One of the central concerns – and indeed power struggles – that structured the women’s days and interactions with the prison regime at Kilmainham Gaol and the other holding centres, emerged from the seemingly mundane realm of food. Given the disputed nature of their political imprisonment food often becomes a central focus in articulating status for the women, who were attempting to utilize and bypass rules and regulations to reveal their ongoing, everyday resistance. Food gains this role because it is one of the few essentials that the prisoners needed to survive but also had to rely on the prison authorities to supply or facilitate. Throughout the period of imprisonment during the civil war the women’s battles with the authorities over food included contestation regarding its quality and quantity, the provision of suitable crockery and cutlery, its timing, and often the recourse to hunger strike – the self-denial of food for political reasons – which swiftly became the ultimate weapon utilised to protest related and wider issues.
Every autograph book in the Kilmainham Archive collection holds some reference to the poor quality of the food and they are often prominently and elaborately detailed. In the autograph book of Bridget Reed: “I hope you will never forget your Holiday in the NDU in the year 1923 when you got boot leather for your dinner and green bulletts (sic) for Potatoes”
Another reference in the autograph book of Mary Twamley mentioned the “green bulletts [sic] & shoe leather, & hard bricks for potatoes for dinner”.
Also in Mary Twamley’s autograph book is a ration list, again from NDU, which reveals the type and quantity of food that the women were provided, a rather limited and meagre diet with small quantities of milk, meat and root vegetables, tea and jam:
A more unusual form of entry, was a de facto diary detailing the ongoing negotiations of the minutae of food delivery, quantity and quality found in the autograph book of Mary Twamley. Alongside information on the exact form and quantity of food, the lack of access to knives became the focus of protests: “Q.M. asks for knife for cutting bread and Seargeant Conlon refuse same. With result that all left Dining Hall and left Dinner there. Ultimatium sent Gov that no one would pass gate until knives were given and that everything was settled”. This reference may reveal why ordinary cutlery knives are represented in graffiti in a number of locations throughout West (B) Wing of Kilmainham Gaol:
Clearly, the knife depicted above is drawn around rather than a freehand representation and the knife has a rounded end so does not appear to be representing menace or threat. Perhaps these ‘knives’ were being used to taunt the guards, the women victorious in secreting and removing this prohibited form from the dining room?
When relations with the prison guards and authorities were good women were often allowed to receive food parcels to supplement, or even bypass, the meagre prison rations. Indeed, those who were from more affluent backgrounds were allowed to use their money to purchase food and supplies from shops. Graffiti remnants on Corridor 1 of the Top Floor reveal at least two shopping lists: one of non-edible provisions and the other for food. The non-edibles include ‘safety pins’, ‘elastic’, ‘soap’ and ‘handkerchiefs’ (a number of which have been stroked out – perhaps on being acquired?)
Whereas the list of food types seem to have inadvertently been placed onto of an earlier image of a prisoner, distraught, in his cell (perhaps dating from the War of Independence? [1919-1921]). It includes ‘cocoa’, ‘butter’ and ‘bovril’.
Of course the role of food was not just a mudane and everyday way of challenging the regime but was also used as the ultimate means of expressing their rejection of the Free State and their ongoing imprisonment. Hunger Strikes were frequently used by the women as both communal and individual acts, as short-term and long-term means of protesting and publicly highlighting their plight. They played a pivotal role in protest, from the very first women held during the civil war until the last women were released in December 1923, many months after the civil war had officially ended The importance the women placed on hunger strikes can be seen in the autograph books in particular, there is little extant graffiti that refers to them. Many of the women noted alongside their signatures if they had been on hunger strike and for how long. They also noted those released who had been on long-term hunger strikes:
Whilst many were short lived they were often conducted en masse to push for better conditions or mass releases. These communal hunger strikes were often commemorated in the women’s autograph books including M Timmins, who wrote the names and location over three pages:
Mai Moloney created a small booklet to commemorate ‘with new forgetful memory / of the 55 fellow prisoners’.
Food is superficially a fairly mundane subject to explore when trying to understand extraordinary circumstances but it is telling just how important sustenance – and the ability to control it, which lay with the women – was to their everyday lives whilst imprisoned. The poor quality of food (and living conditions) affected many of the women greatly and became a focal point for reminiscence in autograph books. Contestations regarding when, where and how food was served appears on the walls as well as in the women’s autograph books and hunger strikes were used to create crisis points that made the regime act. Taken in totality, food was one of the more important and all-encompassing issues for the women detained during the civil war.