What I think about when I think about graffiti

One of the issues I confronted very early in the graffiti recording process at Kilmainham Gaol was having to constantly reassess what I considered ‘graffiti’ to be, or not to be.

The academic literature on the subject varies considerably and can interpret graffiti very broadly – including extrapolating methodologies and theories from prehistoric rock art as a comparative to more contemporary graffiti – to extremely narrow sociological-based definitions. The latter has been referenced by Jeff Oliver and Tim Neal in the introduction to their excellent volume Wild Signs who note the claim that graffiti originated as a response to economic downturns in the NYC/Philadelphia areas of the US in the 1970s (2010: 1). Whilst these huge variations in interpretation reveal different interpretations of the link between context, intention and form materialized in ‘graffiti’ few of the definitions engage with the materiality of graffiti: what does graffiti look like?

An 'obvious' example of graffiti at Kilmainham Gaol

An ‘obvious’ example of graffiti at Kilmainham Gaol

Trying to identify graffiti may sound obvious and belonging to the realm of ‘common sense’ but attempting to interpret the link between intention and form can be problematic. This is especially the case in exploring graffiti in more historical contexts and involving interim periods of abandonment. In the case of the West Wing of Kilmainham Gaol we know from Prison Board records that the last ‘great whitewash’ of the gaol was on 18 September 1922. On this occasion a number of male ‘criminal’ prisoners were brought from Mountjoy as: ‘pictures of all sorts and scribbling appeared on the walls of the cells all of which it would be well to obliterate before the prison is again used (by the women) it would be a great improvement if it could be whitewashed’. However, on embarking on recording prison graffiti nearly 100 years after this decision to cover existing graffiti the impacts of time, decay, water infiltration and haphazard whitewashing means that many partial remnants are retrievable with even rudimentary technology.

Calendar in pencil emerging from the whitewash

Calendar in pencil emerging from the whitewash

Moving around Kilmainham Gaol with a digital camera, two stands and two electric lights a whole array of partial portraits, pieces of text, numbers, calendars and even maps appear. Whilst these pieces of intentionally covered graffiti raises the questions of how far we should try to retrieve these layers of graffiti and how partial can they be and still be recorded? Should we be noting what we can see or what we are meant to see? How partial should these retrievals be and still be considered graffiti? Are remnants of paint or glue used to create picture frames or attach paper postcards to cell walls graffiti? Conversely what do we do about pieces of graffiti that were engraved and thereby reveal, at least partially, their form through whitewash? After many attempts to record various forms of graffiti I noted that lightly engraved, large forms were the hardest pieces of graffiti to faithfully record using lighting and a digital camera. If we can see it but can’t record it should it still be included as part of the project?

Large engraving of a full length side profile portrait of a soldier. Face depicted.

Large engraving of a full length side profile portrait of a soldier. Face depicted.

As I moved across the initial cells I was recording I was moved to make the decision to broaden my definitions of graffiti to include any graffiti remnants, regardless of how partial, that could be recorded photographically (even if this took various photographs to piece together) and any piece of graffiti there was any possibility it was deliberately created. The longer I work at Kilmainham Gaol the thinner line appears between an accidental indentation created on a wall and a deliberately engraved line. It can be very difficult to define intention or interpret partial remnants but with time, experience and increasing accumulations of data hopefully I’m getting closer to understanding what is being deliberately created and what we can retrieve from it.

Moving beyond cells: the corridors of Kilmainham Gaol

Engraved over a cell door on the ground floor of Kilmainham Gaol's East Wing

Engraved over a cell door on the ground floor of Kilmainham Gaol’s East Wing

Whilst the majority of the time spent recording graffiti on this project has concentrated on examining the cells where prisoners were held it is also important to remember that graffiti exists throughout the prison. One must remember that the corridors, stairwells and basements were utilised to record messages, place drawings and scratch names, dates and addresses as well as within the individual cells.

Whilst this movement from graffiting personal spaces of imprisonment to leaving marks on interconnecting, communal and even forbidden areas may reflect different uses of graffiti it is known from firsthand accounts that political prisoners held in the latter periods of Kilmainham’s usage had the ability to move throughout much of the prison wing with little intervention and control by the prison authorities. Frr movement throughout the wings is clearly demonstrated in the graffiti as one notes the range, extent and location of prisoner interactions throughout the West Wing corridors. The graffiti on display reveals a number of motivations and uses. Often, it was placed to be read by prison officers as well as prisoners. This includes a large, painted quotation by Padraig Pearse that was placed above a doorway leading into the so-called ‘1916 Corridor’ (and which is noted on many guided tours of the prison today) as well as verses that taunt the ‘Free State’ forces for their cowardice and lack of steadfastness.

