Enter through the courthouse and step into what was once a waiting room. From within these walls one might never know, without looking on a faded survey plan, that this structure resembles the shape of a bullet or submarine, a church. Walk through the vestibule on the Ground Level into the Main Block and notice the feats of engineering, the architectural vision of two terraced levels, a free-standing staircase all structured around a set of mere lines, vertical and horizontal, parrallel and perpendicular. Follow the path along the main cell floors and Timber Gallery toward the open ambulatory marked by cathedral-like Vaulted Ceilings and notice the angle of each cell door’s aperture. From inside would one have been able to see the light filtering in from above? If one looked closely through the small hollow, gaze turned slightly upward, might something sacred appear? On the Main Floor, a series of chambers, a Chapel (Catholic)—one of two. Didn’t two lovers wed there on the eve of an execution, kneeling before an altar while an ocean away others were kneeling too, recording their names at Ellis Island, building bridges and byways, laying foundations for the infrastructure of America?
When I was young I, like some girls, wanted to be an architect. I wanted to draft plans that would become the origins of buildings, towers and palaces, to design and erect entire cities or even just my own home, complete with tower bedroom and bay windows. I used to think that lines on a page were enough to tell a complete story. If that were true, the map of a prison would conjure notions of justice, images of a hanging scale as balanced as the symmetrical wings of the original structure, its elongated footprint like that of a workboot or shell casing, the shape of a cruise liner, a slave ship.
Because I have been there—stepped inside the confines of Kilmainham Gaol, located just outside of Dublin, my mother and I searching for our Irish ancestors between the walls—I can color in these lines, or rather, the lines that have been redrawn in the decades since the building first opened in 1796. I can recall the forest green enamel of the heavy cell doors, the chapel’s four red walls within which, yes, Joseph Plunkett, visited by his love, Grace Gifford, knelt there during his final hours. I can recall the dark hallways, the long winding staircase and maze of railings that might have inspired an Escher illustration, the way I ran a finger along them, tracing the cool touch of metal and stone as I listened to the tour guide before us. Amid the otherwise dim confinement of the East Wing, a vast skylight designed to fill the space with purifying light, a light that might encourage the inmates to look up to the heavens, to consider their sins.
To say “searching for our ancestors” feels reductive, romantic, perhaps. I might add that, by contrast, to look for ancestors on my father’s side would mean scouring old prisons in America—Sing Sing, Angola—for evidence of the indentured and incarcerated that built those walls. Beyond notions of nobility or martyrdom carved in chickenscratch along the walls of Kilmainham, the structure embodies an awareness of history, complex and conflicted, which appeals to my understanding of ancestry and inheritance: that nothing is black and white, that the ideals of right and wrong assume the grey area of things past or the often shadowy nature of present reality.
When does a collection of lines become set in stone? When does a blueprint become a building, a building a prison? Lines depict a two-dimensional narrative, flat, diagrammatic, a story of straight angles and nameless block numbers, hash marks for stairwells, crescent moons for vaulted ceilings, starkly labeled amenities: Boiler, Washroom, Kitchen, Workshops, Visitors Room, Exercise Yard, Warden. What circumstances lead to incarceration as a form of fate? Due process of the law, a miscarriage of justice, religion, politics, race? We rarely uncover the blueprints of the past and, even less frequently, expose the foundations upon which our current systems rest. Now I wonder if lines fall short without the necessary buttresses and foundations of language that allow for the nuance of faith and class and identity. Look closer: Condemned Cell, Execution Chamber, another Chapel (Protestant), Mortuary, two crosses in the Stonebreakers Yard, one plaque: Here, after Easter week 1916, the following leaders were executed.
Track the dates of the opening and closing of Kilmainham Gaol and one might see how they loosely coincide with the construction and destruction of the union between Ireland and Great Britain, testament to the ways a structure can both crystallize and obscure history. The Gaol didn’t just contain the leaders of the Easter Rising or other symbols of Irish nationalism and rebellion, but those, too, held for criminal offenses such as rape or murder, or for petty offenses, including the women and children imprisoned for food-related theft during the Great Famine.
