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.

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