Showcasing Laois History and Heritage
An Initiative of Laois Library Service

Prisoner Autograph Books

Laois Local Studies has added two prisoner autograph books to its digital archive. The digital copies were donated by the families of Patrick J. Bracken and Matthew Bergin.

Autograph books were popular among political prisoners in the revolutionary period. They contain entries made by fellow prisoners and usually include the prisoner’s name, location and dates of imprisonment. The autograph books are a useful supplement to the official records of the revolutionary period, particularly the very unstable civil war era. Entries often provide cell numbers, home addresses and even IRA details. They are an excellent source for identifying and tracking individual prisoners.

Prisoner entries in autograph books were frequently personalised with poems and illustrations, expressing the prisoners’ patriotic pride and political convictions.  As autograph books were written for fellow prisoners, the entries openly expressed the prisoners’ reactions and opinions to their detention and treatment. The two Laois autograph books in our digital archive are very different in tone. Entries in Matt Bergin’s book were made during the War of Independence, and although they contain anti-British sentiments, the entries reflect a sense of hope and comradery. Patrick Brackens book, on the other hand, was completed during the Civil War and entries reflect bitter disappointment and anger directed against former comrades.

The Civil War autograph book of Patrick Bracken contains entries made during his detention in Portlaoise and Mountjoy. During his time in Portlaoise three prisoners were executed, two as part of a hard-line reprisal policy by the government in early 1923. Bracken’s autograph book records the executions of Patrick Geraghty and Thomas Gibson on the 27th January 1923 and contains the reaction of fellow prisoners. With no release in sight and fearing further reprisals, it is hardly surprising that the Civil War entries recorded in the Bracken’s autograph book express more bitterness than anything found in the more optimistic Bergin record.

Various repositories in Ireland hold collections of prison autograph books, including Kilmainham Gaol and the National Library of Ireland. However, many are held privately as cherished family heirlooms. If you have a prisoner autograph book relating to Laois the Local Studies section would be delighted to hear from you. Digitising the records and adding them to the digital archive allows access to the public without the necessity of outright donation by families and owners.

Laois Local Studies would like to thank members of the Bracken and Bergin families for their generosity, including Seamus Bracken of Rathdowney (son of Patrick Bracken) and his nephew Colm McNeill of Abbeyleix; Catherine Fitzpatrick (granddaughter of Matt Bergin) and her mother Peggy Bergin (daughter of William Spooner and daughter-in-Law of Matt Bergin); Peter Bergin of Errill , his brother Joe in America and his sisters Mary in the UK and Anna in Kilkenny (children of Matt Bergin).