It was my first weekend in Ireland, the sun was shining in all its glory, and my new friends and I were exploring Dublin. After glimpsing our handy Dublin pocket map we discovered Kilmainham Gaol (pronounced jail) close by. I hadn’t yet heard anything about Kilmainham Gaol, but my curiosity was piqued. I mean, seriously, who wouldn’t find the prospect of touring a really old jail appealing?
The structure itself is really massive and architecturally interesting. There is a stone carving of snakes entwined in chains over the front door, foreshadowing what is to come to those that enter, perhaps. As I approached the building, I felt as if I was stepping into a movie. Places like this just don’t exist in America, my homeland. And not surprisingly, this jail can be seen in several movies and Ripper Street, a favorite British TV series of mine.
Luckily, we arrived just in time to secure a spot on the last tour of the day. Kilmainham Gaol is hugely popular, especially in the summer. The only way into the jail is with a guided tour, so get there early as the queue can get long in the afternoons. While we waited for our tour to start, we browsed the attached multi-level museum.
The museum showcases the history of the jail and it’s occupants, along with the history of Irish nationalism. You can find prisoner crafts, drawings, letters, photographs and all sorts of fascinating memorabilia. I found the collectibles belonging to Irish revolutionaries especially interesting. For me, seeing the personal items brings the revolutionaries to life and makes their desperation and suffering that much more real. As an American, I’m familiar with the American Revolution, which happened so long ago. The Irish revolution seems so recent in comparison. This jail is a sobering reminder that our freedom came at a price.
Tip: Bring your student ID to save €2 on Kilmainham Gaol tickets!
Not only is Kilmainham Gaol the largest preserved Victorian jail in Europe, it is historically significant in Ireland’s struggle for independence from Britain. It opened in 1796 as the county jail for Dublin. The jail has held countless Irish revolutionaries, including the fourteen leaders of the failed 1916 Easter Rising, who were also executed there.
The Kilmainham Gaol tour begins with an short audio-visual show in the jail church where you sit in the same place the prisoners used to. On 3 May 1916, Joseph Mary Plunkett, one of the leaders of the Easter Rising, married Grace Gifford in the small church, just hours before Plunkett was shot by firing squad in the Stonebreakers yard.
The West Wing is the oldest part of the jail and is exceptionally gloomy and forbidding. I got a sobering glimpse of the harsh and claustrophobic living conditions within the jail. With limestone walls, the jail remains cold and damp year round. In the early years of the jail, more than half were imprisoned for debts. Others were detained for assault, begging, stealing, prostitution and drunkenness. Those convicted of murder and robbery with violence were sentenced to death and hanged in public from gallows erected in front of the jail. The last public hanging was in 1865. The two different colored bricks over the front entrance used to be where the gallows protruded from.
The jail may be notorious for housing political prisoners, but it also had a presence in other tragic times in Irish history. The Great Famine lasted from 1845-1852, and it was during the final years of the famine that the prison sadly saw a significant increase in the number of prisoners. As many as five people were crowded into cells meant for one person. Many of which were women and children charged with begging and stealing food.
The inhumane conditions in the prison would never be tolerated nowadays. It’s terrifying to imagine living in these bleak cells. I shudder at the thought.
Opened in 1862, the addition of the East Wing provided 96 more cells. This marked the beginning of a time when the jail was run on the principles of silence and separation. The prisoners spent 22 hours within their cells, one hour exercising outside in the courtyards (silently walking in a circle) and one hour in the church.
In the grim stone-breakers’ yard there are two black crosses marking where the 14 men from the Easter Rising were executed by firing squad. James Connolly was so badly injured in the Rising that he could not stand, so he was placed in a chair, and then shot. This pivotal event changed public opinion in Ireland, and that eventually led to the Irish War of Independence and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921.
The jail decommissioned in 1924 where it sat empty and neglected until the 1960s when a grassroots effort worked to preserve it as a museum.
I learned so much on this tour, mostly thanks to the excellent tour guide. I think that learning about Ireland’s turbulent past is important as it enriches our understanding of the culture and makes our visit to Ireland that much more meaningful. If you have not yet had a Kilmainham Gaol tour, you should definitely make plans to. And while in Dublin, stay at the Dublin International Hostel!
Have you been to this jail in Dublin? What did you think of your Kilmainham Gaol tour?
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