Making their mark: Colm Keena on revealing graffiti on a French castle’s walls

“By the French we was caught, And to this prison we was brought”

There is something about us people that makes us want to put our names on walls, tree trunks, and other surfaces. Teenagers graffiti on walls and the sides of train carriages, often to the irritation of adults, yet us adults can be enormously pleased if the scratches we inflicted on tree trunks and walls when we were young survive to be viewed decades later.

A particularly moving exemplar of this urge is the way prisoners often adorn the walls of their lonely cells with their names, dates, and other details of their plight. Joe Bloggs Was Here, writes the prisoner on the wall, and a stranger who views it later can be left strangely moved.

Recently, when in Tarascon, a small town in Provence, France, I paid a visit to a wonderfully intact medieval castle there that sits on the banks of the Rhône. It towers up at the very edge of the wide powerful river, and one of the main bed chambers near the top has an ensuite loo, a stone room that juts out of the stone walls so that, when the former occupants did their business, the product fell straight down to the water below, and was swept away towards the sea.

The castle has dungeons, kitchens, cellars, chapels, bed chambers, and a couple of sizeable halls. As well as serving as an important strategic base and occasional residence for various Provencal dukes since the first half of the 15th century, the castle has also been used over the centuries as a prison, last doing so as recently as 1926. During the French Revolution, hundreds of unfortunate supporters of Robespierre were held there prior to being executed. During the various Euro-Mediterranean wars of the 17th and 18th centuries, Spanish, British and Dutch sailors who had been taken prisoner spent time in the castle. And many of the former inmates made a point of chiselling their names into the castle’s stone walls.


While many of the names chiselled into the stone by the prisoners over the years have faded, others have survived and can be made out, or partially made out, if you take the time to look for them when on your castle tour.

Stephen Barker, of Hull, who was released in 1779, was a sailor on an Italian merchant ship when he was taken prisoner. Reni Quinn carved his name very neatly on the wall but gave no other details. Charles Morgan and Joseph Mullender wrote their names alongside each other. In the same large room the same, or another, Joseph Mullender chipped his name alongside that of Patrick Londy. Arthur Dillon did a good job when leaving his mark. Benjamin Johnston recorded that he was taken captive in 1757. George something beginning with Q was a “Fisher Man of London”, before he was taken prisoner while on the “Poop Mouse of Billingsgate”. William H Spencer, of Hull, was taken prisoner on July 20th, 1778, and released in November of the following year.

The best of the messages that I came across when wandering around the castle was left by three English sailors who spent time there in the 1700s. Their expert work, all in capitals, would stand out on a gravestone in any graveyard, given how neatly the letters are constructed and how the angled indentations make the message easy to read. Better still was the admirable spirit conveyed by the words they left behind:

“Here is 3 Davids in one mess,

Prisoners we are in distress,

By the French we was caught,

And to this prison we was brought.”

The ditty was signed by David Hayworth, of Hull, David Sidney, of London, and the third David, whose name and origins are no longer legible. They were on the Zephyr sloop of war when they “was caught” on August 25th, 1778, according to the message they left in the castle’s great hall. Happily for the Davids, they were released in November 1779.

The only mention of Ireland I came across during my tour was in part of a graffiti that is now hard to read. As best I could make out, what remains reads: “OHN MORRK TO CORK IN IRELAND 1779.” There may well be other mentions of Ireland that I failed to see in rooms I didn’t get to examine. I had not completed my tour of the extensive castle when one of the workers there told me, rather forcefully, that it was closing for lunch.

I was sorry to have to abandon my research and leave. But I cheered myself up by going to a shaded bistro terrace on the far side of the river, where I ordered the fish of the day, frites, and a glass of chilled white Côtes du Rhône.