Padraig Pearse 'Beware the Risen People / That have harried and held/ Ye that have bullied and bribed'

Padraig Pearse ‘Beware the Risen People / That have harried and held/ Ye that have bullied and bribed’


Graffiti located on the corridor of the top floor, West Wing, Kilmainham Gaol

Graffiti located on the corridor of the top floor, West Wing, Kilmainham Gaol

The top corridor of Kilmainham Gaol, where many of the female prisoners of the Irish Civil War (1922-1923) were held and left their most prominent graffiti traces, has a number of interesting pieces of graffiti on the corridors. Many of these additions to the walls have been completed after the prison closed, including post-closure visitations by those who had been previously held there and marks made by restorers and visitors. But there is also evidence that the walls were covered in textual and figurative graffiti during the life of the prison. One narrow wall nearest the stairwell that enters the floor from the direction of the 1916 corridor is particularly rich with such graffiti. Examples include unflattering caricatures of the prison personnel

Described as 'New Irish, Co Tipp[erary]

Described as ‘New Irish, Co Tipp[erary]

Also evidenced above many of the cell doorways in the corridor are names that the cells were given by prisoners. These can be difficult to read as they have been affected by abandonment, deliberate destruction and/or restoration but often – like the description of ‘Nurse E Grace’ (above) as being a Tipperary native – they reference locations. This theme of connecting to home – both outside of prison and in the friends formed whilst imprisoned – is strongly present throughout the site in graffiti. In previous posts it has been mentioned that the most numerous graffiti form is the signature and (often detailed) home address. The most frequent graffiti form found around cell doors in the West Wing corridors are placenames and collective identities based on place.

This graffiti links to the highly local nature of guerilla warfare from the War of Independence (1919-1921) onwards and how this continues to be a factor on the choice of companion and cell mate of the soldiers and their supporters during imprisonment. This continual link to external geography and shaming of Free State prison personnel that the graffiti of the corridors provides is potentially very important in interpreting the use of the site during its final years. It provides evidence of how the prison wing is being used to relocate the continuing struggles of comrades at ‘home’ from beyond the prison to within its confines and continuing the battles for hearts and minds despite the limitations of imprisonment.

From 1916 to 1921 [to 1923]?

Cumann na mBan motif

Cumann na mBan motif

The last two corridors that I have recorded in the west wing of Kilmainham Gaol have been interesting for a number of reasons. There has been some prominent and very interesting graffiti – including Sighle Humphries’ cell that has slogans on many walls, the Cumann na mBan logo (the female equivalent of the Irish Volunteers, which most of the imprisoned women were members of) and a small piece of pencil text that describes the location of a tunnel that the women were digging in 1923 (it was subsequently found by the authorities). There are also quite a few cells that have plaques noting that they held men (and one woman – the previously named Sighle) who were imprisoned during the War of Independence (1919-1921).

The cells that held famous names from the War of Independence have plaques above the door that were added early in the life of the prison as it transitioned to a museum. These plaques have been mentioned before in relation to the 1916 corridor and there are infinitely more cells identified on this floor than on any other. Infact the top floor is not open to the public and therefore there are no plaques above the doors and the ground floor is infrequently used for tours other than as a quick route to the prison yards, where the 1916 leaders were executed. So the large number of plaques relate to one floor and indicate that the memories of place of members of the Kilmainham Jail Restoration Society remained sharp decades after they had been held at the site. Indeed, one can see the names of the most famous inhabitant of a cell on these two corridors written in chalk on the back of the cell door in many cases. However, the graffiti inside the cells reveals faulty – either deliberate or unintentional – memories for some of the cell inhabitants. One of the cells that is named apparently held Simon Weafer, who interestingly hasn’t written his name in this cell but has done in a number of other cells on the corridor. Whereas graffiti signatures at Kilmainham are not always tied spatially to the cell that the person occupied – there are a number of examples of men and women who have written there names throughout the wing – it is rare for a name to appear in other cells but not appear where they had spent their term of imprisonment.

Perhaps a larger lapse of memory is the designation for Sighle Humphries, one of only two women who have a plaque above their cells doors in this wing. Due to the lavish decorations and large amounts of text in the cell that relate to its most famous occupant it is clear that Sighle occupied the cell in 1923, not 1921. This may appear to be a small slip but infact ‘officially’ places her imprisonment during the War of Independence – when the Irish rebels fought side-by-side against the British and narratives of war and resolution were simple and enemies were easily defined. Infact Sighle was imprisoned during 1923, which was during the Irish Civil War. Whereas Margaret Ward notes that c.50 women were imprisoned during the War of Independence by the British it was during the Irish Civil War that the women first experienced mass political imprisonment, when it is estimated around 500 were held. Sighle, like the other women who were held at Kilmainham and other sites of female incarceration, was effectively imprisoned by their own side. She – along with the other women – were not afraid to articulate their hatred and bitterness at their ex-comrades who were now their jailers in graffiti.

The animosity felt towards those who held her captive, her comrades of only a few short years before, was clearly articulated on a piece of graffiti written large on her wall: ‘Men and Measures may come and go / But principles are eternal’. Indeed, civil war imprisonment – despite being the last phase and therefore leaving the most lasting traces, is largely ignored in preference for its less controversial predecessors – the Easter Rising and War of Independence in the interpretation of the wing. There are a small number of cells that record civil war occupants but generally these are for specific reasons – Grace Gifford’s cell in the East Wing has a note stating she was imprisoned during 1923 due to the heavily restored mural of the Madonna and child that remains in her cell and is viewable through holes in the locked cell. Also the only plaque on the ground floor of the West Wing relates to Eamon DeValera’s imprisonment – when he was the last political prisoner to be released in early 1924 and therefore the last prisoner held in the prison. Maybe it is time – as we head into the ‘Decade of Commemorations’ to re-install the many civil war narratives into Kilmainham and begin to deal with the difficult and uncomfortable memories of civil war by firstly acknowledging the imprisonment that occurred during this time.

