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.