Speech at the opening of “Project 16: Studying the Rising”
Mountjoy West Prison, Dublin, 2 June 2016
Is mór an pléisiúir dom a bheith anseo libh i bPríosún Mhuinseo. Tá áthas orm an deis seo a bheith agam na cruthúcháin áille seo atá déanta ag cimí ónar ceithre phriosún déag le Éirí Amach na Cásca 1916 a chomóradh.
It is my great pleasure to be here with you all. May I thank Michael Donnellan, Director General of the Irish Prison Service, for inviting me to open this exhibition. May I also thank Brian Murphy, Governor of Mountjoy Campus, for hosting us today, as well as Veronica Hoen, for so diligently curating the exhibition. I am delighted to have this opportunity to view the beautiful creations produced by the inmates from all of our 14 prisons as a means to commemorate the Easter Rising of 1916.
Most of all, I am delighted that many of the creators of the works on display are here today. You can justifiably be proud of those fine pieces you have created, both individually and as part of collaborative projects. I am told that the men and women from all the prisons in Ireland have responded so enthusiastically to this opportunity to create work inspired by the Rising that the exhibition we are opening today displays but a small selection of the work produced over the last few months. This enthusiastic response is a great statement in itself of the interest of those in our prisons in Irish history and culture – and also it is a striking and generous testimony to the extraordinary commitment of the prison teaching staff.
In this year of commemoration, it is important that all of our citizens are afforded the opportunity to take part in our national celebrations of Ireland’s revolutionary period.
Throughout the various commemorative events in which I have participated over recent months, I have highlighted the inspiration we can draw from the lives and values of the men and women of 1916, and the way in which their idealism can and should spur us all, in our own time, to create an inclusive and emancipatory republic. Everyone has a role to play in this task, and this is why it was so important to me to be here today as you bring forward your own contributions to our national discussion on 1916.
Our venue this afternoon is connected to the Easter Rising of 1916 in a very special way. It was here, in what was then the Female Convict Prison, now Mountjoy West, that many of the women involved in the Rebellion were held. This chapel is home to the beautiful Harry Clarke stained glass window which was commissioned shortly before her death by Mary Ellen ‘Nell’ Humphreys, sister of The O’Rahilly.
We are indebted to Margaret Ryan, of the Education Centre at the Training Unit here in Mountjoy, for the research that she has carried out into the life of Nell Humphreys, a woman who is so frequently neglected if not omitted in accounts of the struggle for Irish independence.
Originally from Kerry, Nell was living a quiet life in a wealthy residential area of Dublin when she was taken to Kilmainham Gaol on 9th May 1916, and then transferred to this prison alongside eleven other women. Their offence, as listed in the prison committal register, was “rebellion”. Nell of course had played no combatant role in the Rising – although her providing Pearse with medals of the Mother of Perpetual Succour to give out to his men, together with prayer leaflets called ‘the Volunteers’ Shield’, was, perhaps, not entirely innocuous, but hardly deserved to be regarded as seditious!
Nell, who was radicalised by the death of her brother, the imprisonment of her son, and her own experience in prison, subsequently engaged in the struggle for Irish independence, and thus she found herself once again in Mountjoy and Kilmainham prisons during the Civil War, during which time she called her fellow inmates to nightly prayer vigils by banging on an enamel plate with a spoon.
The Mother of Perpetual Succour became an icon for the women of Cumann na mBan inside Mountjoy prison, many of whom, including Nell, went on hunger strike during their imprisonment. In March 1939, Nell placed an order with the Harry Clarke Stained Glass Studios for a triptych window featuring the Mother of Perpetual Succour, a magnificent work of art which continues to inspire, as the project by Jason, Serge and Martin shows.
Imprisonment is, of course, an experience that so many, if not all, of the leading figures in the struggle for Ireland’s freedom endured. Most of the men and women we remember throughout this centenary year did serve some time in prison, whether here in Ireland or in Britain. Like Nell, many of those who were imprisoned following the Easter Rising, were imprisoned again during the War of Independence, and then again during the Civil War.
Recovering the circumstances of the incarcerations during the Civil War, their harshness and bitter vengefulness at times, will test our ethical remembering in a far more challenging way than 1916.
It is interesting to note that there are, too, so many examples of situations when men and women, while imprisoned, turned to art to express the impact of prison on them and their families.
Grace Gifford, for example, who married Joseph Plunkett in the chapel at Kilmainham Gaol hours before his execution on the 3rd May 1916, was a famous illustrator and cartoonist in her own right. Imprisoned for three months during the Civil War, Grace painted pictures on the walls of her cell at Kilmainham Gaol, including one of the Madonna and Child which has recently been restored and can be seen by all who visit Kilmainham today.
