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Kilmainham Jail (Dublin County)
Member Name: kenjohn
Kilmainham Jail (Dublin County)
Date: 07/03/02, updated on 15/03/02 (541 review reads)
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No other place in the city will give you quite such an insight into why it is the Irish are so proud of their independence, and I guarantee that you wont leave without feeling the full weight of Irish history bearing down on your shoulders.
~ ~ Kilmainham Gaol is situated in the Inchicore area of the city, only about 3 miles from the city centre, and easily accessible by bus, taxi, or indeed by foot, as it is a pleasant ramble up the length of the River Liffey which splits Dublin city into two parts, north and south.
The prison opened for business way back in 1795, and its last inmate, Eamon de Valera, walked free from its gate in 1924, to go on to become the very first President of the Irish Free State. (as was, now the Irish Republic)
In the 129 years it was used as a prison, some 180,000 prisoners sampled its dubious charms, the vast majority of them nothing more than common run-of-the-mill convicts, locked up for such crimes as murder, rape, burglary, prostitution, and, off course, debt, which in olden times here in Ireland was viewed as one of the most heinous of crimes!
But it was also used by its British overlords as a place of incarceration for Irish patriots down through the years. Such notable heroes of the Irish Republic as Robert Emmet, Charles Stewart Parnell, Eamon de Valera, Padraig Pearse, and the famous Scots Presbyterian, James Connolly, were all imprisoned here at Kilmainham.
Here it was too that the British carried out their infamous execution of the leaders of the 1916 Rising. Fourteen of the leaders of the battle of the GPO in Dublin were summarily
shot in its yard, some having to be strapped to wooden chairs, as their wounds were so severe that they couldn’t stand upright to face the firing squad.
It was here that the famous “long drop” when hanging a prisoner was first thought of and invented. Not so long that it would literally tear off their head, but long enough so that it would break their neck cleanly, and not leave them dangling and choking on the hangman’s noose.
In total, 23 political prisoners and some 138 common criminals were executed here at Kilmainham.
It was also used during the Famine years as a place of residence for unfortunate Irish citizens who had been forced off their land by their unscrupulous British absentee landlords, and quite literally had no other place to turn. At the height of the famine it is reckoned that up to 10,000 people sought refuge within its porous limestone walls, rather than face almost certain death from starvation. Not that there wasn’t plenty of food to feed the population, but it was more profitable for the British owners of the land to export it and sell it abroad, than to be bothered saving the lives of their starving, but expendable, tenants.
~ ~ Nowadays it is one of the largest unoccupied prisons in the whole of Europe, and with over 120,000 visitors a year taking the Guided Tour, it ranks as the sixth most visited heritage site in the whole of the Irish Republic.
The tour guides really know their stuff too, and many are serious students of Irish history.
The tour usually begins in the East Wing of the old prison. Built in 1861, this is a truly striking three-storey building, with a total of 96 cells, and topped by a massive 200 foot by 40-foot cupola type glass roof. If you are an avid film buff, you might even recognise this part of the prison, as it has been used in recent Irish films such as “In The Name Of The Father” (about the Birmingham Six) and “Michael Collins”
All the cell doors face outwards into the centre of the wing, and all have a small spy hole, which allowed the guards to constantly supervise the inmates. This wing was built with the old Victorian idea in mind that “silence was golden”, and that quiet contemplation of their crimes would lead many prisoners into experiencing a religious conversion. This rule of silence was rigorously upheld for 23 hours a day. The only time the inmates could freely converse with each other was when they were allowed their one-hour exercise period, and anyone breaking this rule was immediately thrown into dank, dark and unheated punishment cells to further contemplate their fate.
You can enter the actual cells here, and will be fascinated by the widespread graffiti, outlining the many varying reasons that a person had found themselves incarcerated, and the varying lengths of their tenure. Many of the famous signatures of Irish patriots remain intact on the cell walls, and it really is a piece of living history.
Above one of the doorways an unknown wit has scratched the words “To Let”, although I feel that any estate agent would have great trouble renting out this accommodation, no matter how low the rent!
~ ~ Visitors are then given a half hour film history of the prison, before being led into a dark and damp corridor lined with equally dark, damp and tiny cells, which is a part of the original structure of the building. You can only imagine what it must have been like to be locked up in here. Even on the hottest summer day, it is wet and freezing cold, and this seeps into your very bones even after a very short period of time. What it must have been like being permanently locked up here during a dreary Irish winter doesn’t even bear contemplating.
