An Irishwoman's Diary, Irish Times, October 1999 by Deirdre Morrissey

In 1936, when Kilmainham Gaol was almost in a state of ruin, an editorial in the Wicklow People suggested that it should be "pulled down and its site made a playground for children, after suitably marking and commemorating the graves of those executed there". The wounds of the Civil War were still raw and Kilmainham was, of course, associated with that unhappy period. It took another 30 years before anything was done to restore it and, ironically, the initiative to start the restoration came from the men and women who had been imprisoned there during the War of Independence. Years of voluntary effort and enthusiasm from these people culminated in the gaol being handed over to the Board of Works in 1986 in a fairly decent condition.

The artist Sally Smyth, 69, knows the history of Kilmainham intimately. Her mother, May Gibney, was interned there for a short period from February 1923 when the gaol - originally built in the days of the United Irishmen - was used by the new Free State government to house republican prisoners.

Active member

May Gibney had volunteered for service at the GPO on Easter Monday in 1916. She escaped when the volunteers surrendered and became an active member of Cumann na mBan for the next seven years. She provided safe houses, gathered intelligence, carried dispatches, provided medical attention, acted as a look-out, hid weapons and distributed propaganda. Cumann na mBan was the first organisation to declare against the Treaty in 1921 and, as an activist, May was arrested and detained without charge under the terms of the Emergency Powers Act. Sally's own earliest memory of Kilmainham is of being taken round its east wing as a young girl in 1938. Last year, on a visit to the gaol - now administered as a a museum and national monument by Duchas, the Heritage Service - she met the archivist Niamh O'Sullivan.

"I told Niamh that my mother had been imprisoned here during the Civil War and it transpired that she knew more about her incarceration than I did. So I spent three weeks viewing memorabilia, reading newspapers between 1800 and 1924, and looking at prisoners' letters and autograph books. I walked around the prison on my own and absorbed the atmosphere." For Sally, the prison was inspirational. She began to paint a series of pictures on the Kilmainham theme, using one of the cells as a studio. Discussions ensued with the gaol's manager, Pat Cooke, and she was offered studio space in the Protestant chapel. He then came up with the innovative idea of her becoming artist-in-residence.

A bursary from the Department of the Arts, Heritage, the Gaeltacht and the Islands and from Cairde Chill mhaighneann - the voluntary group which advises Duchas on the running of the museum - has enabled her to spend the past year working in the bright, airy chapel, producing almost 40 paintings. "The work is not specifically about my mother," she says, "but she is the catalyst for it all. It conveys a broad range of impressions of Kilmainham and what I have got out of being here."


The artist Briain Bourke has described Sally Smyth as a "colourist" and it has been a challenge for her to find colour in the gaol. But she has. One poignant picture tells an interesting story. It depicts a plaque with the names of four volunteers and the date of their execution: November 17th, 1922. Behind the plaque is a bunch of flowers. Padraig Ryan, a workman, has put the flowers on the plaque every year since he started working at the prison more than 20 years ago.

Another painting, full of shades of red, deals with a controversial event in 1923 when some prisoners broke ranks with their comrades and set fire to the furniture in the compound. A third depicts an eight-year-old girl - Alisha Kelly, imprisoned in the 1800s for stealing a cloak.

It is often hard to have concrete evidence that a person spent time in Kilmainham, but recorded in the archives is the fact that May Gibney received a parcel. Sally has painted a picture incorporating photographs of early Free State postage stamps - British stamps overprinted. In all, the collection amounts to a fascinating commentary on Kilmainham's history and Niamh O'Sullivan has now organised an exhibition of her Sally's work.


"It has been wonderful having Sally here, she says. "She is the link with that last generation. I have been here for 17 years and feel an affinity with the women who were imprisoned. They were a minority who broke with the behavioural patterns of the time. And until recently history has not remembered them in the same way as their male counterparts. "Sinead McCool, who researched the women's involvement and wrote Guns and Chiffon [a history of Kilmainham's women prisoners] happily has redressed the situation." May Gibney had a fine handwriting style and Sally was able to confirm that a handwritten concert programme for a prison concert in August 1923 was produced by her mother. The concert took place in A wing and that is where Sally's exhibition will be held. Niamh O'Sullivan says: "It is like a circle being completed - May writing a concert programme and 80 years later her daughter putting on an art exhibition remembering her mother and the other women."

The exhibition Kilmainham Suite by Sally Smyth will run in Kilmainham Gaol from Thursday, October 21st: Monday-Friday, 9.30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.