period. Beginning by reconstructing who these revolutionary women were, they have used organisational archives, government files, media reports and the women’s papers and memoirs to broaden our understandings of contemporary gender roles. Such studies have increasingly revealed the broad range of women—and their wide range of activities—in the political and military matters of this period. An unusual source, institutional graffiti, can also be used to reveal insights into the prison experiences of women who were incarcerated at this time.

The Civil War continues to take material form in the standing structures of Kilmainham Gaol, with graffiti covering huge swathes of the older West Wing of the prison. The secretary of the General Prisons Board of Ireland noted that when the wing was last systematically whitewashed, on 18 September 1922,

‘. . . pictures of all sorts and scribbling appeared on the walls of the cells all of which it would be well to obliterate. Before the prison is again used [by the women] it would be a great improvement if it could be whitewashed.’

Days later, twenty civilian male prisoners from Mountjoy were transferred to Kilmainham Gaol to carry out this work. Whilst there is evidence that specific pieces of graffiti were whitewashed sporadically thereafter, and graffiti have been added to the present day, there remains a significant assemblage from the Civil War period that covers, or peers through, the whitewash. In the absence of extant prison records for the Civil War period, this assemblage provides valuable insights into who were imprisoned and what their experiences were at this turning point in Irish history.

During a six-month period in 2013 the Office of Public Works (OPW) facilitated fieldwork funded by the Irish Research Council at Kilmainham Gaol. This fieldwork took an explicitly material approach, exploring graffiti as materialised, meaningfully constructed and inherently connected to place-making. Whilst recording all the older graffiti and samples from more contemporary times, the project aimed to focus specifically on graffiti created by female prisoners. Every surface of the wing was examined, photographed and described, text was transcribed and locations were plotted. On completion, nearly 6,000 images—of scratches, pencil marks, engravings, signatures, slogans, verses, calendars, paintings and drawings—had been taken and a number of themes have begun to emerge.

From top:  [Fig. 1] Pencil text over whitewash in a cell on the top corridor of the West Wing created by two female political prisoners—‘LILY GLEESON / POLITICAL / PRISONER / 20-3-23 [Two glasses or goblets] Peg QUINN / POLITICAL / PRISONER / 20-3-23’. (Kilmainham Gaol Archive) [Fig. 2] ‘The will of the people must prevail with the boys in the camps and the girls in the jails’—from the autograph book of Brigid Reid, 30 June 1923. (Kilmainham Gaol Archive) [Fig. 3] Three caricatures in pencil over whitewash of ‘The Sheck’(?), ‘Mrs Dick Mulcahy’ (formerly Nin Ryan) and ‘Dick Mulcahy’. (Kilmainham Gaol Archive) [Fig. 4] Pencil text over whitewash (and subsequently written over) of directions for locating a tunnel in the basement of the West Wing—‘Tunnel begun / in basement laundry / inside door on left / may be of use to successors / good luck / Sighle G’. Located in Sheila Humphries’s cell on the middle corridor. (Kilmainham Gaol Archive)

From top:
[Fig. 1] Pencil text over whitewash in a cell on the top corridor of the West Wing created by two female political prisoners—‘LILY GLEESON / POLITICAL / PRISONER / 20-3-23 [Two glasses or goblets] Peg QUINN / POLITICAL / PRISONER / 20-3-23’. (Kilmainham Gaol Archive)
[Fig. 2] ‘The will of the people must prevail with the boys in the camps and the girls in the jails’—from the autograph book of Brigid Reid, 30 June 1923. (Kilmainham Gaol Archive)
[Fig. 3] Three caricatures in pencil over whitewash of ‘The Sheck’(?), ‘Mrs Dick Mulcahy’ (formerly Nin Ryan) and ‘Dick Mulcahy’. (Kilmainham Gaol Archive)
[Fig. 4] Pencil text over whitewash (and subsequently written over) of directions for locating a tunnel in the basement of the West Wing—‘Tunnel begun / in basement laundry / inside door on left / may be of use to successors / good luck / Sighle G’. Located in Sheila Humphries’s cell on the middle corridor. (Kilmainham Gaol Archive)

[Fig. 1] Signatures and ‘presencing’ absences
One of the most frequent graffiti forms located during the project is the writing of the women’s names, dates of incarceration and place of origin. These are usually written in pencil and in longhand and often are not much larger in size than would be found in contemporary autograph books. They are not shouting out for attention but are simply materialising on the walls of this infamous place the fact that they were there and had been incarcerated for political reasons, and that they were representing their place of origin. There are a number of ex-amples that go further than this—they include details of their arrest, who arrested them, when and why. Furthermore, there is evidence that the women were returning to the site communally when it was derelict to continue this tradition. A number of examples date from 1938, a year in which we know that the executive of Cumann na mBan (a group to which most of the women had belonged) organised a visit in early March. Perhaps they were materialising their already noticeable absence from the narratives of that time?

