Mar 162011

A St. Patrick’s Day tribute to political prisoners

By Beth Connors-Manke

In January, I got to visit Ireland, land of my ancestors. On my mom’s side, the Barrys arrived in the U.S. in the late 1800s, part of the Irish diaspora that occurred after the Potato Famine in the 1840s and 50s. My dad’s side, the Connors, arrived with the big immigrant influx in the early twentieth century. Both sides arrived poor and hard-scrabble.

Whenever you trek to your family’s “mother land,” you’re probably searching for something. If not some instinctual stirring of the blood, then some sense of place or of the culture that shaped your family. When we arrived in Dublin, it took me approximately 15 minutes to decide that whatever I was looking for was mythic.

While I grew up being told at the dinner table that “the Irish eat their potatoes,” walking around Dublin quickly told me that I was far from the Irish life of my great-grandparents. I was far in time from their experience, and Dublin itself was a different place, a place that, to the tourist’s eye, was simply another Euro city, with pedestrian plazas and large chain stores situated much as I had just seen them in London. (Sorry, native Dubliners. We’ll accept your hate mail at the address on the masthead.)

I amended my expectations. If history brought me to Eire, then I should look to history, not to Grafton Street (where the beautiful movie Once is partially set) or even Temple Bar, as a way to connect to my family’s life in Ireland. This led me to Kilmainham Gaol.

An old and weathered building in Dublin, the jail opened in 1796 and operated for almost 128 years. Kilmainham’s significance in Irish history is as the detention and execution site for revolutionaries fighting for an independent Irish state. Most famously, leaders of the 1916 Easter Rebellion were held and executed at the gaol.

However, as we toured the jail with our lively, storytelling guide, another story grabbed me, reminding me of Lexington’s own history of political imprisonment.

Political Prisoner Anne Devlin

In July 1803, Robert Emmet led a fantastically unsuccessful rebellion that tried to overtake Dublin Castle. Inculcated with political ideals rooted in the American and French Revolutions, Emmet drafted the “Proclamation to the People of Ireland,” a document fashioned on the none-too-old American Declaration of Independence. After reading the proclamation, Emmet and his men began their assault which, within one hour, turned into defeat.

When the authorities rounded up rebels, they picked up young twenty-something Anne Devlin. A participant in the rebellion planning, Devlin had been functioning under the guise of being Emmet’s housekeeper. The authorities believed she had valuable information on Emmet and others.

While Emmet was quickly tried and then executed on September 20, 1803, Anne was consigned to three years of brutal conditions and torture at the hands of (as our tour guide described him) an obsessive and sadistic prison official called “Dr.” Trevor.

Just before Emmet’s execution, Trevor is reputed to have said to Anne:

“Bad luck to you Anne Devlin, bad luck to you, you rebelly bitch; I hope you may be hanged. I never saw but one woman hanged in all my life, and I hope I shall see you hanged; and if there was nobody else to hang you, I should hang you myself.”

Our tour guide told us that Trevor was so consumed with breaking Anne that, after officials ordered better treatment or release for her, the sadist held her secretly in a closet. Devlin never surrendered information about the rebellion, despite the fact that the government had imprisoned much of her family. Her younger brother, about nine or ten years old, died of an illness while imprisoned at the jail.

The irony of Devlin’s situation is that her gender saved her from the scaffold but doomed her, first, to Trevor’s torture, and second, to a life of disease and unending hardship. Devlin’s health was ruined by her time at Kilmainham, and when she died in 1851, the destitute former rebel was buried in a charity coffin.

As our tour guide noted and scholar Megan Sullivan also asserts, Anne Devlin has been an “almost forgotten female participant in Robert Emmet’s 1803 rebellion.” History tends to forget those who resist yet survive.

Lex’s Kilmainham

Touring Kilmainham tied me, unexpectedly, to my family and to my adopted home of Lexington. To my family, in that I saw how much poverty and political strife become embedded in ways of being, in a people’s outlook on life. To Lexington, in that I know about the Lexington High Security Unit (HSU), which also held female political prisoners.

Opened in 1986, the notorious HSU had a short life, closing in 1988 after inmates and human rights organizations took the institution to court for prison conditions and treatment of inmates.

Designed to hold 16 women, the Lexington HSU was built beneath an existing correctional institution. The multi-million dollar project was a prison within a prison, geared toward complete surveillance and psychological control of prisoners who had been placed there because of their political activity.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Richard Korn reported to the American Civil Liberties Union that the purpose of the prison was “to reduce prisoners to a state of submission essential for their ideological conversion. That failing, the next objective is to reduce them to a state of psychological incompetence sufficient to neutralize them as efficient, self-directing antagonists. That failing, the only alternative is to destroy them, preferably by making them desperate enough to destroy themselves.”

Susan Rosenberg, who was there for the duration of the Lexington “experiment,” described her time in the HSU as “being buried alive.”

This article is the first in a series on incarceration and Lexington. The next article will report more on the Lexington High Security Unit.

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