Sighle Humphries' cell

Sighle Humphries’ cell

Kilmainham Gaol and the cult of the 1916 corridor

Pencil graffiti noting Thomas MacDonagh's cell (by his sister-in-law, and fellow 1916 prisoner, Nellie Gifford)

Pencil graffiti noting Thomas MacDonagh’s cell (by his sister-in-law, and fellow 1916 prisoner, Nellie Gifford)

It was with some excitement and trepidation that I started recording the so-called ‘1916 Corridor’ in Kilmainham a couple of weeks ago. Now, this corridor is a focal point of the tours and the only location that all the tour guides ensure is visited. It is easy to understand why this physically inauspicious corridor is considered so important – at least 6 of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rebellion (which is considered by many as the first symbolic act towards eventual Irish independence) were held on this corridor prior to their executions in the stonebreakers’ yard below. This corridor potentially held some very important and interesting graffiti, but also I was aware that it would contain huge amounts of later graffiti due to the associations with the men who died in the rebellion’s aftermath and the ongoing interest in them.

All but two cells in the corridor of 14 were accessible – the only two that were not were Willie Pearse’s cell (which was located next door to his more famous brother, the rebellion leader Patrick [or Padraig] Pearse) and on the opposite side of the corridor an ablutions cell. As both these cells had older padlocks on their doors I could not gain easy access despite the cell of Willie Pearse being of great interest to me. The story of the execution of the two brothers is told by all the guides as it is a sad tale – the younger brother, Willie, was not considered a leader and not expected to be executed, but due to his familial connections he was shot the day after his brother after being placed in the adjacent cell just after Patrick had been executed. Therefore, although the cells sit poignantly side-by-side the two brothers were never simultaneously held within them. To date, the ablution cells tend not to be so interesting and – in contrast to the assertion by Abel & Buckley in the American context that the most secret graffiti is associated with toilets (1977: 16) – there is very little graffiti at all located in this context. Even less of the graffiti found is contemporary with the site’s continued functioning as a prison.

Of the cells that I did access there are a number that have plaques above their doors to inform the visitor who had inhabited it – the aforementioned two Pearses, Thomas Clarke, Thomas MacDonagh Michael Mallin and Joseph Mary Plunkett (the possessor of another emotive tale connected to his marriage, whilst awaiting execution, to his betrothed Grace Gifford, who was later held during the Civil War). The only cell with a plaque that does not relate to an executed leader is that of Countess Markievicz, an extraordinary woman who was sentenced to death in 1916 but was later reprieved. She was also the first women to be elected as an MP to the British parliament (but did not take up her seat) in 1918 and one of the first female ministers in Western Europe (Minister for Labour in the Republican government). With such an array of known inhabitants the graffiti recording was approached with gusto. However, the findings differed considerably but were as interesting as hoped if in ways that were not expected …

By far the most graffitied cell was that of P Pearse. This was not a surprise as he has long been the main figurehead connected with the rebellion, even if he was not the brains behind it (Thomas Clarke was the oldest and most experienced leader having been an active Fenian involved in bombing campaigns in England during the late 19th century). The cell contained huge amounts of overlapping graffiti and it was often difficult to discern the older predominantly pencil graffiti from the later (usually larger and less decorative) engravings. As these cells had been whitewashed at least once since 1916, in 1920, (some show evidence of sporadic whitewashing after this time) there was little chance of seeing any graffiti from 1916. Indeed, the majority of graffiti examples from the time when the prison was functioning relate to the civil war period of 1922-23 (including up to the closure of the prison for the final time in 1924). But it is interesting how so many separate visitors wanted to add their mark to the cell but none actually wrote the name – Patrick (or Padraig) Pearse – of its most famous inhabitant. It was noteworthy that the cell was being used by some to connect to more contemporary politics with reference to later republican organisations being added in some number:

Large piece of graffiti referencing 'IRA'

There were also a number of portraits in the cell – none of which appear to be of Pearse (although the male portraits all follow Pearse’s convention of the side profile, I suspect this is a coincidence as they occur in similar form elsewhere). The male portraits are unusually all named and there is a partial portrait of a female who is portrayed face on. The most unexpected find, and perhaps most interesting – was a small laminated photograph with a type caption on the reverse referencing memories of the three ladies depicted during happier times. This photograph is a relatively recent addition and had evidently been carefully prepared, laminated to ensure its ongoing existence and placed under the heating pipe at the opposite end of the room from the holes in the door and wall. How it arrived in its current position I am unsure as the doors have been locked on these cells for some time and its placement does not seem accidental?! A most interesting, if non-graffiti-related find!

Another cell that interested me greatly due to its lack rather then oversupply of graffiti was the cell of Countess Markievizc. As her cell is mentioned by almost all the guides and she is a figure of some interest and veneration amongst nationalists (it is claimed that at least 250,000 people flocked to the route of her funeral cortege in 1927) I was startled by the lack of graffiti of any form in her dark and pokey corner cell. There had been some much later additions but very few of the scribblings from the civil war period onwards that were evident in many of the other 1916 cells. The only piece of graffiti that showed any real individuality was a pencil note from Nellie Gifford (to accompany those in Thomas MacDonagh’s and her own cell) to state that this was the cell of the Countess. Otherwise her cell is bereft of any graffiti images or direct references to this seminal character.

