Despite the women being held in number in Kilmainham Gaol during, and in the aftermath, of the civil war, they were not completely disconnected from what was occurring beyond the prison walls. There are numerous examples of commemorative plaques being inscribed on the walls, and written in autograph books, commemorating the celebrated anti-Treaty Republican men who had lost their lives during the civil war. This was particularly evident for those men who had been executed by the Free State forces, of which there were 77 between November 1922 and the end of the Civil War with the IRA ceasefire of 24 May 1923 (Coleman 2014: 115).
Whilst many of the commemorative plaques made for the anti-Treaty dead have been heavily whitewashed (including this example that reveals only the words ‘In the Memory of’:
a small number were either missed or left untouched. This includes a plaque located on the middle floor that was probably created by male inhabitants but mirrors those that have been covered that were created by women. The wording notes: ‘’By their comrades of / The Column / RIP / in memoriam / Executed on 8th January 1923 / T Grady / LE Dowling / Sylvester Heaney / A _ O’Rielly [sic] / L _ Dheehy’:
Likewise, throughout the autograph books there are reference to dead and executed anti-Treaty leaders including Liam Lynch, who was IRA Chief-of-Staff when he was shot and killed by Free State forces in April 1923:
Alongside the many references to the civil war dead is a poem in Brigid Reed’s autograph book, ‘In Memory of Rory O’Connor’, who was one of the captured leaders who held the Four Courts in the early days of the Civil War:
Alongside remembering the male dead of the civil war, in a number of ways, the women were continually rearticulated their position as the ‘true’ descendants of the Irish republican tradition. This can especially be seen in the number of references and quotations from inspirational historical republican figures, particularly those who revealed their staunch and unquestionable dedication to the republican ideals and died tragically, which covered the walls of the West Wing and autograph books of the women. Patrick Pearse is frequently found in autograph book and graffiti quote, most famously in the archway leading to the so-called ‘1916 Corridor’ of the Middle Floor:
There are also two verses of his verse ‘Patriot to his Motherland’ alongside an image of Patrick Pearse located in the autograph book of Frances Casey:
Likewise, Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork who died in Brixton Prison by Hunger Strike in October 1920 also occupies a popular place in monumental slogans painted on walls. One well preserved example was created by Bridie O’Mullane that does not name but quotes from Terence MacSwiney:
Undoubtedly, his popularity amongst the women would have been heightened not just due to his role but also his sister was the high-profile female anti-Treaty prisoner, Mary MacSwiney.
Such were the enduring, and emotive links, of the women with the tragic dead of recent republican insurrections that the official Republican commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising was conducted by the women in Kilmainham Gaol in 1923. There are many references to this commemoration in autograph books and whilst they recreate the events of the day for posterity they also indicate how the building of Kilmainham was central to this commemoration, with many parts of the ceremonies taking part in, and referencing, the poignant areas of the gaol (including the yard where the men were shot):
They also reveal the hierarchies within the group of women who were imprisoned at that time, with those related to executed leaders of the Easter Rising playing prominent roles in the commemoration. This was particularly notable in the multiple roles of Grace Gifford Plunkett, the ‘tragic bride’ of Joseph Mary Plunkett, who married her fiance hours before he was executed in 1916.
However, one could argue that by focussing on the dead men of 1916 they were also inadvertently relegating and even hiding their own roles at the time. Margaret Ward has elaborated this interpretation: ‘As the cult of martyrology has always been a powerful motivating force in Irish history and it has always been men who have paid the supreme penalty, this sacrifice of male lives for the national cause has obscured the continual yet less dramatic sacrifices made by women working for the same cause. It also perpetuated an artificial distinction between man the leader and woman the auxiliary, not least in the consciousness of women themselves.’ (1983: 194-5)
Whilst the women focussed on the dead men of the Easter Rising in the official commemorations of the rebellion they did also commemorate themselves. This can be seen in a number of Cumann na mBan insignia that remain on the walls, many of which were monumental in size and located in prominent areas either above of directly facing the cell doors, including one example over the cell door on Corridor 1 of the Top Floor:
There are also a slightly finer version located on a wall in Sighle Humphries cell:
Clearly, the memorialisation and commemoration of the contemporary and historical dead of the Irish Republican movement was prominent in the minds of the women held in Kilmainham Gaol during the civil war. Their connection of religion to commemoration is vividly apparent in the surviving graffiti in the West Wing due to the large number of pencil monumental crosses placed on stepped surrounds:
and engraved examples:
Many have partial remnants of pencil text on the steps but the majority have been whitewashed and therefore it is difficult to decipher who these crosses were remembering, and also inadvertently revealing the discomfiture of the Free State authorities with this common graffiti form.
Ward, Margaret. 1983. Unmanageable revolutionaries: women and Irish Nationalism. Dublin: Pluto Press.