But when it was built in the late 1700’s, Kilmainham was actually looked upon as a model prison! Before the penal reforms of this period, the idea of imprisoning someone f
or a crime didn’t even exist, and convicted criminals were housed in unbelievably poor and stinking accommodation, until they were either hanged, flogged, or transported to the “colonies” as punishment.
If you question some of the Guides, they may be inclined to reveal to you some of the reasons that the poor of Ireland found themselves locked away in this dungeon. Some of the “crimes” were of such a petty nature that today we would find it hard to fathom how anyone could actually be locked up for committing them.
In 1860, two young boys of 10 and 11 were imprisoned for stealing a black rabbit from the zoo. Another was locked up for having bread and butter in his possession that was “believed” to be stolen. And as recently as the early 1900’s, a large number of men and young boys were locked away for having the bare faced audacity (as well as other parts!) as to go swimming in the buff in the Grand Canal during a particularly hot summer.
Up until 1881, the prison was mixed, with both men and women being incarcerated. And for one year only during the 1870’s, women convicts were permitted to keep their babies with them. The jail’s register for this year records that 242 women and 16 babies were among its residents.
From 1881 up until its closure as a general prison in 1910, Kilmainham was an all male institution, and from 1910 until it finally closed its gates for the last time in 1924, it was used purely as a military detention centre.
~ ~ The next stop on the tour is what is now called the “1916 Corridor”.
You walk along a rickety catwalk fashioned from iron and wood, where the cells of the Irish Martyrs of the 1916 Rising are located.
It was this rebellion, more than any other, which eventually led to Ireland gaining its independence from British rule. The patriots went ahead with their uprising in the forlorn hope that they would garner support from the
general Irish population, who they hoped would rise up in sympathy, but instead found themselves cornered in the General Post Office on what is now O’Connell Street, where they were eventually rooted out by the British by the simple and effective (if brutal) method of blasting the building to smithereens with cannon fire. From here, the wounded and bloodied men were taken to the confines of Kilmainham, where they were tortured and beaten, until eventually being led to the “stonebreaker’s yard”, where 14 of them were summarily executed by firing squad.
In the case of Scotsman James Connolly it was almost a waste of bullets, as he was mortally wounded in any case, but the brave British soldiers still strapped him to a chair and shot him anyway. (sorry folks, my Republican sympathies are showing a bit!)
But this was a step too far for the Irish public to swallow, and from the time the last gunshots rung out at Kilmainham, the eventual end of British rule in Ireland was forever sealed.
The new Government of the Irish Free State didn’t learn very well from the mistakes of the British however, and were to go on to use Kilmainham as a detention centre for prisoners during the bloody Civil War that followed the partition of the country into two parts, North and South, during which former compatriots and brothers in arms Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins took opposite sides, and became mortal enemies. Four more Irish prisoners were to be executed in the now infamous stonebreaker’s yard in 1922 during the Civil War.
I guarantee that no matter your preconceived notions about this period of Irish history, you will not leave this area without being moved by the experience. The tour guides are very knowledgeable, and will answer truthfully any questions you might have about this period.
You will not fail to notice the Irish Tricolour that is prominently displayed on the wall of this yard, and the guides explain well t
he significance of its colours. Green to signify the Republic; orange representing the still segregated Unionist population in the North and their hero, the Dutch King William of Orange, and lastly (but not least) white which stands for peace.
~ ~ Of all the attractions that vie for your attention during a trip to the “Fair City” of Dublin, this is the one that will most likely linger in your memory the longest. If you want a true taste of the spirit of the Irish people, and a revealing insight into the countries bloody history, then Kilmainham Gaol will give you just that.
Address: Inchicore Road, Dublin 8
Telephone: 353 1 453 5984
Fax: 353 1 453 2037
April to September. 9.30AM to 4.45PM daily.
October to March. Monday to Friday 9.30AM to 4.00PM, closed Saturdays. Sundays 10.00AM to 4.45PM
Adults €2.50. Children and Students €1.25.
OAP’s €1.90. Family Ticket €6.35
Group rates are also available on request.
Buses from City Centre: 51 (Aston Quay). 51A (Lower Abbey Street). 79 (Also Aston Quay)
Taxi from City Centre: Approximately €7.50 (depending on traffic!)
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