Look closer: when I say ancestors I’m not even sure what that means. I am the mixed race descendent of a series of blurred, meandering familial lines. Had Grace Gifford not converted to Catholicism she and Joseph Plunkett may have never joined hands. Had my parents not chosen to defy the racial prejudices of the 60s and 70s and themselves chosen to marry, I may not be experimenting with lines and language. Had I never been to Ireland, I might not know what to teach my unborn child about faith and sacrifice. Had the incarceration rate in America not risen exponentially and disproportionately toppled my sense of justice, I may never have traveled across the Atlantic to understand how a country, once violently divided, could move toward understanding. Perhaps we are all products of conditional statements and subjunctive tendencies.
On the faded reproduction, I can add from memory an asterisk for every hand-carved inscription I saw on the cell walls of the Gaol. The case that holds Thomas MacDonagh’s rosary beads, James Fisher’s last letter to his mother, a single shoe belonging to Sean Treacy. I can mark the cell, kept closed to the public, where through a view hole, one can see the hand-painted portrait of a haloed Madonna and child. That was also the hand of Grace who, known then as Grace Gifford Plunkett, painted the wall with an artist’s eye for light and proportion, during her own imprisonment during the Civil War.
I had a plan for these lines, too. An outline of my thoughts, a way to explain why this place has remained with me, its inception as a county jail and the way it became a monument of civil unrest and cathedral of cultural identity. But I get lost within the far too intricate symmetries: geometrical cells like a Fibonacci sequence, everything depicted according to scale. What should I see? Carefully engineered markings? Architectural swagger? Innovation? Look closer: between the skeletal bones of a building’s design exists the connective tissue of history, the muscle and flesh that strengthen with time: from public works project, common jail, and political prison to abandoned building, monument, and museum.
I can’t pinpoint when my aspirations to be an architect were surpassed by a love of art and artifact, but I have spent more time in museums than I ever would have imagined. By the time I was sixteen I was finding solace not only in great buildings but in the encyclopedic collections they held: terra cotta kraters, tombs and sarcophagi. Throughout antiquity one can find evidence of human confinement, chambers in which we place our living and our dead, and the documents that led to their creation—instructions for burial, plans for temples and palaces that would lead to modern civilization. When does a museum become a form of understanding, as much a monument as a map by which to explore collective memory?
Enter through the courthouse, step into a chamber and in such preserved spaces any modern day visitor might notice—or rather, sense—underlying questions of theory and reality, form and function, evidence of our existences. Behind every manufactured space pulses a human hand. For every cell represented on a blueprint by a mere centimeter worth of parchment and ink, a body—no, hundreds—came and went. For days, weeks, years, just long enough to carve their name, lose a shoe, write their last letters, marry, paint the image of a mother and child, dream of their own children and descendents on distant shores.
Ever since visiting Kilmainham Gaol I have been trying to channel my childhood ambition. Perhaps this is why I hold onto the map, a small piece of a Visitor’s Guide—to preserve my belief in the power of lines as cartographic evidence and impetus for justice. It would be naïve to suggest I can look at a map and see possibility: a vision of meticulous dimensions and calculated angles, a proposed plan for structural integrity, law, order, and systemic equality. Perhaps this is why I choose not to tour prisons in America—Sing Sing, Angola, Alcatraz—nor do I visit plantations or the sites of old factory fires or neighborhood riots. One needs little imagination to recognize such spaces as active agents in an ongoing narrative, a story that hangs on a faulty and flailing judicial scale that lacks the symmetry time and perspective might afford: our monuments and museums do not yet reflect our country’s understanding.
Instead of abstract possibility, I can look at a faded map and believe that each line represents an inanimate form as much as it alludes to a breathing body, how the structures we conceive of and create inevitably hold us, just as the myth and memory of ancestral lineage can. Four walls form a chamber. Four chambers compose a heart. To see beyond that I have to look up and imagine a Skylight. To see the rest I have to look even closer: squint through the peephole of time to catch sight of the angel within.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Jericho Parms is the author of Lost Wax (University of Georgia Press). Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, The Normal School, Hotel Amerika, Brevity and elsewhere. She is the Associate Director of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches at Champlain College.
Fifth Avenue (at the E 85th St Transverse)
40.7794° N, 73.9632° W
Along the north end exterior of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, just outside of the glass walled gallery that houses the Temple of Dendur and across the street from the Ancient Playground is a small grassy hill with four trees. Years ago, in high school, I carved my initials into one of those trees, and though the markings (which must have been timid to begin with) have all but faded into the tree bark, I pass by them nearly every time I visit the museum, as if searching for evidence, as if I might find something I once left behind.