The History of Kilmainham Gaol Prison

The East Wing of Kilmainham Gaol - The Irish Place
The East Wing of Kilmainham Gaol with the Food Lift visible on the right hand side.

Kilmainham Gaol was built to replace an earlier, more basic prison. Among other pivotal events, it was here that leading members of both the Republican Group the Young Irelanders and those involved in the Easter Rising were sentenced to death, though this was later commuted to transportation to Australia. The gaol that preceded Kilmainham was, in common with most other such eighteenth-century establishments, a crowded, unsanitary and unruly place where prisoners were held together regardless of sex or age and were ruled over by gaolers that were often cruel. Prison reformers brought about a rebellion against these awful conditions and called for better standards of hygiene and healthcare.

‘New Gaol’

Construction started on what was known as the ‘New Gaol’ at Gallows Hill, a stone’s throw from the site of the original prison. The gaolers resided in the front central building, while the prisoners, including some of the Young Irelanders, were held in the two adjoining wings. Conditions were still basic at Kilmainham Gaol: cells were lit and heated by candlelight, and the ‘toilets’ were chamber pots. This would be the location where the main players in the Easter Rebellion (Easter Rising) would be held in 1916.

Serpents and Snakes

The Front Door of Kilmainham Gaol with the Hydra Motif visible above the door. - The Irish Place
The Front Door of Kilmainham Gaol with the Hydra Motif visible above the door.

The prison entrance is dominated by the doorway, above which are carved a series of foreboding and terrifying shapes. Legend tells that they are representative of the five most heinous crimes: rape, murder, theft, piracy and treason. It was just outside this doorway where many criminals were hung for their crimes from the gallows, traces of which can still, chillingly, be seen.

Victorian Idealism

In the mid-nineteenth century, the East Wing was knocked down and rebuilt in a style that perfectly reflected Victorian design ideals. Rather grandly, the new structure was inspired by that of the Panopticon, and it enabled all of the cells to be observed from the centrally positioned viewing area. Light flooded the space purposely, as it was envisioned that this would inspire the prisoners to direct their gaze toward the heavens and become more spiritual as a result. In direct contrast, several isolation cells were built below the new wing. Dark and unpleasant, this is where the most hardened criminals would spend time in isolation.

Familiar Woes

Although the reconfigured prison had been built in the hope that it would provide improved conditions for those incarcerated there, it was soon beset by the same woes as its predecessor. Throughout the majority of the 19th century, it fell foul of a litany of problems, most of which were connected with the fact that it was terribly overcrowded. The spread of various diseases, questionable standards of hygiene and health and the fact that there was still no segregation along the lines of sex or age meant that prison life was abjectly miserable for most.

Overcrowding

The overcrowding came about as a result of a number of factors. Firstly, the gaol was used as a holding zone for those convicts awaiting transportation to far-away Australia. Secondly, the Great Famine had a two-fold effect on inmate numbers: more people were found guilty of stealing food, and people were deliberately committing crimes in order to be imprisoned, because they knew that they would then be fed a basic diet. The problem was compounded by the fact that many people who were suffering from mental illnesses were also put behind bars, and beggars added to the numbers too, after they started to be arrested en-masse following the Vagrancy Act of 1847.

Misogyny

Conditions for female inmates were consistently worse than those of their male counterparts. It was just men who reaped the benefits of the light-flooded new wing; the women were left in the unpleasant conditions of the older part of the prison.

Transportation

More than four thousand prisoners were transported to Australia from Kilmainham. Most of these were either petty criminals or political prisoners. Sentences tended to be either seven years, double that or a life term. While opposition from Australia eventually brought an end to this practice, more than 164,000 prisoners were sent there, of whom around a quarter were Irish.

The 1916 Rising

Commemoration Plaque with details of the leaders executed for their part in the 1916 Easter Rising. - The Irish Place
Commemoration Plaque with details of the Leaders executed for their part in the 1916 Easter Rising.

