Silence in the archives

Today’s post is a backward glance at the Trinity Week collaboration between the Library and the School of English on the theme of SILENCE. We have looked at silence imposed by imprisonment; we finish by looking at silence imposed by compromised mental health.

Our Trinity Week collaboration, proposed and curated by Dr Julie Bates of the School of English, sought to use the Library’s Beckett collection to interrogate the politics of silence, the cultural value of poor writing materials, and the body as a site of resistance. The collaboration took the form of a Long Room exhibition, a series of blog posts, and a panel discussion by Julie and her colleague Feargal Whelan.

Beckett is the perfect ‘hook’ on which to hang the linked issues we wished to investigate. He had an affinity with the imprisoned, writing a play as a tribute to Vaclav Hável. He inspired the San Quentin Drama Workshop. Furthermore, in his literary work he chose to use very poor quality material which, because he is venerated, is itself venerated. In contrast (and on exhibition in the Long Room alonsgside the Beckett material) Bobby Sands wrote letters on toilet paper which were smuggled out of Long Kesh to subvert the enforced silence of the prison. Sands, and others, also engaged in a hunger strike, using his own body to further resist being silenced.

Self-portrait by Dorothea Herbert (c.1767-1929). (TCD Deposit Herbert Retrospections)

This final post looks at the silence of other marginalised individuals, those who are mentally ill. The Library has a memoir by an eighteenth-century woman Dorothea Herbert (c.1767-1829) which illustrates a number different kinds of silencing and resistance to it. Herbert’s record, though rare and unusual, was dismissed as a useful historical record for decades because it failed to address the historical political narrative when the historical political narrative was the only show in town. It was adjudged to have made insufficient mention of the land war even though the author lived in Tipperary, a hot-bed of agrarian agitation. It was not only silenced by politics, but by gendered cultural standards which renders some experiences inherently ridiculous: the memoir, when it was cited at all, was dismissed with a patronising smile because Herbert’s obsession took the form of an invented love story.

It is only in recent years that Herbert’s voice as a talented writer and poet has been valued, and her sophisticated use of literature to manage her mental illness has been recognised as a conscious and complex stratagem. Interestingly, when experiencing a period of mental distress, Herbert used her own body as a site of resistance, by dressing herself in an unorthodox manner to go to a church service. One scholar describes this action as Herbert turning herself into a ‘kinetic sculpture’ to express her opposition to imposed modesty. Also interesting for our overall theme, other attempts were made to silence Herbert during her lifetime and shortly thereafter. When her behaviour was particularly distressing to her family they locked her in her room and, after her death, family members destroyed some of Herbert’s diaries, due to the negative stories they recorded about particular individuals.

Fragment of Dorothea Herbert’s surviving diary (TCD Deposit Herbert Diary)

The Library also holds the literary archives of the poet Brendan Kennelly (b. 1928), formerly Professor of Modern Literature. His collection contains material which illustrates how difficult it is for a research institution to enable a suppressed voice to be heard even when this is desired. The Library is using his archive to curate an exhibition to mark the sixtieth anniversary of Kennelly’s first publication. One of the poet’s defining characteristics, as a poet and an individual, was his openness, about himself and to others. Because of this and because of his celebrity status, the archive contains works by prisoners, to whom Professor Kennelly taught poetry, and by members of the public – some possibly vulnerable – who sent him their own work. Despite wishing to include this material in the exhibition, it is impossible because of copyright restrictions. The instance particularly regretted by the exhibition curator is the case of a Kildare woman who hand-painted a greeting card for Brendan, on good quality art paper, but who then said she could find nothing suitable upon which to write the poetry she wished to send him. She reached for the nearest piece of paper which came to hand which happened to be a large, multi-page Allied Irish Banks wall calendar. To the untutored eye (my own) these poems are not without merit. However, they will probably never see the light of day.

Dr Jane Maxwell

Bobby Sands and the imprisoned voice

Continuing our series of blog posts as part of Trinity Week‘s theme of silence, we will today consider more closely the letter, currently on display in the Long Room, from Bobby Sands who died in prison after a hunger strike of 66 days in 1981.

