‘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, IRC Postdoctoral Fellow at School of Social Justice, University College Dublin.