Moving beyond cells: the corridors of Kilmainham Gaol

Engraved over a cell door on the ground floor of Kilmainham Gaol's East Wing

Engraved over a cell door on the ground floor of Kilmainham Gaol’s East Wing

Whilst the majority of the time spent recording graffiti on this project has concentrated on examining the cells where prisoners were held it is also important to remember that graffiti exists throughout the prison. One must remember that the corridors, stairwells and basements were utilised to record messages, place drawings and scratch names, dates and addresses as well as within the individual cells.

Whilst this movement from graffiting personal spaces of imprisonment to leaving marks on interconnecting, communal and even forbidden areas may reflect different uses of graffiti it is known from firsthand accounts that political prisoners held in the latter periods of Kilmainham’s usage had the ability to move throughout much of the prison wing with little intervention and control by the prison authorities. Frr movement throughout the wings is clearly demonstrated in the graffiti as one notes the range, extent and location of prisoner interactions throughout the West Wing corridors. The graffiti on display reveals a number of motivations and uses. Often, it was placed to be read by prison officers as well as prisoners. This includes a large, painted quotation by Padraig Pearse that was placed above a doorway leading into the so-called ‘1916 Corridor’ (and which is noted on many guided tours of the prison today) as well as verses that taunt the ‘Free State’ forces for their cowardice and lack of steadfastness.

Padraig Pearse 'Beware the Risen People / That have harried and held/ Ye that have bullied and bribed'

Padraig Pearse ‘Beware the Risen People / That have harried and held/ Ye that have bullied and bribed’

 

Graffiti located on the corridor of the top floor, West Wing, Kilmainham Gaol

Graffiti located on the corridor of the top floor, West Wing, Kilmainham Gaol

The top corridor of Kilmainham Gaol, where many of the female prisoners of the Irish Civil War (1922-1923) were held and left their most prominent graffiti traces, has a number of interesting pieces of graffiti on the corridors. Many of these additions to the walls have been completed after the prison closed, including post-closure visitations by those who had been previously held there and marks made by restorers and visitors. But there is also evidence that the walls were covered in textual and figurative graffiti during the life of the prison. One narrow wall nearest the stairwell that enters the floor from the direction of the 1916 corridor is particularly rich with such graffiti. Examples include unflattering caricatures of the prison personnel

Described as 'New Irish, Co Tipp[erary]

Described as ‘New Irish, Co Tipp[erary]


Also evidenced above many of the cell doorways in the corridor are names that the cells were given by prisoners. These can be difficult to read as they have been affected by abandonment, deliberate destruction and/or restoration but often – like the description of ‘Nurse E Grace’ (above) as being a Tipperary native – they reference locations. This theme of connecting to home – both outside of prison and in the friends formed whilst imprisoned – is strongly present throughout the site in graffiti. In previous posts it has been mentioned that the most numerous graffiti form is the signature and (often detailed) home address. The most frequent graffiti form found around cell doors in the West Wing corridors are placenames and collective identities based on place.

This graffiti links to the highly local nature of guerilla warfare from the War of Independence (1919-1921) onwards and how this continues to be a factor on the choice of companion and cell mate of the soldiers and their supporters during imprisonment. This continual link to external geography and shaming of Free State prison personnel that the graffiti of the corridors provides is potentially very important in interpreting the use of the site during its final years. It provides evidence of how the prison wing is being used to relocate the continuing struggles of comrades at ‘home’ from beyond the prison to within its confines and continuing the battles for hearts and minds despite the limitations of imprisonment.

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