Methods: Autograph Books

Located in the Autograph Book of Kathleen Kavanagh & Thomas Merrigan (probably relating to male imprisonment during War of Independence in Mountjoy Jail) (Kilmainham Gaol Archive).

Located in the Autograph Book of Kathleen Kavanagh & Thomas Merrigan (probably relating to male imprisonment during War of Independence in Mountjoy Jail) (Kilmainham Gaol Archive).

Autograph books are rarely studied as evidence from the period of the Civil War, however, they are an important source. Autograph books were relatively inexpensive, mass-produced books of blank paper that were popularly circulated in the late 19th to mid 20th century. They were usually passed between school children to mark major transitions and changes in their young lives through the written exchange of a short message. Although widely used in many western contexts there are relatively few academic studies of their uses, contexts and meanings. This is probably due to their ubiquitous nature and widespread belief that their contents were essentially meaningless in being repetitive, “ritualisitic and uniform” (Herzog & Shapiro 1986). One of the few long-term, academic studies of these textual forms were conducted by Hanna Herzog and Rina Shapira when they analysed the contents of teenager’s autograph books from an Israeli context in the 1980s. They argued that autograph books were particularly useful in gauging opinions of the users as they were “authentic material not created for the purpose of study” and the entries, whilst largely mundane, were meaningfully in cementing social networks between the writer and the owner (Herzog & Shapiro 1986: 109). They accept that the contents of the autograph books were “startlingly similar” across time and space, with the contents largely falling into three categories. These were enumerated as: “poesies” (folk verses or rhymes), “memories” (reminiscence about the book owner or of shared experiences between writer and book owner) and “autographs” (signature of the writer) (Herzog & Shapiro 1986: 109). However, they do not equate this consistency and repetition of form with being unimportant to the cultural researcher.

Rather, Herzog and Shapira have highlighted the importance of focusing on the small, seemingly insignificant, variations in style and format to explore personalization of expression (Herzog & Shapiro 1986: 110). The autograph books that constitute the focus of this paper fundamentally follow the definitions and descriptions enumerated by Herzog and Shapira in their work. However, it is the circumstances of this particular collection of books – they were used by (mainly) adult females in a political carceral environment at a transitional time in Irish history – that claims the need for an indepth analysis of their context and contents. When one takes into account the lack of extant written sources from this period, and the longstanding marginalization of women’s narratives from the civil war, the existing autograph books become a central source. Shapira and Herzog define autograph books in elevated terms as being “a cultural item … a communicative process, a mutual social activity carried out by means of the artistic media” (Shapiro & Herzog 1984: 443). Likewise, I argue that autograph books are especially important examples of this form due to their specific context and association with a short, but controversial, period of political imprisonment.

Niamh O’Sullivan has highlighted in her work on the graffiti in Kilmainham Gaol, one of the main holdings centres for civil war prisoners, that the use of sources emanating from the prisoners, such as autograph books, have become “vital to the compilation of any prison list” (O’Sullivan, 2009: 33). Many male and female prisoners kept autograph books at the time and one of the most common entries was the prisoner’s name, locations and dates of imprisonment. As such they essentially constructed their own prison records. This seeming lack of reticence, and even pride, in disclosing details of imprisonment in these sources have ensured that historians have used autograph books as a central source in extracting the identity and movement of individual prisoners during this period. With a growing number of autograph books being held in accessible, archival collections they have become increasingly useful in estimating not only the numbers of female prisoners held during this period but also their reactions and opinions relating to their incarceration.

One of the most important figures in gathering and utilizing this particular textual source has been the previous archivist at Kilmainham Gaol, Sinead McCoole. Her research on female involvement in the formation of the Irish state has resulted in the active collection of autograph books that have hence been opened to public scrutiny (including in her own publications 1997 & 2003). Of the 25 female autograph books currently held in the Kilmainham Gaol Archive, eight were directly sourced by McCoole and were subsequently donated or photocopied for the collection. While she has extracted many writings and drawings from these autograph books for use in her influential books, the actual particularities of this source has not been systematically discussed or dissected.

This project explored the sources as both factual, idealised, representative and specific to the individual. The autograph books were examined in a number of ways: to determine themes of interest to the women, assess educational levels, explore friendship networks and extract names. They were examined on a number of different occasions to extract various forms of information including geographical bredth of women’s origins, images included, inclusion of non-paper forms of material culture (such as leaves, string etc) and the information extracted has been continually re-examined and reassessed in light of the findings of the graffiti recording. The autograph books held in Kilmainham Gaol Archive were consulted in 2011 through to 2014 so as to allow reassessment of the significance of their contents. They are used extensively throughout this website to reveal aspects of female experience and provide support and further information on themes revealed through graffiti.

A complete list of autograph books consulted (alongside their archival reference number) can be found here.


Herzog, H. and R. Shapira. 1986. “Will You Sign My Autograph Book? Using Autograph Books For a Sociohistorical study of Youth and Social Frameworks”. Quanlitative Sociology. 9 No 2: 109-125.

McCoole, S. 2003. No Ordinary Women: Irish female activists in the Revolutionary Years, 1900-1923. Dublin: O’Brien Press.

McCoole, S. 1997 Guns and Chiffon: Women Revolutionaries and Kilmainham Gaol, 1916-1923. Dublin: Stationery Office Books.

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

Shapiro, R. and H Herzog. 1984 Understanding Youth Culture Through Autograph Books: the Israeli Case. Journal of American Folklore. Vol 97. No 386: 442-460.


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