Not far from Dublin City centre lies an infamous prison that played a pivotal role in Irish history. Kilmainham Gaol (Jail) was established in 1796 as a housing unit for prisoners to replace the dungeon situated close to the site. Prisoners were not segregated by gender – in fact at times there were up to five men, women and children held in cells designed for one person. Kilmainham Gaol is famously known as the place of incarceration for some of Ireland’s most historic figures. Many leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916 were held here and executed. The prison played such a pivotal role in the war for Irish independence that it has been declared a National Monument and is now maintained by the Office of Public Works. For a nominal fee of €4 per adult, visitors can undertake a guided tour of the prison led by knowledgeable historians and I would highly recommend taking the time to visit this historically significant site.
Pictured above is the entrance to Kilmainham Gaol. Until the 1920's, prisoners were routinely executed here by way of hanging. The gallows were located above the front door and crowds eagerly gathered to watch the spectacle. Chillingly, over 180 hangings were carried out at Kilmainham Gaol until it was closed in 1910. Interestingly, over 4000 convicts were housed here before being sent to prison colonies in Australia.
You get a sense for the age and history of the building as you walk inside. The corridors are cold and foreboding. A museum exhibition close to the entrance helps you discover more about the background to the jail as you await the guided tour. Shortly after arriving, we proceeded to the cell blocks with our guide.
One of the first sections of the prison we visited was the West Wing of Kilmainham (a.k.a the 1916 Corridor). The leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were held here before their execution. Conditions on this block were extremely tough at all times. Cells were cold and exposed to the elements. There was no glass in the windows until 1846. The reasoning for this was not actually punishment but was designed to improve air circulation since prisoners were "slopping out" in their cells. To make matters worse, the thick limestone walls retained moisture and damp leading to illness and disease. Prisoners suffered mild carbon monoxide poisoning as a side effect to gas lamps installed in the cells (as a replacement to candles). Put simply, Kilmainham Gaol was a severe form of incarceration for anyone held here.
Next we moved on to the East Wing of Kilmainham Gaol. Opened in 1862, this section contained 96 cells and was used to house prisoners in isolation. Silence was expected and communication amongst prisoners was strictly forbidden. The architectural design of the East Wing is both impressive and intimidating in equal measure. Sadly, the prison was most overcrowded during the famine when people sought imprisonment simply to ensure they would be fed.
After visiting the East Wing, the tour guide brought us out to the courtyard. The height of the walls adds to the claustrophobic feeling of incarceration and the building itself is a very interesting example of Victorian architecture. The inner courtyard of Kilmainham pictured below leads to the Stone Breakers Yard. The latter is the site where 16 of the 1916 leaders were executed.
On Easter Monday in 1916, the Irish Citizen Army seized strategic buildings across Dublin City and proclaimed an Irish Republic. Hundreds of rebels were rounded up and incarcerated at Kilmainham Gaol. 15 leaders of the rebellion including Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett & James Connolly were executed in the Stone Breakers Yard by firing squad. Roger Casement was the last to be killed and was sentenced to hanging in London so to be denied a soldiers death. The execution of the rebellion leaders was a huge contributing factor in solidifying public opinion in favour of the rebels and Irish independence.
In 1924, Kilmainham Gaol was finally closed. This prison is steeped in so much history it is impossible to summarise in such a short account. I would certainly recommend a visit there if you are in Dublin city. It will help you understand some key events in Irish history and the enthusiastic tour guides truly bring to life the story of what took place there.
- Mark Sheils