Nellie Gifford's note confirming the Countess's residence in Cell 14

There are a number of possible explanations for the disparities between such important figures from the 1916 Rising. Perhaps the interest in adding to the cells from this floor relates primarily to those who were executed at the time rather than those who were able to continue their fight for Irish independence afterwards? Perhaps the Countess is a relatively recent figure of interest, answering a more modern need for female figureheads in the stories of the Rising (although there are many biographies relating to the Countess in recent years, they also date back from the 1920s and 1930s so there appears to be have been a long-term and abiding interest in her)? Perhaps the sometimes unflattering references to the Countess, including the biography of Sean O’Faolin in 1934, dampened enthusiasm for this rather amazing person? The possibility that her cell was the victim of sporadic whitewashing in the aftermath of the civil war (which appears to have happened in other cells) is also a possiblity – although this does not explain why there is so little graffiti from the post-closure periods?

It is difficult to understand the spread of graffiti on this corridor – there is definitely a difference in variety and quantity between the two sides of the corridor that is most noticeably apparent in a comparison of Pearse and Markievicz. Another possibility I have considered links into differences that i have found whilst recording in the impact of levels of light and warmth resulting from the positioning of the corridors in relation to the sun and their impact of their different periods of design (with small cells and windows dating back to the original corridor in 1796). The cells on the side that MacDonagh, the Pearses and Plunkett had resided have infinitely more light, were warmer due to this light (and the porous limestone that the prison was built of) and the cells are slightly larger in size than their neighbouring cells across the corridor. Indeed, it has been notable throughout the prison that graffiti predominantly appears in greatest quantities where the light hits the walls (although there are some notable exceptions, which includes graffiti, particularly on the ground floor, that appears to be of a more secretive nature and is placed in areas that are not easily viewed or accessed). Having just finished recording this cell and moving to a new corridor (a ‘1921 corridor’, if one believes the plaques!) I am spending some time trying to understand the differences between the graffiti spreads and forms between some of the more ‘cult’ cells. There are probably a number of explanations for Patrick Pearse’s cell to be overflowing whereas Countess Markievicz’s is relatively undisturbed but clearly the graffiti of the cells is revealing differences in the interactions with the various cells that may be telling of relationships with the 1916 leaders in the past, the impact of environmental conditions on drawing visitors to particular sections in the jail and the interventions of the whitewash pot of the authorities. In time, comparing the spread of graffiti across the various floors may provide some insights into whether the graffiti interactions are guided by famous past-inhabitant or a mixture of other factors.

Narratives of previously derelict buildings or should we record animal ‘graffiti’??

Muddy paw prints

Since working on the ground floor of Kilmainham Gaol I have been forced to acknowledge that humans were the not the only inhabitants of this fortress. Indeed, they were not even the most recent habitants! As the prison was effectively abandoned when it closed in 1924 and was only actively ‘fixed up’ by volunteers in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916 (most of the rebel leaders had been held here and were executed by firing squad in the prison yard) there were a number of decades in its recent history when humans weren’t the main occupants and they have left material evidence of this occupation.

Through my own lack of foresight the impacts of the years of dereliction were not actively considered in any depth in funding applications or theorised beyond the conception that ‘dereliction = ruin = damage to the structures = graffiti as under threat resource’ (funders love things being ‘underthreat’!). However, on immersing into the fieldwork there is a need to consider how traces of abandonment – particular animal ‘graffiti’ can be included as part of the narratives of the site. Places that have been abandoned can reveal traces of this status through a variety of forms including animal identifiers. Of course the fact that various animals have left their marks on the walls of the gaol – and even obscured or destroyed the precious human graffiti – were not considerations I had overly thought about, let alone positively, before they forced their presence on me.

The most frequent animal interactions with the gaol I have encountered are perhaps the least sinister (at least to my mind!). Whilst it was not surprising to see the traces of birds throughout the top floor (which had been roofless for many years) it was more unexpected to find that the enterprising few had also nested, perched and generally left an excremental trace in every part of the prison. The nests that were located on the top floor were also found – in lesser quantities – on the ground floor and it is clear that birds had explored, nested and even died across various parts of the three storey structure.

The evidence of other – four legged – animal interactions with the prison are most evident on the ground floor. It is clear from the various examples of paw prints and scratches on the walls that various four-legged animals had made use of the building after the humans had left. One of the most chilling examples – and the reason I thought of writing this blog post – was a cell that showed traces of what can only be described as a violent (and possible deadly) chase. As I made my way around the room, schematically recording the graffiti on the walls, it struck me that the various deep scratch marks, the frantic nature of their scoring up the walls and the different sizes of muddy paw prints in two specific locations – in the corner nearest the window and a large hole previously used for gaslighting diagonally opposite – materialised a previous, desperate chase across the cell. It was impossible not to visualise the claws dragging the animals up the walls to just below the level of the window and then over to the slightly lower exit-hole diagonally across the cell beside the door (I think the smaller creature escaped, from the placement of its claw marks. Phew!)

