Kilmainham Gaol: A Place to Abandon Hope

The entrance to Kilmainham Gaol
Bernd Biege

Kilmainham Gaol. Why should a place of suffering, despair, and ultimately death be on the list of the best sights of Dublin? The answer is "1916". After the failed Easter Rising, the rebel leaders were incarcerated in Kilmainham. Joining a long list of Nationalists held there, from Parnell to Emmet. And also joining the growing list of martyrs "for the cause" - several of the men were shot after a court-martial, including James Connolly, famously strapped to his chair, his wounds from the battle all bleeding and bare (as the song goes).

Ultimately, it is the blood of these men, victims to high-ranking British idiocy, that made Kilmainham Gaol hallowed ground to the Republic of Ireland.

Kilmainham Gaol in a Nutshell

Basically, what we have here is a historically significant building, that has strong connections to the Irish struggle for independence, on many levels. Mainly because Pearse, Connolly, and other rebel leaders of 1916 were executed in the prison yard, the buried at Arbour Hill Cemetery in a mass grave. Apart from this significant event, Kilmainham Gaol in itself is fascinating - it is the largest preserved Victorian jail in Europe. And as such ticks many boxes from those made by historians of architecture or the penal system to those held dear by the more morbid crowd looking for a little bit of frisson.

The massive prison was built in the late 18th century and had no concessions to modern ideas of the penal system incorporated. It was a place to lock people away, and to keep them locked away for good. Recreation and education only came into play way later - in the 1960s, when the then unneeded and partially derelict building was restored with visitors and tourists in mind, hosting exhibitions on crime and punishment, and the struggle for Irish independence. Despite bringing the building up to (tourism) speed, the Interior still tends to be clammy and cold even in hot summers. So you really might feel a bit chilled here.

Is It Worth the Effort?

First things first - Kilmainham Gaol is not on the well-trodden path the tourists take through Dublin. A walking tour of Dublin (even one following the Liffey) will more than likely not pass it because the forbidding fortress of justice is out of the way. Not miles away, but a good walk that really has nothing to recommend it. Having said that, many bus tours of Dublin, including most hop-on-hop-off tours pass by Kilmainham Gaol and have a stop there as well.

But why make the effort? It is all about history - the jail was built in 1789 (the year of the French Revolution, when rulers had a sudden urge to build jails all over Europe), and it has held generations of criminals and neer-do-wells. Now one person's terrorist is the other's freedom fighter, so it also was home (if you can call it that) to heroes of the Irish resistance against British rule. Robert Emmet spent his last days here, Charles Stewart Parnell did time in Kilmainham, and the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising faced the firing squad in the yard. The last prisoner was none other than Eamon de Valera himself. After his release in 1924, Kilmainham Gaol was shut down.

Restored in the 1960s, when the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising brought a new urgency to the matter, Kilmainham Gaol now acts as a museum of punishment, as well as a memorial to all "martyrs" that ever spent time here. And visitors tend to shiver ... not just because it is usually quite cold in the prison. When looking at the chapel, you are for instance non-too-subtly reminded that Joseph Plunkett married Grace here, just hours before he was executed.

But Kilmainham Gaol is also a monument to itself - one is almost inevitably fascinated by the building, the archetypal prison complex of old times. A kind of building usually only seen in the movies (and Kilmainham actually featured in the original "The Italian Job" as a movie location, with Noel Coward hamming it up).

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