Rare collection of 1916 autograph books available online for the first time

A unique collection of autograph books owned by prisoners at the time of the Easter Rising is now available to view online here.

The Office of Public Works says the website offers a fascinating insight into the lives of those who were imprisoned during the period 1916 to 1918.

This site brings some of the Kilmainham Gaol Museum collection to the wider public and it is hoped that in the coming years more autograph books from the Gaol’s collection will be added covering the 1918-23 period.

In total the Kilmainham Gaol Museum autograph book collection contains over 12,000 names of those who were incarcerated in the whole 1916-23 period.

It covers a variety of different prisons and places of incarceration, as well as focusing on the lives of the prisoners themselves.

This creation of website was managed for the Office of Public Works by Boston College Ireland, designed by Roomthree Design and with digitisation of the original Autograph books by Glenbeigh Records Management.

The Project Management and Technical team were actively supported by the Kilmainham Gaol Museum Archive team and OPW Heritage Services

Kilmainham Gaol Museum say the original autograph books are the most requested items to view in the Gaol’s archive.

A 1916-17 prison autograph book from Reading Gaol with contributions from Seán T O'Kelly, Tomás MacCurtain, Arthur Griffith, Eamon de Valera and Eoin MacNeill
A 1916-17 prison autograph book from Reading Gaol with contributions from Seán T O’Kelly, Tomás MacCurtain, Arthur Griffith, Eamon de Valera and Eoin MacNeill

It was very common in the early twentieth century for people to own an autograph book.

They were cheaply and readily available, and in more stable times, the owner of the book would collect the autographs of family, friends or people they met at an array of social, sporting or cultural gatherings.

During World War One autograph books were commonly used by soldiers to gather the signatures of their fellow men in their battalion or quite commonly, their fellow prisoners at a POW camp in Germany.

That Irish prisoners had access to autograph books, and used them to collect the signatures of those who were imprisoned alongside, them is not unusual.

The books are fascinating examples of material culture from the Irish Revolutionary period.

At the basic level the books contain a prisoners name, date and place of incarceration.

In this context the prisoners are creating their own records of who was held where, an informal register of Irish prisoners for themselves that flew in the face of their highly regimented lives in British prisons.

The names in the book allow us to understand who was arrested and interned in the wake of the Easter Rising.

Some of the names are well known and rose to national prominence after their release.

Others are less well known, and their period of imprisonment after 1916 signalled the end of their political activism.

By linking the names with the Bureau of Military History Witness Statements and Pension files as this site has done it has been possible to take a name from the page of the autograph books and understand how and why these people came to be in prison.

It is worth noting that the books had a life beyond prison, and some of the books, in particular “Frongoch 1916 & Dail Eireann 1919” and “Relatives of 1916 Leaders” feature autographs of people that were connected with the events of 1916 and the Irish Revolution, but were not prisoners themselves.