The deep scratches, paw-shaped dirt dragged down the walls and their sheer volume left a material presence more pronounced than the human inhabitants. What was most surprising (and disturbing for me!) was that they left behind a wisp of an experiential moment I could share. In contrast to the rather static written and drawn graffiti of most of the human interactions with the walls I could follow a whirlwind of action across the floor-boards. I felt deeply uncomfortable in the cell – diligently searching for engravings and pencil marks – as my mind could not help but piece together what had happened here. I could almost ‘feel’ its presence. I felt this eerieness because I could connect the physical marks on the walls to motion, speed, attack, panicked movements and fear but because these were related to animals I felt reticent at recording them.

I tried to rationalise why they should be recorded and why they were important and my internal arguments went something like this – the story of Kilmainham Gaol is not just about what happened ‘then’ and me, ‘now’, trying to reconnect to how this place could be explored and explained nearly 100 years later. The narratives of Kilmainham include what happened in the intervening years. I’ve already touched on the importance I place on getting some sense of what has been graffitied recently and why it was done in a previous blog (rather than dismissing everything after a arbitrary date as ‘modern intrustion’) but also the years of dereliction are an important aspect of the story. The discomfiture of the Irish state – in its many guises – with the powerful national(ist) narratives connected to the site are clear and have been articulated before now. Despite how important Kilmainham is to narratives of irish nationalism it was only adopted by the state in 1986. Why? This building is powerful. This is not because of any innate qualities it possesses but because of the things that happened in it, how they created and shaped the emerging and developing Irish state and how these have continue to have resonance in some (if different) form today. The ‘today’ of now is comfortable with the narratives contained within these walls, the state immediately post a bitter Civil War, were not.

Therefore, the materialising of aspects of the prison that link to its period of abandonment are telling and important. Following the work of the ‘Ruin Memories’ project, and their emphasis on bridging the gap between when somewhere was abandoned and when we decide to study it, this dereliction tells not only that the site was once abandoned but also they reveal uncomfortable truths about the fear of such places in fragile, new states. Abandoned ruins, such as Kilmainham, act as ongoing interruptions of the past into the present – their very materiality demanding to know ‘what do we mean now?’ – and the reveal continued, if contested, narratives of the past. Whilst Cillian McGrattan when discussing the issue of the past in contemporary Northern Ireland, argues ‘the idea that not only does the present shape how we think about the past, but that the past is not entirely mutable since experiences and interpretations of events often endure’ (2013: 7). I would highlight that enduring material traces of difficult pasts also serve this latter function.

So the evidence of animal occupation – their unintentional ‘graffiti’ – and years of dereliction at Kilmainham are not just signs of the need for more thorough cleaning or that they negatively distort or hide the human graffiti. They are important indicators that the narratives of the site were not so comfortable or shared in times gone by as they are. They reveal that the site is not just about 1916 or 1798 or Eamonn DeValera, although these are all important, they are also about how the emerging state did not know how to articulate, use or deal with these narratives. These are just some thoughts on why animal ‘graffiti’ at Kilmainham has a role in the narratives of the site.

Where bird droppings and animal paw prints meet!

When does historic graffiti become ‘modern intrusions’?

Turf Lodge Belfast covering early 20th century text

I recently moved from the relatively reified sanctuary of the top floor of the West Wing of Kilmainham Gaol to its more rough-n-ready near relation on the ground floor. This area of the prison is open to the public but the bottom of three corridors – where I am currently based – is relatively untroubled by guided tours as the majority spend their time on the hallowed first floor corridor of the ‘1916 landing’ (where many of the executed leaders of the Easter Rising spent their last days).

The doors of the prison cells are now permanently locked (as they are on the above landing) but this is a recent introduction and the cells have ‘suffered’ from many ‘modern intrusions’ on top of the types of graffiti associated with imprisonment that I was used to seeing on the top floor. My previous experiences of recording graffiti on the top floor treated later graffiti as welcome additions – they were generally dating from the 1930s-1960s and provided evidence that ex-prisoners had returned to visit the site in its state of dereliction. These visitors often added their names, dates of visit and even details of their original imprisonment to the walls. There were only a tiny number of additions from later periods, unconnected to ex-prisoners marking their territory!

In comparison, on the ground floor one has to pick one’s way through the numerous large graffiti of very recent vintage in order to locate the earlier material. The further down the corridor I have progressed the less the number and scale of more recent graffiti intrusions I have had to peer past but I have increasingly asked myself how should these more recent pieces of graffiti be treated? Are they really intrusions – to be ignored and looked past like an unnecessary fence blocking a picturesque view – or are they evidence of continuing, and even referencing, the tradition started by the prisoners prior to closure?

Of course the definition of graffiti as a ‘modern intrusion’ is a moving moment – the addition of graffiti by those who had previously been imprisoned in the 1930s is greeted with interest and recorded with the same care as the original graffiti. One can justify this by arguing that such additions continue the relationship with the site by past occupants, they indicate a continued connection to place and often reveal the impact of the intervening period on politics and ideals (not always in positive ways). For example, the attempts to sabotage or eradicate the name ‘DeValera’, which was written many times originally by those who emphasized the steadfastness of their ‘leader’ while imprisoned, can be interpreted as a disenchantment with his more conciliatory and middle-of-the-road politics once he actually gained high political position. But additions by those unconnected to the prison, or in decades long past past prisoners were still alive, are viewed as a nuisance (even by me!).

