For those of you who don’t know, 2016 marks the centenary of Ireland’s independence and to commemorate this monumental achievement, bars, restaurants, parks, and other locales across Dublin have gone all out in showcasing their historic ties to the 1916 Uprising. While we’d visited the General Post Office back in 2009 to see the bullet holes from the battle that are still visible today, our time in Dublin during that trip was limited and we skipped out on Kilmainham Gaol. Given the centenary and its ongoing celebrations and commemorations, we decided to take a weekend afternoon and visit for ourselves. A quick, important note: If you’re visiting, you absolutely must book your tickets in advance. We ordered ours three weeks beforehand for a scheduled tour time. Don’t expect to be able to just show up and wander around.
Kilmainham Gaol opened in 1796 as the new County Gaol for Dublin. It closed its doors in 1924. Thus the opening and closing of the Gaol more or less coincided with the making and breaking of the Union between Great Britain and Ireland. During the intervening years the Gaol functioned like a political seismograph, recording most of the significant tremors in the often turbulent relations between the two countries. At the epicentre of these relations lay the Irish aspiration to political independence, setting off shockwaves of varying force throughout the nineteenth century and reaching a climax in the years 1916-22. There can be few places, therefore, that more intensely crystallize the forces that shaped modern Irish nationalism than Kilmainham Gaol.
Today the building symbolises the tradition of militant and constitutional nationalism from the rebellion of 1798 to the Irish Civil War of 1922-23. Leaders of the rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848,1867 and 1916 were detained and in some cases executed here. Many members of the Irish Republican movement during the Anglo-Irish War (1919-21) were also detained in Kilmainham Gaol, guarded by British troops. Names such as Henry Joy McCracken, Robert Emmet, Anne Devlin, Charles Stewart Parnell and the leaders of 1916 will always be associated with the building. It should not be forgotten however that, as a county gaol, Kilmainham held thousands of ordinary men, women and children. Their crimes ranged from petty offences such as stealing food to more serious crimes such as murder or rape. Convicts from many parts of Ireland were held here for long periods waiting to be transported to Australia.
The weather the day we went was an odd one … which, certainly, can be said for most days in Ireland. The day started out sunny and beautiful and by the time we left, we were running through a massive rainstorm to our taxi. “There is no bad weather in Ireland; only bad clothing.”
Because we arrived well before our scheduled tour, we decided to explore the area around Kilmainham, which took us on a sunny, pleasant walk over to IMMA, the Irish Museum of Modern Art. We didn’t go in because we didn’t have enough time – also because I tend to dislike modern art in most of its forms – but we had about 40 minutes to wander the absolutely beautiful grounds, beginning with a long walk up a pebbled drive that takes you to the entrance of the historic Georgian building. As you wander around the side of the building you come upon some graciously manicured tiered gardens filled with topiaries and statuary. It reminded me a lot of the gardens of France, something Alan enjoys. Generally speaking, I am historically more of a fan of wild, English style gardens with their protrusion of flowers and riots of colors, whereas Alan prefers the symmetry and order of the French style garden. In the end, this style grew on me and I found myself really enjoying wandering around while we waited for our tour to start.
When we got back to the Gaol, we were still early for our tour so we wandered around the exhibition area, reading a bit about the history of the gaol outside of the incidents of 1916. It was a fascinating read from an historical perspective, especially getting to see where trials were carried out, but I’m not sure as a tourist I would have been giddy to gain this insider knowledge. Still, I loved the architecture of the space, especially the play of modern elements against antique bones.
It’s here, in the exhibition area, where you’re allowed to wonder inside a few of the cells and you think to yourself, “oh my gosh, I’m in the jail cells these notorious (or famous) Irish rebels once occupied.” The walls are carved with the names of the people who were locked away in these cells, and you can touch them if you’re so inclined. (I’m not because I worry about preserving elements such as these for future generations; if everyone who went through touched the names and rubbed their fingers over the plaster, I can only imagine how soon they’d begin to become worn away.) Well, once we get involved in the actual tour and go inside the building that housed the very old cells, that’s when you learn the cells in the exhibition space are fairly new and the carved names are most likely from the 1970s and belong to pickpockets, drunks, and other ne’er-do-wells. So yeah, not all that historic and awe-inspiring after all. 😉
Finally, your tour begins in earnest and you’re taken into the heart of Kilmainham, where you enter the oldest part of the building, and it’s here you get a real feel for the type of conditions prisoners had to live through during their time in gaol. Let’s just say, Alcatraz looked a site better than this, especially considering the differences between San Francisco and Dublin weather. There was no separation of prisoners either: men, women, and children were kept up to five in each cell, with only one candle provided for light and heat. Most of their time was spent in the cold and the dark, since each candle was supposed to last up to two weeks. Many of the prisoners – due to lack of warm clothing and not enough sustenance to stay healthy – ended up succumbing to illness and disease that could be tied to the harsh conditions they endured. And in many cases, this included women and children who were there because of debts their husbands and fathers couldn’t pay. Debtors prison is no joke, y’all. Throughout history much has been said about protecting “the weaker sex” (that’d be women, apparently) but at Kilmainham, it is said that female prisoners were actually treated worse than their male counterparts. For instance, an 1809 report states that “male prisoners were supplied with iron bedsteads while females lay on straw on the flags in the cells and common halls.” Of course the men were treated better, they needed strong backs and arms to perform all that manual labor and the women were just extra bodies to keep warm and mouths to feed.
