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


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