Who’d have thought that my grandfather was into Futurism? That’s correct – into Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Futurism. And how do I know that? Well, I was in the Kilmainham Gaol Museum last week and I saw his yellowing copybook (see below), and there it was, a lecture on modern art from the 5th of August, 1923.
Yes, my grandfather Ailfrid Mac Lochlainn was imprisoned in various prisons during the Irish Civil War (he was never charged with a specific offence) but to pass the time, he was often called upon to deliver lectures to his fellow prisoners. He also made several pencil sketches of his comrades on small scraps of paper, some of which you see in this post. The originals can be seen in “Intervals of Peace”, a special exhibition curated by Brian Crowley at the museum.
Now clearly, it wasn’t all lectures and fun and games. The conditions were terrible and I imagine the poor man must have feared for his life at times. On one occasion he was sent for five days to the notorious ‘Glasshouse’ Detention Centre in the Curragh where he was left hanging by the wrists for four and a half hours, with his feet barely touching the floor.
He was finally released on the 13th of October, 1923. He died nine years later at the age of 44.
But it was a wonderful occasion last week in Kilmainham Gaol Museum for the official opening of his exhibition. His daughter Charlotte (my aunt) spoke movingly about him. She said that the executions of his uncles Pat and Willie Pearse had had a devastating effect on him but that he used his talent to keep his fellow prisoners and himself inspired. It was a form of art therapy (though not yet recognised in those days by the healing profession) but these drawing sessions must’ve raised the spirits of the men. These were the ‘intervals of peace’ of the exhibition title.
But who were those prisoners? Many of the drawings have no name, they are just ‘unidentified prisoners’ but some characters have come to light recently. For instance, Captain Joseph O’Connor was one – and his grandson Rory (pictured below with Charlotte Groarke) came to the official opening. Joseph O’Connor joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913. He took part in the Howth gun running operation a year later. During the Easter Rising, he was stationed at Boland’s Mills alongside Éamon de Valera and he was active with Michael Collins during the War of Independence.
We are hoping that more of the portraits will be recognised. If you happen to recognise a relative amongst the drawings, the museum would love to hear from you.
And a word about the staff at the Museum. It’s great when a tour guide really knows his stuff and his enthusiasm for the subject is obvious. It makes all the difference. That was the case with our guide Dave ‘Mac’ the other day, when we returned for a second look.
But it’s always a moving experience for me, when we visit the gaol. There is so much personal family history there, as my father was involved with its restoration in the 1960s. I think we can feel his spirit there, in the long dark corridors and in the quiet prison cells. And I always like to listen to the televised interview with him on the third floor of the museum…
The exhibition of Civil War portraits continues in the museum until the 25th of October, 2022. Admission is free and there’s no need to book for the exhibition. (Online booking is necessary for the tour of the gaol)