Committed radical activists, if imprisoned, persevere in either recording their thoughts or communicating their beliefs using whatever material comes to hand. This is to undermine one of the purposes of imprisonment – the removal of the prisoner and his or her convictions from the national conversation. In the case of Bobby Sands he used toilet paper for his letter-writing campaign.

The Sands letter arrived in the Library in the late 1990s as part of the literary archives of the author John B. Keane (2018-2002). Keane was personally unknown to Sands whose strategy was to send letters to high profile individuals who, if they were persuaded to support his protest demands, could use their celebrity to advance them.

Letter from Bobby Sands (1954-1981), MP to John B. Keane (MS 10403/1b/1592)

The letter is written over several sheets of paper, in a cheap blue biro – obviously cheap because of the blots it produced. The writing is tiny, to save space, but clearly legible. The message is strong and coherent, as a result of Sands’ convictions and also, most likely, from the fact that he would have used the same phrases over and over in other letters to other recipients. The language is highly dramatic, as might be expected from an amateur poet, whether in telling of the torture the prisoners experienced or in the description of their appearances: ‘…faces … sharp and hollow … eyes piercing and intense … ghost-like, skeletal, ragged, wretched, naked …’.

The letter has been affixed to a slightly sturdier piece of paper upon which the recipient’s name is written. It is unknown when this was done or by whom; it may have been done by the person who smuggled the item out of Long Kesh prison. The Keane papers, when they arrived in the Library, were contained in several plastic fertiliser bags, each one containing hundreds of letters all of which had been impaled onto a length of heavy wire with a knot in the end. This seemingly bizarre treatment was not an unusual way to ‘file’ small-business records and is not unique in the Library’s collections. Thus the Sands letter, like all of Keane’s correspondence, has a small hole in it. Furthermore, due to the damage caused by storage in a bag in an outhouse, these papers spent their first months in Trinity in the Conservation Department, being ironed.

Mid-twentieth-century agricultural records ‘filed’ on a wire. (MS 11573)

This Trinity Week blog series has drawn attention to the artefactual nature of manuscripts which communicates information to the viewer separate from that communicated by the written text. It is certainly the case that the cheap paper used by Samuel Beckett is venerated because he touched it – but only by a particular audience. The Sands letter has attracted the same quality of veneration from a different audience, to whom the use of toilet paper adds to their appreciation of the sacrifice Sands made.

In the Cells: writing with improvised materials

In our most recent post Dr Julie Bates and Dr Feargal Whelan, collaborators with the Library in a Trinity Week project, touched on the question of the quality of literary writing materials. Does the cultural value of poor quality materials alter depending on who wrote on them, or where they were produced or where they are read? In today’s post the two authors consider this question in relation to the manuscripts of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814).

Parchment roll containing the writings of the Marquis de Sade in the Bibliotheque national de France. (Getty)

The eighteenth-century libertine Le Marquis de Sade created his most challenging work Le 120 Journées de Sodome (The 120 Days of Sodom) while incarcerated in the notorious Bastille prison in Paris in 1785. The book itself is a deeply disturbing work of cruelty, nihilism and indulgence – a book that is aggressively pornographic and transgressive, yet its method of composition and the artefact of its manuscript are remarkable in their own right. It should be noted that Beckett was a great admirer of the book, seeing beneath its surface obscenity a brutal examination of the limits of literature – Beckett even considered translating the book into English!

Having become involved in the French Resistance during the war, Samuel Beckett had to flee Paris with his partner Suzanne, going on the run before eventually seeing out the war in the village of Roussillon in the south of the country. Throughout the whole period of adversity he carried a notebook in which he wrote what eventually became the novel Watt which was published in 1953. He wrote it ‘in dribs and drabs’ as a way ‘to stay sane’ he said of the book. The manuscript contained in the notebook, now at the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas at Austin, contains an inflated version of the novel, adorned with doodles and drawings, which has been compared to an illuminated manuscript such as the Book of Kells. Beckett’s notebook has become an artefact with an aesthetic value beyond the mere narrative it contains. When Beckett returned to Ireland through England at the end of the war he was debriefed by the intelligence services who suspected the manuscript was written in code!

Manuscript of Beckett’s novel Watt from the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.

