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Kilmainham Gaol - a haunting building with haunting tales
Kilmainham Jail (Dublin County)
Member Name: julwhite
Kilmainham Jail (Dublin County)
Advantages: Understand more of Irish history through the stories contained in this gaol
Disadvantages: Tours can be quite full
The prison is in Dublin and was built when the British ran Ireland, in 1789, to replace an older prison which was located very nearby. It is a large imposing building, with much of the mid nineteenth structure which was added being built to show the new liberal attitudes in Victorian prisons, that of reform and getting away from the old system where tens of people were crammed into a room with little light.
You enter the museum through the old main doors, and you discover later in the tour that you've walked under where some of the hangings had taken place. The museum costs 6 Euros to get in, and I was directed towards the museum section, whilst waiting for the guided tour of the prison itself.
I arrived early in the day, so had a lot of time to look around the museum before the first tour, and there are main displays to look through. There are some interactive exhibits, a lot of displays with writing to give you an indication of the history of prisons, and the history of Kilmainham, and also many exhibits with pieces of gaol history, such as old locks from the cell doors.
The guided tours start from the museum, and large groups seem to be quite common, so try to keep up and position yourself close to the tour guide so that you can hear what they're saying. The walk starts down the corridors of the gaol, with a glimpse of the main open part of the prison as you walk by.
It is the west wing of the gaol that you see first, en route to the old catholic chapel where there is a video to watch giving some more history of the building. The Church of Ireland chapel is above, still not restored, and it is a testament to the work of volunteers in the 1960s that so much of the prison has been restored and made accessible to visitors.
The cells in the west wing aren't pleasant, it is cold and damp. The stone feels damp to the touch, and the windows that are there now didn't used to be there, part of a regime which thought fresh air would help cleanse the mind. Given that prisoners used to have just one blanket, the thought of wind rushing through the already cold and damp cells is quite horrendous.
Like much of the prison, it is hard to imagine how much trauma prisoners had to go through in so many ways. Especially when the stories come to life, such as how many people in the Irish famine were sent here for begging, their only choice in the circumstances which they faced. The authorities never accepted it, but for many, begging for food was their only choice for survival, and hundreds were sent to Kilmainham at that time, dramatically over-filling the prison.
The next row of cells you see are in a number of ways an important part of Irish history, for it is here that the Easter Rising rebellion prisoners were housed. These were the prisoners who in 1916 occupied the General Post Office in O'Connell Street and launched a rebellion against British rule. Like previous rebellions, they failed in their immediate plans, but it was another hammer blow against British rule in the country.
A remarkable story was told here by our tour guide, that one of the prisoners in 1916 was sentenced to death, as many of the Easter Rising prisoners were, and he spent his last night writing a letter to his children and wife. He mentioned that he thought one of his sons would become a priest, which is what he did. And amazingly, his son is still alive, aged 97 and living in Hong Kong, and he sometimes returns to that cell where his father wrote that letter. That linked the present with the past, and made the cells in this area mean just a little bit more.
The tour then moves on to the main part of the gaol in the east wing, which in contrast to the previous cells is airy and bright, with light flooding in. It was thought that giving each prisoner their own cell, and lots of light, would encourage them to think of what they had done, give them to time to plan a new future, and the light would help give them a spiritual reflection on their lives.
In this part of the prison, you can walk in nearly all of the cells, which have been brightly painted, but which still seem bleak and barren, although much better than the previous cells in the west wing. There are dungeons underneath where prisoners were placed in solitary confinement for wrong-doings, but these can't be accessed, and it is a disappointment of the tour that so many passageways can't be explored. It was tempting to just run off and explore these passages, but I'm sure cameras would soon have noticed any wayward visitors!
The final part of the tour was to the large exercise yards, and then through to an area called the Stonebreaker's Yard where the leaders of the Easter Rebellion were executed by the British military. There is a memorial to the men who died, and two spots are marked out with crosses. One is where all but one were shot by young soldiers, who struggled with inexperience when in the firing squad. The other grave marker is where one man, James Connolly, was shot. He had been injured in the rebellion, and was brought straight from hospital, so ill and unable to walk that he had to be strapped to the chair before being shot.
The leaders of the Easter Rebellion were shot over the course of several days, and many of the Irish population in 1916 moved from a position of anger at the rebel leaders for causing so much damage to Dublin and O'Connell Street to a position of anger over the callous behaviour of the British troops and authorities. It was a key moment in Ireland's bid to become its own nation state.
Politics and history is never simple however, and the gaol it seems has in the past had a tour guide who was anti-British and was starting to rewrite history by missing out the Irish Civil War and downplaying sections of history. This wasn't a factor of my tour, the guide was fair and even-handed, and she was entirely aware of the prison's history, answering a wide range of questions quickly and with great detail.
At the end of the tour, I went back into the museum to finish looking around. There is an interesting display of photos and exhibits from when the prison was re-opened, which was done with the work of hundreds of volunteers. The prison had closed in the mid 1920s, and had been left for forty years, so much repair work had to be done.
For those interested in ghost stories, it is likely no surprise that the gaol has many reported sightings. One former caretaker of the building apparently said though that it was never the ghosts of the inmates that worried him, he felt they would do no harm, just the ghosts of the prison guards.
Overall, this tour was for me one of the most important visits I made anywhere in Dublin. There are other museums, such as at Collins Barracks, which also tell the story of the Easter Rising and the progress of Irish history. But the combination of the building, the stories within it and the importance of what happened here, made this for me a visit which was unforgettable, and certainly thought provoking.
Summary: Fascinating and thought provoking
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