On the ground floor there is a proliferation of graffiti that is dated from the 2000s (up to 2007), which is characterised by the scale (often very large), form (predominantly following: name, location, year of visit), location (mostly in well lit parts of the middle of the room), type (mainly engraved through the initial layers of plaster with a ?screwdriver) and sheer disregard for the extant graffiti on the wall.

When first confronted with this type of graffiti I recorded it in the round – large parts of the wall were photographed as overviews with close-ups only of the earlier graffiti that I could locate (even if partially) under these later, blunt incisions. But increasingly I started to notice some interesting characteristics of these ‘modern intrusions’. The number of people from Northern Ireland who had added their names and location (often to quite specific locations – as above) was unexpected, the number of foreign locations that were articulating some political communality (especially true of those from the Basque country). The number of paramilitary organisations that appeared – ‘ETA’ ‘IRA’ being the most common – was also notable. There was the multiple use and contestation of swastikas in at least one cell. It became increasingly hard to dismiss all these graffiti as ‘modern intrusions’ that sullied the cell walls, were unconnected to the place and were the work of cretins. Rather there was a need – if reluctantly – to consider how they linked to the biography of the prison. How they were – at times – attempting to articulate their link to place and time specific to Kilmainham Gaol. How they were displaying their political allegiances in a building that they felt was in some way sympathetic to these ideas. Equally, how they were contesting the status, meaning and importance of the site as a nationalist icon. There are a number of ‘UVF’ graffito that appear on the walls (a Northern Irish loyalist paramilitary organisation), which are puzzling. Whilst one can question why a loyalist from Ulster would visit such an established icon of Irish nationalism perhaps they were attempting to question the consensus that links Irish – nationalist – Southern – catholic – gaelic at Kilmainham Gaol by presenting their interpretation of the Northern – protestant – British political prisoners who initially where housed in this prison (and indeed this corridor) in 1798?

My extrapolation of small pieces of recent graffiti may be one step too far – and I in no way condone the blunt scratchings on walls of an established historic site – but one must question if there is a need to include their voice in the narratives of the prison? Kilmainham Gaol is not just an historic prison, it is a continuing, active site of dark heritage. It attracts huge numbers of tourists, many international, and their reasons for attendance are not all the same, just as their impacts on the site are not all imperceptible. The prison is not an inert or dead site. It continues to ‘house’ people, albeit it for the duration of a guided tour and as such their interactions with the site can leave material traces. Although this later graffiti can not often be compared with the variety and richness of the earlier examples – it is not as thought-provoking, skilled or as varied as the earlier collections – it would be wrong to completely dismiss it. In a graffiti recording project such as this ‘modern intrusions’ are as materially present as historic precedents (if not more so!) and as such they are part of its story and should be included (to what degree, it is yet to be determined).

UVF graffiti outside Cell 7, Ground Floor, West Wing

Some thoughts on graffiti recording methodologies

Two portraits hidden under text

Thursday was my final day of working through the top floor of the West Wing of Kilmainham Gaol. However, this does not mean that it will be the last time that I work on the floor. I think its important for reflexive, ‘interpretative’ fieldwork that there remains the potential to revisit as I experience new locations in the prison, locate new types of graffiti and the objectives of the project refine.

This is a decision that i have come to due to my experiences so far. In the few short weeks that I have been working exclusively on the top floor I have already had to reevaluate what is worth recording and why. Of course, alot of these choices are subjective and can be dependent on mood, timing, the quantities of graffiti already located in the room even the location of the ‘graffiti’ – if ‘the graffiti’ is located at the bottom of the wall, where there is noticeably less graffiti, there is a keenness to record it but equally there are more scratches due to more frequent interactions with the wall at this point. Is a scratch on the wall deliberate or accidental? Decisions have to be made! Is there anything under the accumulations on the wall? Although hidden to the naked eye will graffiti be revealed under accumulations on the wall in flash photography (this has been productive at least once!)? Should I survey the cells with or without lighting? What time of the day is it (important both for lighting and energy levels!)?

The first two days I was recording in the prison I did not have access to an electricity source so I used my eyes to locate graffiti and photograph it. At times I noticed the intrusion (inclusion?) of previously unseen graffiti in photographs because that just happened to be located close to the graffiti that I did see. The above picture is a perfect illustration of this. I noted the text on the wall immediately on entering the room but as it was located in the relative shade of the wall close to the window I did not notice the fainter male portrait partially covered by it. Indeed, I did not notice the female portrait, which is almost completely covered by text, until I downloaded the image onto my computer. I expect the person who wrote the text did not see either portrait either!