Sade’s book was written on small pieces of parchment which de Sade had smuggled in to his cell. He glued these fragments together to make a continuous scroll, 12 metres long, on which he wrote the piece in tiny handwriting, and which he kept in a copper cylinder. Following the storming of the Bastille which led to his release at the beginning of the Revolution, he hid the scroll in a crevice in his cell fearing its confiscation. The manuscript appeared to have been lost but resurfaced a number of years later, changing hands on a number of occasions, until it ended up, in 2014, in the possession of a Swiss investment broker who was subsequently convicted of fraud. When the scroll came up for auction, the French Government intervened to declare the item a national treasure.

The questions raised by the story of Sade’s manuscript and the creation of the Watt notebook echo some of those in this blog and the current exhibition in the Long Room. Sade’s scroll was fashioned by an incarcerated individual from poor materials into a medium for their work, and was transformed by the story of its creation, hiding, discovery, and passage from one owner to another into something beyond its material status and the words it carries – indeed, into a national treasure. Similarly, in hiding from persecution, Beckett filled this notebook and ended up with a multi-faceted and highly valued artefact. This prompts a series of questions, including: Are these manuscripts works of art in themselves, independent of their narrative content? What relationship exists between the writing as script and the material on which it is written? Does one intensify or moderate the other? Sade’s scroll is now a national treasure but would the book it contains have ever gained that status had it only existed on paper and ink? Does the act of creation under duress make either the work or the author any greater? And a final question to which we find ourselves returning during this project: what effect does incarceration have on creativity?

Dr Feargal Whelan (Centre for Beckett Studies) and Dr Julie Bates (School of English)

Beckett: the prisoners’ response

In this, the fourth blog post in a series of eight in response to Trinity Week’s overall theme of SILENCE, Julie Bates, of the School of English, and Feargal Whelan of the Centre for Beckett Studies, consider Beckett’s particular association with prisoners. Julie and Feargal will also take part in a panel discussion tomorrow which investigates this issue further. All are welcome.

Beckett has long been associated with prisoners. His apartment in Boulevard Saint-Jacques in Paris overlooked the Santé prison and he described both his distress at hearing the cries of the inmates from his living room, and his attempts to signal to them, using a small mirror. Beckett’s writing explores themes and scenarios of confinement, incarceration, loss of control and agency, and as the current exhibition in Trinity’s Long Room and this blog series have been exploring, his plays in particular have powerfully resonated with prisoners.  

Beckett directs Lawrence Held in Endgame. Riverside Studios, 1980 (MS 11409/22)

To take just two examples, in 1953, months after its premiere in Paris, Waiting for Godot was performed in Wuppertal prison in Germany, and four years later in San Quentin State Prison in California. Both productions made a powerful impression on some of the prisoners. Beckett kept up a lengthy correspondence with one of the German inmates and also with Rick Cluchey, from San Quentin. Cluchey had been forced to listen to the production from his cell because he was thought to be at risk of attempting an escape, yet it made such an impact on him that he organised his fellow inmates to stage their own production in the prison in 1961.  

After his release from prison, Cluchey founded the San Quentin Drama Workshop. In 1980 Beckett assisted their rehearsals for his play Endgame at Riverside Studios in London. The exhibition which I have curated in the Long Room, for Trinity Week, includes a photograph of these rehearsals and letter of support from Beckett to the Riverside’s director, David Gothard. The glass case also includes a somewhat bizarre set of souvenir badges for the production.

Souvenir of the 50th anniversary (in 2007) of the San Quentin Drama Workshop. (OBJ 74/1)

Beckett’s writing continues to resonate with prisoners, and theatre practitioners including Jan Jönson and Cathal Quinn continue to explore the particular dynamic of producing his work in prison. In March 2017, Marcus Lamb of Mouth on Fire theatre company performed Beckett’s monologue-type short story ‘The End’ to an audience of prisoners in the training unit of Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison. The narrative of the story is a straightforward one: a shabbily-dressed man negotiates his way in the world through a series of increasingly isolated situations having been expelled from an institution, until he calmly locks himself inside a boat and imagines floating out to sea. 

After the performance, Dr Feargal Whelan discussed it with the audience and asked them to fill in questionnaires about what they had seen. Most were taken with the comic stage business, but others focused on more complex emotional moments in the story. One prisoner responded to the question about what especially had stood out for him with the wonderful line: ‘The horse @ the trough and the stars @ the end’.  