During a recent visit to Westport, I had the occasion of recalling the experience of those Irish prisoners who were interned in Frongoch, a detention camp in North Wales, after the Easter Rising. This camp was, in fact, largely run by the prisoners, who organised many classes there, so that Frongoch became known as Ollscoil na Réabhlóide – “the University of the Revolution.” The internees perfected their writing and reading skills; they learned crafts and languages – including Welsh; and for many, this experience sharpened their awareness of Irish history and their determination to achieve Irish independence.
These experiences from a 100 years ago do have some echoes with that which brings us together today. This afternoon we are admiring the work of men and women who, from their various prisons, have reflected upon the Easter Rising of 1916 and created art works that express their own interpretation of those founding moments of our state.
While so doing, you have explored and mastered an impressive variety of techniques and styles: painting, sculpture, photography, video and audio, poetry, short story, song-writing, woodwork, pyrography, printing, collage, tapestry mosaic, ceramics and stained glass. Please let me know if I forgot anything!
But you have not just learned new skills; you have also acquired an abundance of new knowledge. Beyond what we see here today, I know that you have been engaged in a great volume of research into the Easter Rising, as attested, for example, by the book produced by the inmates of Portlaoise Prison – “They Fell at Dawn”.
I am also aware that workshops and lectures have been hosted within your various prisons, throwing light on different facets of the Rising – whether the poetry of 1916, the role of women in our national Revolution, the wider European context, or the transformations of Dublin over the last century.
Other lectures invited students to explore the meaning of the Rising, its significance for us nowadays and for the Ireland of the future. A modern day version of the Proclamation was read out by the inmates of the Midlands Prison; while many of you have reflected on the ideals and aspirations from a century ago that can still guide us today as we strive to build a better Ireland.
The students of the Dóchas Centre, for example, identified the Rising as a milestone in the ongoing journey to gender equality. They crafted a beautiful calendar on the contribution of the 1916 women, which was launched by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Críona Ní Dhálaigh, on International Women’s Day.
The leaders of the Rising, of course, continue to fascinate, and Project 16 provided you with ample opportunity to explore various aspects of their lives, personalities and ideas. For instance, I know that the students of Loughan House Open Centre visited the birthplace of Sean Mc Diarmada, near Kiltyclogher, Co. Leitrim, while Brian Crowley, curator of the Pearse Museum in Rathfarnham gave a fascinating talk in the Training Unit here about ten objects that illuminate Patrick Pearse’s complex character and historical imagination.
Many of you also chose to commemorate all those men, women and children whose names are not sufficiently registered in history books but who played their part in the struggle for Irish freedom; and others, who did not participate in the Rising, but whose lives were profoundly affected by it. This exhibition thus features a number of creations that remind us, for example, of some of the non-combatant victims of the Rebellion, or of the looters who were incarcerated alongside the rebels.
The most important thing about all this impressive work, is that you, as students in prison education facilities, have made the positive decision to undertake challenging study, and to bring forward original and creative projects. You have produced work of substance and value – not just value to yourselves and the wider prison community, but to our society at large. As President of Ireland, I want to express my appreciation to you for producing such work and my admiration for the quality of what you have achieved.
To conclude, may I congratulate, once again, the Irish Prison Service and all its staff at all levels, the Prison Education Centres and Libraries, and all of you who have taken part so creatively in commemorating the events and people of 1916. I have no doubt that the work of the hand and mind that you achieved this year will forge in each and every one of you an enduring connection with the men and women of 1916.
Tá súil agam go mbainfidh sibh inspioráid agus spreagadh as brionglóidí agus as misneach morálta lucht an Éirí Amach agus sibh ag obair libh chun athruithe dearfacha a dhéanamh in bhur saolta féin, i saolta bhur gclanna agus bhur bpobail.
I do not underestimate how difficult the time you spend in prison can sometimes be, or the pain that isolation and separation from your loved ones can bring, the inevitable loss of discretion in terms of time and space that it involves. Yet I very much hope that this reflection on 1916, the conversations and debates you have had, including those with guest artists and speakers, will remain with you as an important and positive experience.
I hope that all of you will continue to take a deep interest in our Irish history. And I hope that you will draw inspiration from the generous dreams and the moral courage of the rebels of 1916 as you work, in your own time, to foster positive transformation in your lives, in your families, and in your communities.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.