Following the Fighters?

‘Following the Fighters?’: female, political imprisonment in early-20th century Ireland was a project funded by the Irish Research Council (IRC) with the collaboration of the Office of Public Works (OPW) from October 2012 to October 2014. The aims of the project were to record, analyse and interpret extant material remains of incarceration from the Irish Civil War to allow us to better understand female experiences of imprisonment. Primarily this involved identifying, photographing and analyzing remnants of graffiti that survive in the West Wing (older wing) of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin but also through artefactual (including the Bridie Halpin collection) and documentary sources (primarily autograph books held in Kilmainham Gaol Archive).

The women, and men, etched, drew and painted graffiti on the walls of the gaol over an extended period of time and an overview is provided of the types can be found in the excellent Written in Stone: the graffiti in Kilmainham Gaol, published by Niamh O’Sullivan in 2009. Whilst there are many fascinating insights in the book it provides a tantalising glimpse into the importance of the graffiti rather than reveal the results of systematic recording. Therefore, the West Wing was selected as the primary field site due to the extraordinary survival of the graffiti from this period. Indeed, the last recorded mass whitewashing of the walls of this Wing were recorded in the early months of the civil war. It was noted by the Secretary of the General Prisons Board of Ireland 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 Jail were transferred to Kilmainham Gaol to carry out this work.

There is evidence that specific pieces of graffiti were whitewashed sporadically after the gaol closed in early 1924 – particularly those relating to contentious issues of the civil war – and there have been many subsequent additions dating to present day. However, there remains a significant assemblage from the civil war period that covers, or peers through, the whitewash. This graffiti offers a valuable means of materially exploring the interconnection between national self-determination and Irish women’s female identity at this time and when examined alongside documents they offer an often forgotten aspect of this transitional time. Some thoughts on what the graffiti – alongside the autograph books – can tell us about female experiences of imprisonment during the civil war can be accessed here.

This project aimed to utilise both the autograph books and graffiti as sources for locating the names and home addresses of women who were held as political prisoners during this time. As there are no surviving prison records for the women we have little knowledge – beyond estimated numbers – of exact numbers, who these women were, where they came from and how they experienced imprisoned at this time. To this end one of the major outputs of this project has been to create two alphabetised lists – one in English and one in Irish – of the women who put their names to autograph books and graffitied walls whilst imprisoned (and on return visits in the years after the prison closed). The women’s names, home addresses, prison addresses and the location of this information has been included here

Ultimately, this project has aimed to re-insert the scale and complexity of women’s roles into mainstream understandings of this crucial period and will be updated on an ongoing basis.

O’Sullivan, N. 2009. Written in Stone: the Graffiti in Kilmainham Jail. Dublin: Liberties Press, 2009.

Created by Dr Laura McAtackney, (previously IRC Postdoctoral Fellow at School of Social Justice, University College Dublin), Associate Professor, Archaeology and Heritage, Aarhus University, Denmark.

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5 thoughts on “Following the Fighters?

  1. My great aunt, Rose O’Donnell, Dungloe, Co. Donegal, was to have carved her name in a stool at Kilmainham Gaol when imprisoned during the civil war. I have not found her name in your graffitti lists. Can this be checked? Congratulations on the launch of your website.

    Kind regards

    Marian O’Brien


    • Hi Marian, There are quite a few women from Donegal – especially from Dungloe – have you checked if she wrote her name in Irish? Quite a few of them did. The cells don’t have any original furniture in them, unfortunately the site was abandoned for 40 years after it closed and was stripped (including many of the fittings off the walls!) but I’ll have an extra search of any of the pages with Donegal ladies to see if I can locate her. Best wishes, Laura


  2. One of the names,Sylvester Heaney was my uncle. It was never clear as to whether he was executed in Kilmainham or Keogh barracks. Or indeed where he was buried immediately after his execution. He was eventually reinterred in Dundalk in 1924 and there is another story around that burial of him and 5 others. May they rest in peace.


  3. Sylvester Heaney was my grandfathers cousin, there is a story in my family that it was his brother who was executed in his stead. The brother, who was ill, swapping with him at a visit. I have no way of knowing if this is true or not. May they all rest in peace

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Pat just read your note .nomdoubt it was Sylvester that was executed.
    Would love to know the relationship yo are to me .i have a number of personal letters that Sylvester wrote while in prison. You can contact me if you wish


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