Whilst we perceive the women who were held as political prisoners during the Irish Civil War (1922-1923) as anti-Treaty Republicans many also had strong and enduring connections to the suffragette movement. The relationship between the women’s nationalist and suffragette identities was complicated – and often differed on an individual basis. However, it was increasingly clear that, particularly after the Easter Rising (1916), the women chose to bypass their initial suspicions that nationalism promoted a male, rather than universal, freedom. As Louise Ryan has argued this was not a simple choice for many of the woman due to the disconnect between their desire to be independent whilst being explicitly reified as ‘traditional’ in public rhetoric by nationalists: ‘The nationalist movement thus may appear contradictory; on one hand inviting women into the public sphere to engage in active protest for the nationalist cause, while on the other hand, limiting women to purely traditional roles’ (1995: 489).
How the women negotiated these two forms of identity differed and changed over time. It is apparent through examining graffiti and autograph book inserts that the women had different perceptions about the role and importance of themselves in comparison to the men. This can be seen in their conscious use (or not) of gendered language in popular Republican slogans and verses of the period. Throughout the graffiti and autograph books there are various versions of the same basic verses extolling the virtues of the anti-Treaty forces including Annie Fox’s emphasis on the role of the women:
This can be compared to Eibhin Ni Rusirc’s celebrating the ‘men of the west’:
To complicate matters there are also many examples of verses that extol the virtue of both with the ‘girls in the camps / and the boys in the jails’ [In Autograph books including Brigid Reed, Susan Merrigan, Mary Twamley x2, Kitty Doyle and a surviving graffiti version in two cells of Corridor 1 of the Middle Floor).
Indeed, it would be argued that the women’s organisation Cumann na mBan became the first group to officially proclaim their anti-Treaty stance due to their expectation that women stood to lose most in the new, compromised Free State. It is clear in many examples of graffiti and autograph book comments that some of the women had a difficult, and suspicious, relationship with men in general and those who were pro-Treaty in particular. One example of graffiti from a cell on Corridor 3 of the Middle Floor states: ‘Anna Fitzsimons / Arrested March 20th 1923 / [At Findlater’s Church I met my doom] / Keegan was his name / (text scribbled over)’
There are also a number of graffiti notes that were written by the women when they returned to visit the Gaol, as a derelict building, from organised visits in 1938 and at other times that provide minute detail of their arrest and imprisonment records that often note the male officials who arrested. Rose Mulligan wrote: ‘Arrested by Jack Nolan CID / On Easter Saterday [sic] 31st March 1923 / Up the Republic’:
Interesting, two of the most frequent graffiti references are to men associated with the pro and anti-Treaty sides: Richard Mulcahy, the Minister of Defence in the Free State government who signed many of their detention orders, and Eamon DeValera, one of the leaders of the anti-Treaty side. In one piece of later sabotaged graffiti the two are joined in the short verse: ‘DeValera is a gentleman / Mulcahy is a brute’
DeValera’s name was frequently found amongst the graffiti in the wing, but has often been defaced in the years since the prison closed. This perhaps indicates anti-Treaty Republicans’ displeasure at his perceived concessions as a long-standing politician in the aftermath of his imprisonment during the Civil War. However, his name still remains under later engraved graffiti in the cell he inhabited during the Civil War (although possibly added later?):
The women’s connection to, and support of, each other is apparent throughout the graffiti assemblages and autograph books. There was clearly a strong bond created through the imprisonment of significant numbers of women during the civil war and this is confirmed by their decision to return to add further graffiti interactions with the walls of the jail. Interestingly, these interactions were frequently communal, with the women adding their names in small groups in significant places. This includes one example located on Corridor 2 of the Top Floor with the names of Lily Gleeson and Peg Quinn placed together with two glasses depicted between them:
The reascribing of their names to the walls of the prison over a decade after they had last been held there is an interesting phenomenon. Whilst ex-prisoners of both sexes returned to the prison at various points after its abandonment – and left their trace behind – the organized, concentrated and detailed nature of the women’s graffiti, which mainly centres on a small number of cells on Corridor 2 of the Top Floor and Corridors 2 & 3 of the Bottom Floor, perhaps indicates that they wished to reinsert their presence into their place of imprisonment as they were already been written out of the narratives of the period?
Such an interpretation could be supported by the case of Nellie Donnelly (nee Gifford). A sister of Grace Plunkett (nee Gifford) and Muriel MacDonagh [nee Gifford] she has left graffiti notes in a number of cells on Corridor 1 of Floor 2, the so-called ‘1916 Corridor’ from a visit on 1 August 1934. Whilst noting the cells of her brother-in-law, and executed leader, Thomas MacDonagh:
She also noted where Countess Markeivicz was held and left a graffiti trace in her own cell from 1916:
Whilst the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society, when preparing the site to be reopened as a heritage site in the years before the 50 year anniversary of the Easter Rising, placed plaques above the cells that had held ex-leaders in this corridor – including the above named – the cell that held Nellie Gifford remains without a plaque.
Ryan, Louise. 1995. Traditions and double moral standard: the Irish suffragists’ critique of nationalism. Women’s History Review 4 (4) 487-503