However, some choices about what we record are not simply related to whether we see the remnant of past interactions with the walls but whether we think they are worthwhile recording. Two frequent remnants that are not quite graffiti but are definitely manmade have been inconsistently recorded so far – these are rectangular ‘frames’ either created from attaching paper onto the wall (and the adhesive used taking plaster with it on removal / disintegration) or faint remnants of painted ‘picture frames’ (sometimes including trompe l’oeil ‘string’ and ‘nail’ emanating from them). These elements are so frequent in number and often merely hint at what was once there rather than revealing the subject of the graffiti that I have felt impelled to record the more obvious examples but at times have bypassed others. Should I be reconsidering this decision?

i have also been considering how to deal with the ‘great whitewash’ of 1920. It has been stated elsewhere in this blogsite that the walls of the west wing were last painted in 1920 and therefore – in theory – that graffiti that remains has a definite terminus post quem for this year. However the inconsistencies of the whitewashing (at times vast accumulations point to a piece of graffiti that was covered – either because of its nature of the thoroughness of the person doing the covering!) or conversely the revealing of graffiti through either poor original coverage, missed examples and/or the impacts of water seepage since that time have (inconsistently) revealed previous graffiti. At times it is relatively simple to ascertain that the graffiti is pre or post the whitewashing (often due to dating so often part of the graffiti, very faint outlines, partial revelation or you can actually see the whitewashing progress across the walls) but at other times it is not so easy to determine. This is particularly the case when large swathes of the wall appear to be have been ‘revealed’ or the whitewash was applied in a particularly lighthanded or sporadic way.

Its is very convenient for the archaeologist to have a definite terminus post quem, especially as I am particularly interested in the graffiti of the civil war period, but should I record all graffiti regardless? So far I have made the decision to record all the graffiti that I can photograph. But if it is so faint that it does not appear in photographs then I have made a note of its location (and its probable whitewashing) but have not kept the image. My reasoning being that if the graffiti will not show in a photograph it does not serve a purpose photographing the location where it ‘should be’ but by recording the location I leave the option open to return to try different lighting options, different times of the day, different angles … I also note its relationships with later, extant graffiti. Those whitewashed pieces of graffiti that will photograph I note in their description if I believe – or it is clear – that they are ‘ww’ed’ (whitewashed). This means that I can distinguish the relative dates of the graffiti to a large extent but without compromising the aims of the project to analyse the civil war period remnants. Hopefully doing justice to the remnants but without skewing the aims of the project … too much …

But as with every reflexive methodology this may change as the project progresses, advice is received and new graffiti types are located elsewhere.

Historic prisons and the ‘ghosts of place’

Stairway Graffiti

Spending so much time by myself in a deserted floor of a prison has made me think about the atmospheric qualities of such places and how they impact on us (and those who inhabited the prison before us). Since last week I have been working on a relatively isolated area of the prison – with little noise from guided tours and no easy access to the rest of the building. I decided to explore down a spiral staircase and found the above bit of graffiti. To provide some context, this was also a day that the weather had been particularly turbulent (for May!): there had been little sunlight coming through the high prison windows and lots of noise caused by the wind rushing through the rafters. So far so creepy!

It made me think about how the places we work in and how they can impact on us. How the remnants of the past – that seem to seep from the dusty floors, ruined walls, whistling wind and array of graffiti – and how they impact on our relationship and assessment of the places where we are working.

Spending so much time in an historic prison that has such a strong link to much of Ireland’s recent social and political (as well as military) history has made me think about what Michael Mayerfeld Bell calls ‘the ghosts of place.’ In his 1997 paper he is not speaking of ‘ghosts’ per se but rather the impact of resonances of places and our connections – or lack of them – to them and how this impacts on the ‘human experience of place’. Afterall we are not robots, we feel strong emotional connections to some places, mild interest and even distaste towards others. But does this impact on how we explore them? How we study them? How we try to understand them?

But there is another way of thinking about our connections as researchers to place … how might these feelings we have link to long departed people’s experiences of place? How did the connections of those prisoners who lived on this site – especially those political prisoners in the latter years of use – understand it as an already historic place and how did this frame their experiences of place? Did their palpable, material connections to previous political prisoners and insurrections shape how they felt about the prison and how they interacted with it?

One way of examining this is through exploring the graffiti that remains behind. From the top floor of the West Wing (which is relatively untouched by more recent intrusions) there is a huge collection of political graffiti relating not only to the contemporary politics of the prisoners but also what they perceived as their historical precedent. There are profile portraits of 19th century characters alongside the proclamations of ‘Up DeValera’ (many of the latter showing evidence of being sabotaged at later revisits in the 1930s when the prison was derelict). These graffiti interactions reveal not only the immediate concerns of the prisoners but their intimate connection to the carceral environment, what it signified and how ‘the ghosts of place’ acted on them.

Gendered Graffiti: is female graffiti different from male?

Mysterious woman hiding under the window in Cell 10

Mysterious woman hiding under the window in Cell 10

Before I started ‘graffiti hunting’ in Kilmainham Gaol I spent some time looking at other materials relating to the prisoners that were held in the prison archive. Of particular interest to me was a collection of autograph books that had belonged to female prisoners who were held in the gaol (and other holding centres) during the Civil War. Autograph books were popularly used to document the signatures, reminiscences, verses, images and innumerable types of documentary communications by the women and I thought these would make an interesting source in tryng to guess what text I might find (or not!) on the walls in the jail.

One thing that I found that i hadn’t expected was the role these books played in commemorating the particular lineage of Irish nationalism that these women continued to link to, especially as manifest in the ‘blood sacrifice’ of the 1916 Easter Rising (which at the time of the women’s imprisonment was only 7 years before). As Ann Dolan has highlighted in her thoroughly researched book on commemoration of the Irish Civil War, in the early years after 1916 the commemorations were generally organised and attended by women. To appear at such public events was too dangerous and foolhardy for ‘men-on-the-run’ and women were considered less likely to be arrested and detained as a result of these ceremonies. Unusually, in the year 1923 – during the civil war – the women held in Kilmainham Gaol performed the ‘official’ commemorative duties for that year.