At one point in this production the actor left the room mid-monologue for a few moments and returned without explanation. The audience was asked why they thought this might have happened, and suggested a variety of scenarios including: ‘A bit of a breakdown like he couldn’t take it anymore’, ‘It brought back memories he probably didn’t want to talk about’, and ‘To check his Facebook?’ To the question ‘Is he lucky?’ the respondents were divided. Some said an emphatic ‘no’, others ‘He could have been worse off’, and the most enigmatic: ‘Very and yet…’ 

As Dr Jane Maxwell has noted in a recent blog post, ‘The differences which might exist between artifacts in the “real” world, in terms of what has intrinsic value and what is ephemeral, become effaced once they become part of a research collection in a library or museum. Whether an item is a scrap of cheap paper written on by a Nobel Laureate, or a piece of toilet paper written on by a prisoner, it handled in the same way by exhibition curators and conservators.’

In this light, how should we view the questionnaires written by the prisoners in Mountjoy in response to Beckett’s short story? Do they have the same value as the work of Bobby Sands or the Marquis de Sade – or indeed, of Beckett? Another question we want to explore in this Trinity Week exhibition, blog post series, and talk is this: do prisoners have a particular insight into Beckett’s writing – and if so, what might those outside prison learn from this? 

Dr Julie Bates (School of English) Dr Feargal Whelan (Centre for Beckett Studies)

Using the body to resist

‘I never thought I’d die’: Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington’s letter recalling being on hunger strike, 1928

This, the third post in our Trinity Week series on the subject of silence, addresses hunger striking as a form of communication in circumstances in which silence is being enforced, usually by imprisonment.

Hunger strikers use their bodies to communicate because no other channel is permitted. The pace of the process – played out in the glare of publicity – reconfigures the dynamic between ‘powerless’ and ‘powerful’ by weaponising the body as a site of resistance to control and forcing public attention onto the private act of dying.

The Samuel Beckett papers in the Library are being used this Trinity Week to draw attention to questions of enforced silence.

There are many suffering and malnourished bodies in Beckett’s novels and plays but he rarely makes direct reference to historical or political events. However in Malone Dies, published in French in 1951, he wrote the following:

‘That reminds me, how long can one fast with impunity? The Lord Mayor of Cork lasted for ages, but he was young, and then he had political convictions, human ones too probably, just plain human convictions.’

This is a direct reference to Terence MacSwiney (1879-1920), who died on hunger-strike in Brixton Prison. The character Malone seems to neither support the politics of MacSwiney’s cause nor oppose them. He prefers to focus, almost absent-mindedly, on the ‘humanity’ of the act.  During Bobby Sands’s hunger strike, frequent reference was made to MacSwiney’s action to promote the idea of an unbroken historical link running through Irish political dissent, and also to the fact that they had endured for so long – Sands lasted 66 days, while MacSwiney succumbed after 74.

Apart from the Bobby Sands letter, now on display in the Long Room for Trinity Week, the Library has another letter, this time from one hunger striker to another. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (1877-1946) was a founding member of the Irish Women’s Franchise league which promoted female suffrage. She was arrested on a number of occasions and went on hunger strike. Over a decade later, in early 1928, she wrote a letter to Frank Gallagher (1893-1962) recalling her views of the experience. Gallagher, a founder member of Poblacht na hÉireann and a member of the Irish Volunteers was imprisoned several times during the War of Independence and the Civil War, and partook in the hunger-strike campaigns of the republican prisoners, the longest lasting for forty-one days in 1923 and the shortest for three.

Letter from Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington to Frank Gallagher, c. 1928. (TCD MS 11121)

In her letter Sheehy-Skeffington suggested that Gallagher had a more difficult experience. “I never thought I’d die,” she wrote. “And that makes a difference.” Rather touchingly, she notes that they were ‘supplied with hot water bottles which are a great comfort.’ However, the fear of being forcibly fed was something she dreaded. Forcible feeding, used against the suffragettes, attraction public opprobrium. It was only in the 1970s hunger striking campaign, during which the Price sisters famously endured a 200-day hunger strike, that forcible feeding was described in terms of rape.

Dr Jane Maxwell (with Dr Feargal Whelan and Dr Julie Bates)