Graffiti: Passing time & Past times

All forms of imprisonment, regardless of how heightened they become in national identities and memories of the past, are marked by those who must endure them with long periods of nothingness and boredom: of trying to fill and pass time. For the women held in Kilmainham Gaol and the other holding centres in Dublin and around the country during the Civil War their ability to fill their time is abundantly revealed in surviving graffiti and autograph books. The women imprisoned in the West (B) Wing of Kilmainham endured an unusual form of imprisonment: the Wing was in a very poor state of repair but their lives were less controlled than normal, criminal prisoners. This included the right to free association and they could choose the cells that they wished to inhabit. However, such freedoms meant that relationships between the women were not always harmonious. Ann Matthews has described a split amongst the woman as to whether they held a policy of active defiance of imprisonment or to quietly serve their time. This disagreement was reflected in their choice of floor and how they decorated it. The defiant decided to live on the ‘Top Landing’ and the less confrontational on the ‘Lower Landing’ (Matthews 2012: 53-54). The greater number and more defiant nature of the graffiti located on the Top Floor, for the most part, materially confirms these divisions.

One of the most frequent graffiti forms found throughout the Wing, and often created by both male and female prisoners, were calendars to literally mark off time. At times these were constructed to tick off a long, running tally of days at other times they were made to tick off a full month:

Located in a cell on Corridor 3 of the MIddle Floor.

Located in a cell on Corridor 3 of the MIddle Floor.

Many prisoners even have the presence of mind to note the day they are released:

Located in a cell on Corridor 1 of the Middle Floor.

Located in a cell on Corridor 1 of the Middle Floor.

Less sophisticated time keeping can be found in the use of counting lines:

Located in a cell on Corridor 1 of the Bottom Floor.

Located in a cell on Corridor 1 of the Bottom Floor.

With many of these examples engraved across large swathes of wall long covered by whitewash these may have been initially used by less literate and numerate prisoners from years before the period of political incarceration? One particularly interesting, and unusual, example is the faint remnants of a St Swithin’s Day calendar that Cecilia Gallagher was said to have kept in a cell on Corridor 1 of the Top Floor:

Located in a cell on Corridor 1 of the Top Floor.

Located in a cell on Corridor 1 of the Top Floor.

Of course passing time does not just entail literally marking off the days, there are many graffiti traces that reveal how the inhabitants of the West (B) Wing passed their time playing games. On Corridor 2 of the Top Floor two small dominos remain over whitewash in one of the cells:

Located in a cell on Corridor 2 of the Top Floor.

Located in a cell on Corridor 2 of the Top Floor.

A number of examples of noughts and crosses have been located, often partially hidden by whitewash, such as this example on Corridor 3 of the Middle Floor.

Located in a cell on Corridor 3 of the Middle Corridor.

Located in a cell on Corridor 3 of the Middle Corridor.

Likewise there are some cells that exhibit large numbers of mathematical sums and equations on the wall, which could be interpreting as relating to some form of game being conducted inside the cell?

Located in a cell on Corridor 2 of the Middle Floor.

Located in a cell on Corridor 2 of the Middle Floor.

Lastly, there are at least two examples of morse code being listed down walls in cells, probably to help the inhabitant with memorizing or utilizing it to pass their time (and possibly also maintaing their military training!):

Located in a cell on Corridor 1 of the Middle Floor.

Located in a cell on Corridor 1 of the Middle Floor.

Other less space-restrained pass-times were enjoyed by the women held in Kilmainham Gaol with diaries, memoirs and notebooks noting the importance of games such as rounders in keeping the women’s spirits up and limbs exercised. Margaret Buckley, an OC in the Wing (B) Wing during the Civil War, notes in her memoirs that: “Rounders was a favourite game – the poor convicts treading wearily round their circle in full view of us must have envied our freer movement.” (1938: 39). This references for also revealing  that the criminal prisoners held with the women, often to work as orderlies, did not enjoy the same privileges as political prisoners and were treated and considered different from the political prisoners. She also noted the regional differences with Kerry women highlighted for using the palm of their hands “rather than chair leg” for a bat (1938: 88). A rather humorous image of rounders, and a note of its importance, was contained in the Autograph book of Jenny Coyle “The darker side of things in prison / Last Ball gone over!”

Located in the Autograph Book of Jenny Coyle (Kilmainham Gaol Archive).

Located in the Autograph Book of Jenny Coyle (Kilmainham Gaol Archive).

One other means that the women found to pass time was to attempt to dig a tunnel leading from the laundry basement of the West (B) Wing to beyond the perimeter walls. Despite the futility of such a construction – the walls surrounding the prison were many metres deep – the occupation of actively subverting their imprisonment was important to the women. Margaret Buckley prosaically states that it ‘kept the girls occupied’ (1938 64) but its symbolic meaning ensured that its discovery resulted in great sadness at the ‘pass time’ being taken from the women. By the time it was discovered it was remembered in exalted terms by Buckley: “our first-born, beautiful tunnel, the channel of escape, navigated and excavated by our own hands, those hands, the broken finger-nails of which bore silent but eloquent witness to the magnitude of the work undertaken; the passage to freedom, paved with the hopes and aspirations of a score of liberty-loving women; the altar on which we placed our prayers and our back-breaking adventure.” (1938: 90).

Alongside many mentions in Buckley’s memoirs it was also referenced in many autograph books, often extending into long reminiscence of the capture and its repercussions, such as the following entry in Brigid Reed’s autograph book: “Dear Bridie. Do you remember the fatal Sunday when our little tunnel was captured by Mary Ann Cassidy alias Sergeant Cassidy you should not forget it 19th Aug, when they stopped our parcels or letters as a reprisal, and then we refused to answer the roll call, and the following Wednesday they gave u no food and so were forced on a compulsory hunger strike for 3 days and when the 3 days was up he gave us our food thinking we would answer the roll, but there was no go …”. There was also a more succinct note in the autograph book of Mary Twamley: “21st Aug 1923 / The parcel and letters stopped / For twenty one days, because / The Gov. Found a tunnel / On Sun 29th 1923 and a / Prisoner in it. / Up us.

Located in the Autograph Book of Mary Twamley (Kilmainham Gaol Archive).

Located in the Autograph Book of Mary Twamley (Kilmainham Gaol Archive).

There were also two references to the tunnel located in surviving graffiti. One leaves only the faintest hint in pencil ‘Tunnel in Laundry 28/7/23’

Located in a cell on Corridor 1 of the Top Floor.

‘Tunnel in Laundry 28/7/23’ Located in a cell on Corridor 1 of the Top Floor.

The other references was rather easier to locate despite being located near the floor of Sighle Humphries’ cell on Corridor 2 of the Middle Floor, the thick black pencil used had over-written the original at some stage since it was originally placed on the wall

Located in Sighle Humphries' Cell on Corridor 2 of the Middle Floor.

Located in Sighle Humphries’ Cell on Corridor 2 of the Middle Floor.

 

Buckley, M. 1938. The Jangle of the Key. Dublin: James Duffy & Co Ltd.

Matthews, A. 2012. Dissidents: Irish Republican Women 1923-1941. Dublin: Mercier Press.

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2 thoughts on “Graffiti: Passing time & Past times

  1. Fascinating, this is an incredible insight into life (or the briefest glimpse we can ascertain from these inscriptions) within the prison walls.
    It is easy to by-pass these marking as doodles while waiting but passing time is one of the only things you can do while incarcerated.

    Like

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