Irish Autograph Albums: The Arts of Resistance

“Revolutionary Material Culture Series”

This series examines the Age of Revolutions through its material markers, reminding us that materials themselves reflected and shaped political cultures around the revolutionary Atlantic and World.

By Marguerite Helmers

Interned in English convict prisons and prison camps, members of the Irish Republican Army and the women’s paramilitary organization, Cumann na mBan, strategized military maneuvers, debated politics—and traded autograph albums. The hundreds of albums that survive from the period of violent political upheaval in Ireland date from 1916 after the Easter Rising, 1919–1921 during the War of Independence, and 1922–23 during the Irish Civil War. Albums were kept by both women and men. The greatest concentration of the practice is from men imprisoned in Frongoch (Bala, Wales, 1916), Ballykinlar (a former British Army camp in County Down, 1919–1921), and the Curragh Camp (County Kildare, 1922–23). A significant collection from women imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail, Dublin, dates from 1922–23.[1] They are ordinary bound books that were sold in stationers’ shops and prison camp canteens. As material objects or creative media, autograph albums are not particularly revolutionary; in fact, they developed from centuries of commonplace book keeping and nineteenth–century friendship albums. However, the inscriptions within the albums are significant: they reflect central cultural concepts of Irish nationalism, a nationalism that drew on the symbols of the pre-Christian, Christian, and Catholic past, and that was intentionally distinct from British imperial history and culture that dominated school curricula and the public sphere.

A camp credit ticket for use in the canteen, decorated in Celtic Revival style.
A camp credit ticket for use in the canteen, decorated in Celtic Revival style. Autograph book Ballykinlar Internment Camp, 1921. Reproduction courtesy of Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, MS K19.

Thus, although nationalist cultural revivals spanned Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, Irish nationalism was connected to a revolutionary Irish republican political movement that asserted Ireland was a nation with its own history and religion. Nationalists worked to repeal the 1800–1801 Act of Union and return an Irish parliament from London to Dublin. Eventually, Irish nationalism led to the formal separation of Ireland from the United Kingdom in 1921, and the establishment of the Irish Free State. Nationalist ideals were personalized, internalized, and shared among republican prisoners through these surprisingly banal material objects. In turn, the material object was transformed, becoming a voice for Irish identity.

In addition to simple signatures, autograph albums contain songs, tributes to fallen martyrs for Irish independence, and drawings. The songs include political ballads such as “Wolfe Tone’s Grave (Bodenstown Churchyard),” “The Felons of Our Land,” and “Ireland Over All.” Prisoners would have learned them in classes taught by the Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League), the organization founded in 1893 to promote the Irish language. Nationalist revolutionary leaders were remembered as martyrs for the cause of independence through lines from their speeches or political writings. They included Wolfe Tone (1763–1798), Robert Emmet (1778–1803), John Mitchel (1815–1875), Patrick Pearse (1879–1916), and Terence MacSwiney (1879–1920). Influenced by memorial cards distributed through widows’ and children’s aid agencies, sketches in the albums depicted recently deceased leaders, such as the executed signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic (1916). In addition, drawings were often copied from illustrated postcards and cigarette cards (one prisoner even drew his pack of cigarettes).

A sketch of the camp.
A sketch of the camp. Autograph Book, Ballykinlar Internment Camp, 1921. Reproduction courtesy of Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, MS K19.

A noticeable difference exists between albums shared in 1916 and those of the War of Independence and Civil War. Not only is there a change in tone, but also a growth in material practice. Due to raids and round-ups, by 1920 many nationalists expected to be arrested and made preparations for their internments. Repeated incarcerations are noted in the autograph albums, such as an inscription to Tommy O’Reilly that reads, “my partner from Dublin Castle, and fellow prisoner in Arbour Hill & Kilmainham.”[2] Hence, anti-British sentiment is evident in the autograph albums, particularly in those from the later periods of internment. An inscription from a Ballykinlar book reads, “Where the British flag flied it flies drenched with the Blood of the natives,” and another in the same album curses the British:

O Lord send down a dove

With wings as sharp as razors

To cut the throats of the English dogs

Who shot our poor Sinn Feiners.[3]

As Georges Zimmerman points out, “popular nationalism” was fostered by patriotic poems and ballads, which were published in newspapers and on broadsheets.[4] William Murphy suggests that prisoners saw themselves as metaphors for the plight of Ireland, and represented their experience using traditional visual and verbal iconography.[5]

The influence of verses by nineteenth-century poets Thomas Moore (1779–1852), James Clarence Mangan (1803–1849), and Thomas Davis (1814–1845) recalled previous struggles for Irish independence, such as the important 1798 Rebellion that was aided by French troops. In the album kept by John Hopper, a fellow inmate at Ballykinlar transcribed the verses from “The Muster (A Song of Ninety Eight)” by the pseudonymous “Doire” (Derry). The lines invoke Dark Rosaleen, a symbol of Ireland as woeful woman taken from Mangan’s poem of the same name:

No more as craven slaves we bend

To despot, king or queen;

God shields the right: strike sure and fast!