[Fig. 2] ‘Gendering’ the conflict
Another common graffiti form is large renderings of popular and widely circulated Republican phrases, slogans, verses and prose of the time. Although many of these were coined during earlier nationalist insurrections, and had often been extrapolated from the preceding conflict against the British, they were being reused in the Civil War context. With the anti-Treaty women being held in significant numbers for extended periods, they began to ‘gender’ the conflict so that not only the ‘great men’ were being hailed, proclaimed and remembered. The replacement of ‘his’ with ‘her’ or the intermixing of both was a frequent occurrence. Whilst faithful reproductions of verses such as ‘Here’s to the boys in the camps, here’s to the boys in the jails, here’s to the boys who are arrested for the cause, which will never fail’ remain in situ, there were variations such as ‘The will of the people must prevail, with the boys in the camps and the girls in the jails’. This explicit insertion of women’s roles is further evidenced by cell names, including one nicknamed ‘The Republican Sisterhood’. The level of ‘gendering’ is most pronounced when one examines the autograph books that the women kept (25 of which now reside in Kilmainham Gaol Museum), where the interconnections between nationalist politics and suffragette ideals are most clearly articulated.

[Fig. 3] Tracing nationalist continuities
As this first period of mass imprisonment of women as political prisoners was instigated by recent allies from the War of Independence, the women were keen to emphasise this uncomfortable reality. They exalted their pedigree as nationalist combatants who drew their direct inspiration—and, indeed, lineage—from the established pantheon of nationalist heroes and heroines in a number of forms. Ann Dolan has noted in her book on commemoration of the Irish Civil War that the annual commemoration of the Easter Rising in 1923 was performed by the women in Kilmainham Gaol, and those women who were related or married to executed leaders led the events. One of the most famous extant pieces of graffiti painted by the women imprisoned during the Civil War resides over the archway as one enters the ‘1916 Corridor’. It warns:

‘Beware of the Risen People
That have harried and
Held ye that have bullied and bribed.’

Whilst quoting Patrick Pearse, this statement was consciously being re-contextualised in the Civil War from castigating the British to haranguing the ‘Free Staters’. Such an interpretation is supported by the number of pieces of graffiti that overtly condemn their jailer, the minister for defence, Richard Mulcahy. Not only is his name scored out and character insulted but caricatures of him and his wife appear, often located prominently on cell walls.

[Fig. 4] ‘Performing’ political status
Graffiti also reveal a number of experiences of political imprisonment, some mundane, others more unexpected. The passing of time is frequently marked either by collections of engraved dashed lines or by calendars in pencil detailing the days, weeks and months behind bars. On the right internal doorpost in a cell on the top corridor, a St Swithin’s Day calendar attributed to Cecilia Gallagher can be found. Gallagher detailed every day’s weather to prove whether they did indeed experience the predicted 40 days of sun or rain. The women also marked time more evocatively with painted, drawn and engraved crosses and plaques remembering their male comrades who were executed, some in the yard of Kilmainham Gaol, during that turbulent time. A number of examples were specifically targeted for whitewashing at some stage after their creation.

The women demonstrated the political nature of their imprisonment through various means. They demanded their right to officially regulate food rations and even the correct cutlery to cut their bread. If these demands were not met, short-lived hunger strikes were often a first resort. Many autograph books contain details of the number of days women refused to eat in contesting their conditions. It is evident that some inhabitants smuggled their precious implements out of the dining hall, with a number of butter knives, obviously used as a template, appearing as graffiti in a number of locations. Perhaps the most subversive act of all was the beginning of a tunnel in the basement of the West Wing. Margaret Buckley praised the act of digging—despite its being a fruitless exercise—as maintaining the women’s resolve to actively contest their conditions and form of imprisonment. One piece of graffiti, attributed to Sighle Humphries on the middle floor, notes where new occupants of her cell could find the remnants of the tunnel, if they wished to continue.

* * *

Most of the graffiti viewed today by visitors to Kilmainham Gaol are located in the corridors of the West Wing and are of much more recent vintage. Visitors adding their names and short inscriptions to the building, albeit clandestinely, can justify their actions as merely continuing a tradition. Such a perspective denies, however, the real importance of the enduring graffiti of those imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol in its twilight years. This short exploration of the graffiti left behind by the women imprisoned during the Civil War has shown how a multitude of small and seemingly mundane interactions can be important. They have the potential to reveal connections, experiences and feelings from a difficult and often underrepresented group and period of our recent past.

Laura McAtackney is an Irish Research Council post-doctoral research fellow at University College Dublin; Niall Bergin is curator of the OPW-run Kilmainham Gaol Museum.

Further reading

R. Foster, Vivid faces: the revolutionary generation in Ireland, 1890–1923 (London, 2014).
S. McCoole, No ordinary women: Irish female activists in the revolutionary years 1900–1923 (Dublin, 2004).
A. Matthews, Dissidents: Irish republican women, 1923–1941 (Dublin, 2014).
http://kilmainhamgaolgraffiti.com

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