A Day in the Cells of Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, Ireland

A lady gazing by the window

My ‘Day of Archaeology’ has been, since April, making my way slowly around the old (West) wing of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. For at least four hours a day I have been recording the graffiti remnants that I locate as I move systematically around the dark cells. This does not include the hours of downloading often hundreds of images per day, transcribing text, annotating images with notes and providing unique filenames for each image. Since I started fieldwork exploring this fascinating heritage site, which was in use as the county gaol for Dublin from 1796-1924, every day has been consistently different and altogether fascinating beyond my wildest hopes!

The Wing of the gaol that I have been recording stretches over three corridors and three floors, with the exception of the top floor, which only has two corridors. Each floors contains around 25 accessible cells, which up to now have included a ‘bathing’ room and the remnants of a padded cell. I have been funded by the Irish Research Council through the School of Social Justice (only archaeologist on staff!) to record the graffiti. What makes this recording ‘archaeological’ is that the graffiti is not just treated as text but its dimensions are important – is it engraved or surface written? Where is it placed? How does it relate to other pieces of graffiti? How was it made? These are among some of the questions I ask in my recording of this varied, extensive and precious source. The project was undertaken in order to add to our knowledge of women’s experiences of imprisonment during civil war. We know that the prison held a large number of women during the Irish Civil War (1922-1923 were held in Kilmainham. Guestimations number these in the few hundred, this was the first period of mass-imprisonment of women as political prisoners in the state’s history. Unfortunately, no registers from this period survive so we do not even have a full list of who was held here, when and why. Fortunately, the women – and their predecessors in the cells – liked to graffiti the walls of the cells, often with their names, dates of imprisonment and even home address. A fabulous source of information that this promises to be , I have encountered much more variety of graffiti remnant and these are increasingly adding to the narratives of those last years that the jail functioned as a de facto political prison. This includes the graffiti of soldiers who were held here during WWI, remnants of earlier prisoners scratched under the layers of whitewash and remnants of ex-prisoners returning many years later to note their previous habitations.

Today was a typical day – I move systematically down each corridor left to right as likewise I move through each cell left to right as I record it. My only equipment includes a relatively unsophisticated collection of digital camera and stand, professional lighting with stand (courtesy of UCD AV department), a notebook for describing the deciphering the graffiti and graph paper where I can represent the location of my graffiti finds!

As I’m currently working on the ever-popular ‘1916 Corridor’ (the corridor that held a significant number of leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916 who were executed in the aftermath of the failed rebellion) I have to time my entry to the corridor carefully. Due to the noise and disruption my entrance of cells entails I need to coincide with a period in between guided tours of the corridor. Once desperate narratives of executed men and their bereft families have been provided by the exellent guides I shoo straggling tourists and use my key to access the cell of one of the executed – my first cell today was that of Thomas Clarke. The cell was dark, gloomy and very dusty. Sadly, the floor was scattered with debris of careless visitors who had pushed pieces of paper and tissue through the large spyholes. Who knows what they gain from such actions? I shake my head. The only such remnant I have come across that I can begin to understand its depositions was a small laminated photograph of three ladies – evidently related – with a message on the back noting that it was in memory of when they were all together. I found this by chance under a heating pipe in the cell of the most famous of all the executed leaders – Padraig Pearse. Evidently it was a memento for the depositor of happier times past, unlike the scraps of paper and wrappers that most of the other cells contain. The cells have been locked and closed to the public since the 1990s due to the tendency of visitors to drop litter and especially add to existing graffiti on the walls. These later additions are usually swiftly scrawled, aesthetically unpleasing and uninformative scratching but I have taken care to record some of them – particularly if they are of early date or the writer was from an unusual location. There have been additions from as far afield as the Basque Country and Russia. They may not be desired additions by the custodians but they do add a strand to the many narratives of the site.

The graffiti that interests me the most are the portraits that frequently appear on the walls. The majority are small, side-profile images of men with as varying degree of skill and charm, as can be imagined. They are very infrequently identifiable but add a degree of personality and individualization with their uniform, hats, hair styles, facial hair and even smoking apparatus that is often lacking from the rest of the more text-based graffiti. Those pieces written in pencil are usually the oldest examples, most walls have at least some that are identifiably from the early 1920s. The most numerous examples are names, address and dates – some even detail when the author was arrested, by whom and how long they have been in prison. The majority include at least a name (in English and / or Gaelic), home address and county. Sometimes they finish with a slogan ‘Up the Republic’ or somesuch but this will depend when they were written and by whom. Today’s walls had alot of graffiti that had been drawn or engraved in more recent times – most dated from when people started to visit the site more frequently after it reopened to visitors for the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966. But almost every wall has glimmers of pencil text and drawings peeking through the whitewash, which was probably liberally applied in 1920. Through the use of professional lighting these images can be easily decipherable, other times only a trace of a stroke, a letter or number glimpses through. I don’t record every mark – it depends on how photographable it is and how many are on that particular wall, cell, corridor – I suppose there is a degree of subjectivity in this aspect. However, a large number are photographed, described and plotted to provide evidence of the representative as well as the exceptional.

Today there was evidence of small, animal paw prints on the bottom half of the wall under the window and some scratchings consistent with bird activity. This is not uncommon, even on the middle floor. I have started recording these marks- they may not be intentional, readable, human graffiti but they reveal another tale of the site. That of abandonment in the aftermath of civil war and for decades after when noone quite knew what to do with the site, when it meant to much to some people and to little to others. The remnants of animal occupation reveal these stories more succinctly than any other trace.

As well as recording the graffiti I always take a cursory look around the cell to see if there are any large gaps in the floor boards, around the walls or the cavities around the heating pipe that travel the length of the corridor through every cell. Today was one of the lucky days when I did locate something interesting – in an unnamed cell (many of the cells in the 1916 corridor have plaques above them noting who had stayed in them prior to execution or release) a piece of paper had been pushed into the cavity around the heating pipe. On closer inspection it didn’t look to contain writing (with the exception of a possible solitary ‘J’) but it had definitely been intentional secreted into that hole – why? when was it meant to be recovered? It can join a small and select group of artefacts that I have found in such locations include a cotton handkerchief, which had suffered an almost identical fate!

Today, like most days, I recorded two cells (moving myself and my equipment between the cells in the few minutes of quiet I have between guided tours!). I try to ignore the tours as much as possible for no other reason than it detracts from my concentration in searching out graffiti. When many examples are mere traces to the naked eye this concentration is important. I can’t say I’m ignored quite so much by the visitors to the site – many are fascinated by ‘the lady in the cells’ but I let the guides deal with explanations, I prefer to be a silent presence!

Like most days, the graffiti I located today included both engraved and surface drawings, it included mainly text, some numbers and a small number of drawings. Like each day the exact ratios of these graffiti forms and the exact wording of the text was unique to that cell. Until I finish the fieldwork in the next month I won’t know for certain how I am going to interpret these scratchings, writings and drawings but I already know there is a huge number, variety and range that will add to our existing knowledge of the site. And hopefully many more of those forgotten ladies of the civil war will be located and their names added to the lists of political prisoners who transitioned through this infamous prison site.