Within a number of autograph books there are commemorative mementos detailing the form and structure of the commemorations. I was surprised to find that the focus of their ceremonies were the ‘great men’ who had been held in that prison and executed in the stone breaker’s yard (that they mainly mentioned in their autograph books as the backdrop to games of rounders!). The importance of these men was further enhanced by the elevated role that women who were related to them (and were imprisoned in 1923) held in this ceremony. Effectively, the women were commemorating the male story of the Rising, not their own.

So how does this link to graffiti? So far I have recorded the majority of the top corridor of the West Wing in Kilmainham Gaol. This is the part of the prison that we know the women occupied during the (relatively) long periods of imprisonment during the Civil war so this is where I expected to see the most evidence of ‘female’ graffiti. However, the disparity between the quantities of identifiably ‘male’ and ‘female’ graffiti has become increasingly noticeable. Of course, to call any graffiti ‘male’ or ‘female’ is problematic, so I have been very strict in how I ascribe these characteristics and have only included graffiti as definitely ‘male’ and ‘female’ if it takes the form of, or is accompanied by, a signature. In my experiences so far it is clear that there is a far larger concentrations of male signatures than female, they are located across more locations and they are (often) larger in size.

Female graffiti is generally grouped together, I am guessing as a communal statement of belonging. Furthermore, the majority of the very visible female graffiti was not written during periods of imprisonment but very clearly is marked as having been created on specific visits back to the site (particularly in 1938 – the prison closed in 1924). The size is generally small and there are details included that i have not noted with any male graffiti. In particular, in a number of cases the women identify the exact day, location and even arresting officer (in one case!) of their circumstances of being imprisoned. They are less ‘showy’ in their named graffiti – although we know that some of the more elaborate and artistic graffiti that is unnamed was created by women (mainly through references in memoirs and autograph books).

These disparities leave big questions – Why are the women not leaving their mark in the same quantity and scale as the men? Are they instead making their mark in anonymous scrawls and drawings? Are they contributing tiny etchings? Why are there only small numbers of communal statements?

At these early stages there are many hypotheses: are the women continuing to revere the men who were held there before them by leaving the walls (relatively) untouched (some of which have left still evident traces, despite the whitewashing!)? Do they want to hide behind anonymity? Perhaps they want to leave their material legacies in books rather than on walls? Or possibly they are continuing the commemorative tradition or celebrating ‘great men’ and inadvertently silencing their narratives of the period? Until the study is finished these ideas can only be conjecture but they do seem to point to a startling (if incomplete) conclusion that in this place and at this time men and women were interacting with the walls (or not) in different ways.

Revisiting the prison and graffiti traces

Old Corridor, West Wing, Top Floor

Old Corridor, West Wing, Top Floor

Today was a transitional day – I moved from the ‘newer’ (relatively speaking!) part of the West Wing, which was constructed just after the Great Famine in the mid to late 1840s – to the older corridor that lies perpendicular to where i have previously been working (and interestingly is accessed via a rough cut ‘door’ through one of the ‘newer’ cells!).

The cells on this corridor are in some ways more difficult and in others easier to access and record. I’ve certainly had to spend alot of time thinking about how I am lighting and photographing the walls! They are much narrower than the cells I have been recording up to now at only 1.6m wide (and 3.7m long). It is really difficult to get overview photographs of the walls because of the width but also as this part of the West Wing was most impacted by the dereliction of the prison on closure in 1924. As there was no roof for some time, there are no floor boards so I am essentially setting up and moving around on uneven rumble. This creates its own challenges as regards my lighting! The tripod stand has spent much of the day precariously hoovering – seemingly on the verge on ‘timber!’ – and the room is so small I don’t really have room for the two lights. There are some advantages – the ‘new’ roof (which was replaced by volunteers in the early 1960s) is much higher – looking up straight into the rafters – than the previous roof and therefore the cells feel much less oppressively contained. There is even a skylight (in a few days no lighting needed!) over some of the cells in the middle of the corridor.

The rooms are so narrow it is difficult to get space to record large slogans or images, you have to wonder how prisoners (and they were plural!) were able to negotiate these spaces – and each other! There is a wooden bracket around 3m above the ground that is consistently located in each cell and we have wondered what it was for? There have been suggestions that possibly it was used to secure triple bunked beds to the wall. It is hard to imagine how three people could live in these cells but from the graffiti (and documentary sources) there was certainly more than one and often three!

The graffiti in the first two cells is really interesting … much of it has very publicly and obviously been added long after the prison closed. It is dated (1938) and it is stated that it is being written on a ‘visit’ back to the prison. The majority of the graffiti is written by women prisoners who were held here during the Civil War (1922-23). There is documentary evidence of a collective visit to the prison by members of Cumman na mBan in 1938 (this was the women’s organisation that was essential anti-Treaty). These are particularly interesting to me as the women’s experiences of imprisonment during this time are still largely silent in scholarship, even more so than the contribution of women to this nastiest of conflicts. We know that up to 400 women were imprisoned during this conflict … how many have left their traces on the walls of Kilmainham? But more about the women and the traces they have left in the next post …