Ireland Past & Present: Don’t Forget Us
by Niamh O’Sullivan
My contribution this month is a selection of memories examining my sense of ease with the large number of artefacts contained in the Kilmainham Collection; it developed simply because of the length of time I worked in that museum. Ultimately, those artefacts narrate the same story; that of the struggle for Irish Independence between the years 1796 and 1924 – spanning the lifetime of Kilmainham Prison. What they really do, is tell the story of the men and women who took part in that struggle during those 128 years.
Working daily with these objects, and by implication with these extraordinary people, does foster a certain sense of familiarity. I have unquestionably come to consider them as friends, if such can be imagined.
I have read their letters, diaries, and newspaper articles, I have held in my own hands objects which they treasured. I often met their families, and heard the smaller, non-heroic stories which can make them seem more real.
I recall a conversation I once had with a colleague. We were just leaving our staff canteen, a guard cell in the East Wing, talking as usual about our ‘favourite’ prisoners. In a manner that only makes sense if you have been immersed in the building itself, let alone its ghostly inmates, my colleague figured that after some time, we come to look on death differently in Kilmainham.
After all, we spend every day discussing Patrick Pearse, or TF Meagher, Anne Devlin or Robert Emmet; debating their lives and their actions, and we’d even venture into their thoughts without blinking! Therefore, in the jail, we evolved a different method of contemplating death. Our prisoners were only technically dead – they lived on every day in Kilmainham, their presence lingering, occasionally even heightened, by their pencil written words still surrounding us on their cell walls.
I recall an occasion in the Archives, many years ago. The man in charge of maintaining the prison building had called into my office. The conversation turned to Eamonn Ceannt, executed for his role in the 1916 Rising. I explained how a box in a downstairs room contained Eamonn Ceannt’s pipes, including pieces he used when he played for the Pope in 1911. Tom was fascinated, being a pipe player himself. We had to go down to look.
With the utmost reverence and caution, Tom slowly assembled the pipes, and after several extremely careful attempts, he got them to ring out. Having been wrapped in their box for at least forty years, they sounded slightly off and rusty, but the deep melancholic tones were pure magic, providing a spine-tingling few moments in a building that has known such misery and pain. Ceannt’s ghost hovered over us for those few precious notes.
An event which happened a few weeks ago made me remember other feelings experienced in Kilmainham. I was visiting my uncle, Terry O’Brien, down the road in Callan. Whilst talking about family and the past, he left the room to return with an object carefully wrapped in an old newspaper. It was a meticulously preserved green AOH (Ancient Order of Hibernians) sash, with a fringe of heavy gold thread. It presented beautifully embroidered Irish symbols such as the harp and shamrocks. It had belonged to his grandfather in Donegal. Wondering how old it might be, we checked the date on the newspaper, which would provide us with at least a minimal age. 14 August, 1938. The day we looked at the sash was, by chance, 14 August, 2014. A frequent visitor to Kilmainham, a relative of another executed leader of 1916, had explained to me years ago his gut feeling of how this sort of mysterious incident was a request by our precious people from the past: Don’t forget us.
Two such events feature strongly amongst my memories of Kilmainham. A visitor once brought me a letter attached to the inside of the front cover of her ancient family bible, which I recognised instantly, and with great anxiety! It was the last letter written in Kilmainham to his sister by John Sheares on 10-11 July, 1798, mere days before his trial and execution for High Treason. But that very letter was on display in our museum! While my visitor took a tour, I trawled through the archives for everything we had catalogued featuring Sheares, in an effort to solve the puzzle. The visitor’s letter turned out to be a precise replica of our original letter, but since it had been published in a 1930s newspaper and pasted for so long into the bible, it had aged with the book and initially appeared authentic. I brought the visitor into a cell we believe was occupied by Sheares and we stood in silent thought. Mentally checking the date, it suddenly occurred to me that we were present in the very cell where Sheares could have written that letter, 199 years to the day.
A further coincidence involved an original, early 1800s, death mask of Robert Emmet. It was brought in on loan for display in our Emmet Bicentennial Exhibition by a member of the family who currently own it. We unwrapped it and studied it closely; I am strangely in awe of death masks, with their unnerving immediacy. Once again, inexplicably, I experienced that eerie consciousness of an accidental date: it was 26 August, 2003. Exactly two hundred years to the day since Robert Emmet’s actual committal to Kilmainham Prison, after his capture in Harold’s Cross, Dublin. Don’t forget us.
The Kilmainham Collection does contain its own death masks of both Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone. These would be masks made from masks, but still of sufficient significance to be highly valued. Instead of placing them on permanent display, we commissioned an artist to make replicas of both, which we could then exhibit. The artist seemed rather relieved when he delivered the finished masks. I had to ask why – he replied that he had kept them in his spare room at home. He could have sworn that he could hear them talking to each other at night. Life behind the scenes in a museum!
“Follow me where I go, what I do and who I know;