Kilmainham Gaol text Collection title

Background to the Collection

The Kilmainham Gaol Museum Autograph Book Collection

This site brings a small part of the Kilmainham Gaol Museum collection to the wider public online. In the coming years, further autograph books from the Gaol’s collection, will be added to cover the 1918-23 period. In total the Kilmainham Gaol Museum autograph book collection contains over 12,000 names of those who were incarcerated in the whole 1916-23 period.

This creation of website was managed for the Office of Public Works by Boston College Ireland, designed by Roomthree Design and with digitisation of the original Autograph books by Glenbeigh Records Management. The Project Management and Technical team were actively supported by the Kilmainham Gaol Museum Archive team and OPW Heritage Services.

Background

The years from the first passage of the Irish Home Rule Bill in 1912 to the ending of the Civil War in 1923 transformed Ireland completely. While a myriad of forces would shape Ireland during these years including the effects of World War One, the competing ideologies of Unionism, Nationalism and Republicanism, it is perhaps the 1916 Rising, and in particular the British response to it, that did much to radicalise Irish public opinion.

The aim of these pages is to explore and explain the history of the period that led to the large scale imprisonment of Irish men and women in the 1916-18 period. In specifically focusing on the legal processes that were used to arrest and imprison the Irish there is an explainer as to how the judicial process worked in such a period of upheaval. As the autograph books displayed here cover a variety of different prisons and places of incarceration, there is a piece on the various sites, their history and how the Irish prisoners came to be in a particular location at any given time. Finally, there is a focus on the prisoners themselves that looks at who they were and what their days were like inside the walls of the various prisons.

Autograph Books

It was very common in the early twentieth century for people to own an autograph book. They were cheaply and readily available, and in more stable times, the owner of the book would collect the autographs of family, friends or people they met at an array of social, sporting or cultural gatherings. During World War One autograph books were commonly used by soldiers to gather the signatures of their fellow men in their battalion or quite commonly, their fellow prisoners at a POW camp in Germany. In this broader context then, that Irish prisoners had access to autograph books and used them to collect the signatures of those who were imprisoned alongside them is not unusual.

Example of Autograph Book
Example of Autograph Book

Since the opening of Kilmainham Gaol to the public in 1966 former political prisoners or their descendants have gifted an array of material to the archives there. The autograph books on display on this site cover the period 1916-1918, and are a fraction of what the archives hold. In the coming years further selections of autograph books covering the years of the War of Independence and the Civil War will be released on this site.

The books are fascinating examples of material culture from the Irish Revolutionary period. At the basic level the books contain a prisoners name, date and place of incarceration. In this context the prisoners are creating their own records of who was held where, an informal register of Irish prisoners for themselves that flew in the face of their highly regimented lives in British prisons. The names in the book allow us to understand who was arrested and interned in the wake of the Easter Rising. Some of the names are well known and rose to national prominence after their release. Others are less well known, and their period of imprisonment after 1916 signalled the end of their political activism. By linking the names with the Bureau of Military History Witness Statements and Pension files as this site has done it has been possible to take a name from the page of the autograph books and understand how and why these people came to be in prison. It is worth noting that the books had a life beyond prison, and some of the books, in particular “Frongoch 1916 & Dail Eireann 1919” and “Relatives of 1916 Leaders” feature autographs of people that were connected with the events of 1916 and the Irish Revolution, but were not prisoners themselves.

As prison is about serving time, the autograph books were also used to pass time and allowed prisoners to express themselves. There are a range of poems and political statements, illustrated pages using the aesthetics of the Cultural Revival that had done so much to bring the Rising into being, and there are drawings of the prisons and the people that inhabited them. In all the Kilmainham autograph books over a fascinating insight into the prisoners of the post-Rising months and will add another layer of material for relatives, researchers and those generally interested in 1916.

Looking for a Relative?

You may know that your relative was imprisoned during this period, but may not be able to find them on this site. Please remember that the autographs here only cover the 1916-18 period, and that your relative may have been imprisoned at a later time. Further autograph books from the collection relating to the later period will be released in the coming months and years, so do check back in. Also, these books were personal items and not a exhaustive roll call of every prisoner held at any given gaol.

General Information

The images on this website are under copyright and are the property of Kilmainham Gaol. If you wish to use any images from this website please contact the Kilmainham Gaol archives via email: kilmainhamgaol@opw.ie

The autograph books date from a century ago and some of the views expressed in the book belong to a different time. The views have to therefore be understood as historical and are do not represent the views or opinions of the OPW.

 

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