I have been spending the majority of my working week in Kilmainham Gaol for the past three weeks – slowly going blind, destroying my lungs and getting INCREDIBLY excited about the forms, types and range of graffiti that I am finding on the gaol walls.
I began my search on the top floor of the West Wing (which is closed to the public and – for those who have visited – is directly above the ‘1916 corridor’). I have been using a fairly bog standard camera, a stand and two mobile lights to be able to light the rooms and allow me to better locate the often faint and partial graffiti. The first three days i was in the gaol I did not have the lighting equipment as there is no electricity on the top floor and I had to arrange for cables and lights to be purchased (and a BIG thanks to UCD AV for letting me have lights for the course of my fieldwork!) and it is AMAZING the amount of graffiti that the naked eye will miss in such dark, dirty and decayed rooms.
I have found many bits of graffiti that i expected to find – signatures, political poems/verses/text, geographical locations and gaelic phrases but I have found SO much that I didn’t expect to find – shopping lists, lists of numbers (what were they for?), calendars, portraits (often side profiles), caricatures, celtic images, images of imprisonment. Almost every wall has revealed a ‘surprise’!
One of the biggest surprises is just how little attempt there was to hide these pieces of graffiti – the prisoners who created them most often placed them at eye level around doorways and in the middle of walls. They WANTED their graffiti to be seen. Of course there are other pieces that are more hidden away (probably behind beds that are no long in place) and there are those pieces of graffiti that reveal the prisoners were using the wall as a form of paper – to keep note of numbers, dates, weather conditions, shopping. I particularly love the portraits and there are many! Some of them appear to be generic representations, others may be specific individuals, a few DEFINITELY were (Richard Mulcahy is particularly notable for the number of rather unattractive portraits he ‘inspired’!)
So much to think about when spending all these hours ‘in gaol’, by myself, searching for the remnants of long forgotten material interactions between prisoner and wall. How much has the prison deteriorated? Were the rooms quite so dark / cold / drab? Where they clean or covered in dust, bird excrement and who knows what else! as they are now? How did these conditions impact on their health – both mental and physical? Can these scraps on the wall provide insights into prisoner experiences of place? Here’s hoping!