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 …