Anyway, I digress … as the tour progressed, we were led to an area where the cells of the 1916 rebels had been housed and learned about Joseph Plunkett, an Irish nationalist, poet, journalist, and one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, and Grace Gifford, an Irish artist and cartoonist who played an active role in the Republican movement, who were married at the gaol seven hours before his execution at the age of 28 by firing squad. The story goes that immediately following the Easter Rising, her brother-in-law was shot with two other Irish Rebels by firing squad on 3 May. That day, Grace learned her long-time love Joseph was also to be shot the following morning. She “bought a ring in a jeweler’s shop and, with the help of a priest, persuaded the military authorities to allow them to marry.” The ceremony was conducted the evening of May 3 in Kilmainham’s chapel of Gaol, a few hours before he was executed. As a romance novelist, it makes for an epic love story, but in real life, I’m not sure I could have done what Gifford did. You’d think seeing her brother-in-law, husband, and friends executed for treason would have been enough to put her off politics, but not Grace. She remained devoted to the promotion of Sinn Féin policies and was elected an executive of the party in 1917. During the Civil War, Grace was arrested in February 1923 and interned at Kilmainham Gaol three months where she painted pictures on the walls of her cell, including one of the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child. We were able to see these during the latter part of the tour. Her life is truly a remarkable tale and I defy anyone hearing about what she endured, not only for her love of Joseph Plunkett, but also for her love of a free Ireland, to call women the weaker sex. In the end, she died at home, in her bed, in 1955 near where we live today. She was buried with full military honors close to the Republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery with President Seán T. O’Kelly in attendance. Much has been written about the male participants of the Easter Rising, with Hollywood productions outlining their heroics and commitment to the cause. Truthfully, I’d love to see something about Grace Gifford Plunkett because she was able to live long enough to see their aim through and it would be interesting to learn how her views solidified or changed over the course of her life.
I wish I had more pictures of the Victorian part of the gaol because it is actually a really beautiful piece of architecture, but there was some weird performance art thing going on and you weren’t allowed to take any pictures of the artists which was pretty shitty since they were everywhere, and not taking pictures of them meant not being able to take the photos that I wanted to. I should have ignored this warning the way others were doing, but I am all about the rules and I abhor flaunting regulations, so I have what I have. I will say though, this experience reminded me why I hate performance art so much. It was pure and utter crap and only interfered with the experience of seeing Kilmainham and immersing myself in its history. It totally took me out of the moment and the feeling of what we were there to see in the first place. Instead of focusing on the lives and deaths of the people jailed there, I was too busy worrying about the weirdos around me and whether or not I was accidentally taking photos of them. Hated it and have I have no idea why the gaol would not only allow something like that to take place there, but encourage the them.
Leaving the interior of Kilmainham Gaol, the tour ends with a stop in the courtyards were the executions took place. It’s a somber environment, as you may well imagine, and I was befuddled to hear people laughing and taking selfies next to the plaques honoring the Irish Republicans who were shot and killed there for fighting for their independence.
Before leaving Kilmainham, you’re invited to tour another area of the building that houses even more historical information. Between the exhibition space and the tour, it can feel a bit overwhelming to have even more to consume, but the museum is set up nicely, including an area done up like a gallery with 1916 portraits created by an artist who does work for some of Ireland’s other National Trust properties who we have really enjoyed. His work at King John’s Castle in Limerick is stunning, and the portraits were very interesting and compelling as well since they gave you an idea of who each of the people involved in the Uprising were. Of all of the “museum” parts of Kilmainham, this was my favorite. I wish it was included as part of the exhibition space before the tour starts as it would have given visitors much better context for what went into the Uprising itself before the players landed in gaol, and who everyone was and the role they played.
A distant Donnelly relative, perhaps? Helen does have the Donnelly side eye down pat in this illustration.
All in all, I am very glad we took a few hours out of our weekend to tour Kilmainham and to learn more about the history of Ireland’s independence, since we are, after all, living here for another year or so. And I think the way it’s presented is incredibly valuable for school age children or those Irish citizens who want to know more about their country’s history and understand the price their ancestors might have paid for their independence. As a tourist stop for someone from say … Arizona or South Dakota, who might be visiting Ireland for a few days, it’s a pretty heavy experience and could cast a pall over someone’s afternoon given the gaol’s history. Although, to be honest, the foreign tourists I saw didn’t seem all that down during their experience, so maybe that’s just me projecting my own feelings onto the experience. (The same thing happened with the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam … I felt pretty blue the rest of the day.)