‘Tis for Dark Rosaleen![6]

Over time, albums kept in the mens’ prison camps become increasingly more elaborate artistically. Albums from 1921 and after incorporate watercolor and inked pages, many in the Celtic Revival style. For example, in a scene from Ballykinlar life, a volunteer painted himself holding a letter while standing inside the doorway of a hut, barbed wire stretching across the neighboring fields. In a cloud of memory or dream, an image of his best girl appears. On a more somber note, when Joe Tormey and Patrick Sloane were killed by a sentry at Ballykinlar, ostensibly for coming too close to a restricted area in the camp, memorial crosses were included in illustrations. Eventually, an extensively illustrated record of camp life known as the Book of Ballykinlar was signed by over one thousand political prisoners, including the names of all the members of the Irish Parliament interned in Ballykinlar. Each page of the book is bordered in a full-color Celtic motif designed by Micheál Ó Riada. Inside are images of the camp: the chapel, guard tower, and a hut with Dundrum Bay and the Mourne Mountains in the distance. In the style of a commemorative civic “presentation album,” it was given to Reverend Thomas Burbage, a nationalist Catholic priest arrested in 1921, spiritual leader of the camp.[7]

Frongoch was called “the University of Revolution” and a “volunteer convention.”[8] In 1918, politician Kevin O’Higgins praised internment camps and jails for helping “the unity and solidarity of Sinn Fein.” He wrote to a friend, “fill up the jails.”[9] Thus, far from a leisure activity, autograph albums solidified the spirit and shape of Irish nationalism. They are records of an important decade in Irish history, in which ordinary people writing on ordinary pages of stationary made their mark on the world.

Marguerite Helmers is Professor Emerita of English, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Her research focuses on early twentieth-century cultural history and visual communication. Her publications include Harry Clarke and Artistic Visions of the New Irish State, and Harry Clarke’s War: Illustrations for Ireland’s Memorial Records, 1914–1918. Helmers is a past research fellow at the Center for Twentieth-Century Studies (UW Milwaukee), the Institute for Research in the Humanities (UW Madison), and the Humanities Institute at University College Dublin.

Title image: A camp credit ticket for use in the canteen, decorated in Celtic Revival style. Autograph book Ballykinlar Internment Camp, 1921. Reproduction courtesy of Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, MS K19.

Further Reading:

Helmers, Marguerite. 2018. “Handwritten Rebellion: Autograph Albums of Irish Republican Prisoners in Frongoch.” New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua 22 (3): 20–38.

McConville, Sean. 2003. Irish Political Prisoners, 1848-1922: Theatres of War. New York: Routledge.

Murphy,William. 2016. Political Imprisonment and the Irish, 1912–1921. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ó Duibhir, Liam. 2013. Prisoners of War: Ballykinlar Internment Camp, 1920–1921. Cork: Mercier Press.

O’Mahony, Sean. 1987. Frongoch: University of Revolution. Dublin: FDR Teoranta.


[1] Major collections of autograph albums are housed at the National Library of Ireland, the National Museum of Ireland, and Kilmainham Gaol.

[2] “Autograph book filled in Kilmainham Jail, Oct–Dec 1921, belonged to Peter O’Connor/Tommy O’Reilly.” Kilmainham Gaol, KMGLM 2014.004, Box 11.

[3] Hopper, John. “Republican autograph album compiled at Ballykinlar internment camp by John Hopper; 1921.” National Library of Ireland, MS 42,127. Complete view at

[4] Georges Denis Zimmerman, Songs of the Irish Rebellion (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1966), 79.

[5] William Murphy, “Imprisonment and the War of Independence,” in Atlas of the Irish Revolution, ed. John Crowley, et al. (Cork University Press, 2017), 437.

[6] Hopper, MS 42,127, NLI.

[7] Francis O’Duffy, “Witness Statement,” Bureau of Military History, 1913–1921. W. S. 665 (1 April l952), 3.

[8] Irish MP Tim Healy quoted in Lyn Ebenezer, Fron-Goch and the Birth of the IRA (Hanrwst: Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2006), 106. The comment about the volunteer convention is from Michael J. O’Connor, Stone Walls: An Irish Volunteer’s Experiences in Prison and Internment in England and Wales After the 1916 Rising (Dublin: Dublin Press, 1966), 20.

[9] Both quotations are from Murphy, “Imprisonment and the War of Independence,” 437.

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