A Symbol of Martyrdom and Nationalism
Kilmainham Gaol is arguably a huge symbol of historical, political, and cultural significance, mostly as a result of its role during the 1916 Easter Rising. The jail functioned as the location of the executions of the leaders of the Easter Rising. While the Easter Rising was initially not applauded (much the opposite), and regarded with distaste at the damage it caused, it was the executions on the prison grounds that ignited a transition in the public’s regard for the rebellion.
After leaders of the 1916 rebellion were executed, Kilmainham Gaol now symbolized many things: this now marked a place where a failed rebellion transformed into a larger Nationalist movement. This was a place where families said final goodbyes. This was the place where once disgraced leaders became revered martyrs.
This site explores several analyses of Kilmainham Gaol provide insight into how the jail became a site of Nationalism:
- Remnants of graffiti mark the site as a public reclamation of an especially violent moment in Irish history, telling us about people’s lives, thoughts, and struggles during the movement for independence.
- In the years following the Irish Civil War, the prison closed down, and despite several organization calling for its transition from a rotting structure to a place of memorial, it was left alone until the 60s, when a grassroots movement organized a volunteer restoration.
- Today, Kilmainham Gaol is one of the most visited fee-charging tourist attractions in Ireland, marking the structure as a symbol of nationalism through its remembrance of those executed on the premises.
“Moving beyond ideas that graffiti is primarily an output of male criminality and contesting power or acts as a mirror of the social self, Kilmainham Gaol provides a multi-layered and complex case study. It reveals graffiti as spatially, temporally as well as socially constructed; it cannot simply be interpreted as an act of defiance or resistance as it was used to sustain, contest and/or proclaim states of being from divergent standpoints and perspectives” – Laura McAtackney
In taking a closer look at the graffiti in Kilmainham Goal, Laura McAtackney analyzed the cultural and political significance. Particularly fascinating were the female political prisoners, as well as the ways in which graffiti facilitated insight into typically unseen or invisible narratives, such as female narratives. The graffiti provides a glimpse into a largely ignored history, and a telling of personal narrative toward a larger public perspective.
There is an interesting similarity that the Kilmainham Goal graffiti and the Angel Island poetry in San Francisco. At this immigration station, many
immigrants from China were kept in barracks from months to years at a time, where they were interrogated with questions purposely made to be difficult. Interrogators generally had the intention to send immigrants back to China. The poetry carved into the walls laments a false promise of new life and freedom in America, thus providing insight to the living conditions, former and future lives of immigrants, and sociocultural norms of that time.
The Kilmainham Gaol graffiti operates in a similar way. Members of Cumann na mBan, an all-women volunteer group that partook in the Easter Rising, returned to the jail to write their names on the walls, literally establishing in stone their roles in the Easter Rising.
While we normally understand history as a typically masculinized space, since the narratives we are primarily told are that of white men, these writings allow us to understand history as something that belongs to everyone, making Kilmainham Gaol an even greater presence in the idea of public history. The prison allowed for invisible narratives to become visible.
This helps us to understand Kilmainham Gaol not only as a location of significant historical events, but also as a space of reclamation. Members of Cumann na mBan writing their names on the walls were marking their spaces in a history that was also theirs. The graffiti also serves as a space of remembrance, as prisoners reflect on what transgressed here.
Now we may reflect on those reflections themselves.
Eric Zuelow extensively covered the project of Kilmainham Gaol’s restoration, stating that “collective memory is engendered through physical participation in the memory process. This is nowhere more true than in connection with Kilmainham Jail, where the whole process of voluntary restoration created memories of a collective past devoted to nation-building in both violent and peaceful forms.”
The restoration was primarily a product of the National Graves Association, a grassroots organization committed to commemorate histories through the physical process or preserving memorials and graves. Kilmainham Gaol was one of these places. By itself, the intent to restore physical places or things in order to remember history is an act of reclamation as well. Preserving a tombstone not only allows us to see it as a grave, but also as a resting place, a history of someone’s life.
In analyzing the jail as an establishment of reclamation, Zuelow also wrote:
“Kilmainham was originally built by the British to imprison Irishmen. By reconstructing it, the Irish built a site that could enshrine their past as one of the unified struggle against imperial oppression and the improvement of Irish lives.”
Not only was the restoration of Kilmainham Gaol an act of reclamation, but by Zuelow’s analysis, it was also an act of empowerment.
This place is literally one of symbolic transition; it has transformed from a place of imperialism and oppression to one of reverence and nationalism – a reclamation in itself. The jail continues to operate as a tourist attraction today, beginning in the room where Grace Gifford married Joseph Plunkett, a leader during the 1916 rebellion, mere hours before he was executed. This act of storytelling reveals another reclamation of history, providing a wave of nostalgia for what became regarded as bravery. Kilmainham Gaol had become the physical embodiment of martyrdom.
McAtackney, Laura. “ Graffiti Revelations and the Changing Meanings of Kilmainham Gaol in (Post)Colonial Ireland.” International Journey of Historical Archaeology, vol. 20, no. 3, Sept. 2016, pp. 492–505.
McDiarmid, Lucy. At Home in the Revolution: What Women Said and Did in 1916. Royal Irish Academy, 2015.
Stohr, Mary K., and Jonathan Cooper. “ Historic Irish Gaols: Cork City and Kilmainham (Dublin).” American Jails, vol. 21, no. 2, 2007, pp. 66–71.
Ward, Alan J. The Easter Rising: Revolution and Irish Nationalism. Harlan Davidson, Inc., 2013.
Zuelow, Eric. “ Enshrining Ireland’s Nationalist History Inside Prison Walls: The Restoration of Kilmainham Jail.” Éire-Ireland, vol. 39, no. 3, 2004, pp. 180–201.