Kilmainham Gaol is one of the stand-out tourist attractions in Dublin, but because it isn’t central perhaps doesn’t receive the attention that other areas in Dublin do. It’s situated to the west of the city, and in an area more suburban than those that host other attractions such as Dublin Castle or the infamous Temple Bar district. The gaol itself is one of the stops on the hop on, hop off bus tour that is one of the best value for money things to do in Dublin, and was the reason why I found myself standing outside the railing looking into its forbidding courtyard.
Kilmainham Gaol, looks grim from the outside, and it’s supposed to, being constructed of the same grey rock that many of the buildings in the city are built from. The entrance is flanked by an imposing archway, and in the 19th century was an attraction in its own right as people flocked to watch public hangings on the scaffold outside until the middle of that century when they were moved indoors.
The story of the gaol is one of suffering and neglect in the main. Built in 1797 as a replacement for the old gaol, a dank and cold dungeon, it was overcrowded almost from the moment it was completed as crime in the city climbed quickly as people flooded into it from all over Ireland, increasing the population from barely 40,000 to over a million in a few years.
Walking in through the entrance, the oppressive nature of the architecture is felt. Paying my money, I wandered into the museum at the start of the tour and saw informative displays of the whole range of prison life, from food rationing to the prison photo apparatus that recorded each inmate’s arrival. On the first floor, an exhibition of the impact of the 1916 rising, with original letters and clothing made for an impressive beginning.
The main purpose of the museum is to tell the story of how people survived in a cold, dark and wet prison, often six to a cell built for one, and the various improvements (such as enclosing the barred windows with glass) that tried to improve the mortality rate that ranged from the shocking to merely unacceptable. The guide mentioned that people were so desperate by the time of the Great Potato Famine, when the crop failed completely, that they would commit any crime to enter the prison and receive a meagre amount of food and a roof against the elements. Looking around the oldest part of the gaol, their desperation when staying in the prison, and the fact it was a better alternative than freedom, was really shocking.
The main point of the tour is the events directly after the Easter Rising in 1916. I knew the vaguest outline of what happened, but Kilmainham Gaol stands as a lasting memorial to the people who lost their lives in a struggle that look place in Easter week during 1916. For anyone who doesn’t know what happened, a proclamation was declared outside the General Post Office declaring Ireland a Free Republic (at the time it was still part of the United Kingdom), and many areas of the city were taken over by Irish volunteers. After a week of heavy fighting, much of the centre of Dublin was wrecked and the leaders of the rebellion arrested.
Those people were in the main, held in Kilmainham Gaol, and after trial sentenced to execution. Taken into the old rock breaking yard, they were shot by firing squad. Stories of a man being married in the chapel and then executed the next day, and of a man so ill with gangrene after being injured in the fighting that he was strapped to a chair to be shot contributed to much ill will from the Irish people towards the British Government. When several atrocities also came to light, carried out by a British officer later committed to an asylum, the seeds were planted for the Republic which was brought into being in 1922.
The gaol itself is a sad reminder of those times, with the condemned men’s cells toured, together with the place where they were shot. It’s a slightly lighter note that the main west wing, rebuilt in the Victorian era in a more enlightened time, has been used for many films, including the ORIGINAL Italian Job. I found the museum incredibly moving, and great value for money at only 6 euros for the whole tour and access to the museum itself. The staff were friendly and obviously proud of the restored facility as they should be. It was both a sobering but absorbing visit that stands as a lasting memory to unhappier times. Very much recommended on any tour of Dublin.