The uprising over Easter 1916 was carefully planned to take place while the British were preoccupied by the Great War. Led by key military figures from the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and backed up by members of the Irish Citizen Army, Cumaan na Mban and the Irish Volunteers, the insurgents forcibly took control of several important Dublin sites on April 24th, 1916. Patrick Pearse read out the Proclamation of the Republic on the steps of the GPO, and the subsequent fighting lasted for six days, after which the Rising was put down by the British.

Place of Execution

The Cross in the Stonebreakers Yard marking the spot where the leaders of the 1916 rising were executed. - The Irish Place
The Cross in the Stonebreakers Yard marking the spot where the Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were executed.

Among others, the seven signatories of the Proclamation – Seán Mac Diarmada, Thomas MacDonagh, Thomas Clarke, Joseph Plunkett, James Connolly, Éamonn Ceannt and Patrick Pearse – ended up in the gaol, where they were (controversially and quite possibly illegally) court-martialled and sentenced to death. They were allowed to receive visits from their nearest and dearest and wrote letters of goodbye to other friends and family members. Touchingly, Joseph Plunkett chose to marry his sweetheart, Grace, the night before his execution by firing squad.

The Catholic Chapel in Kilmainham Gaol where Joseph Plunkett married his sweetheart, Grace, the night before his execution. - The Irish Place
The Catholic Chapel in Kilmainham Gaol where Joseph Plunkett married his sweetheart, Grace, the night before his execution.

Heinous Act

In an act that caused extreme controversy and widespread revulsion, the mortally injured James Connelly was brought to the firing squad in an ambulance and tied to a chair to be shot, as he was too ill to stand. The gaol was closed shortly after this heinous act.

The Stonebreakers Yard showing the gate where the ambulance came to and the cross marking the spot where James Connolly was executed - The Irish Place
The Stonebreakers Yard showing the gate where the ambulance carrying the mortally injured James Connolly came to and the Cross marking the spot where he was executed.

The Rise of Sinn Féin and the Irish War of Independence

The inhumane treatment of the leading figures associated with the 1916 Rising, plus the martial law that was implemented shortly afterwards, and the subsequent efforts to enforce conscription among Irish men to fight in the Great War, led to a dramatic transformation in the opinion of the public, This was illustrated by the result of the general election of 1918, when Sinn Féin received massive voter support. They declined to take their Westminster seats, opting instead to put in place the first ever Irish Dáil in July 1919. This, added to the declaration of independence they made, resulted in the Irish War of Independence. This necessitated re-opening the gaol, which now served as a military detention centre for Republicans. Punitive security was imposed up until the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921.

The Irish Civil War

The signing of the controversial Anglo-Irish Treaty, with its conceding of six Northern Irish counties plus the preservation of the Oath of Allegiance, directly brought about the the Irish Civil War, which began in June 1922. Pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty factions now grouped together to fight each other. Those defending the Treaty were the new Free State Army, with backing from the British. Against it were the IRA, Cumann na mBan and the youth organisation Na Fianna Éireann. Now the new Free State Army employed the gaol as a place to hold Republican political detainees.

The Closing of Kilmainham

Finally, in May 1923, the Republicans capitulated, and those held at Kilmainham started to be moved from what was now an archaic and crumbling structure. After the last prisoner left, in 1924, the gaol fell into a state of dilapidation and it was officially closed in 1929.

Legacy

Intermittently, after the gaol was closed, the subject of what to do with the site would be raised. The overriding sense of the amassed tragedy, the limitless sacrifice and the unceasing persecution of those men and women who sought freedom for Ireland are embedded in the very walls of the gaol. As time passed, many of those who had played pivotal roles in the events that defined the prison began to think that this was a location that should be marked in some way. A group was set up in 1960 with the aim of creating a fitting memorial.

Poignant

Following the efforts of this group, a museum was opened on the site of the East Wing in 1966. Fittingly, it was opened by the President, Éamon de Valera, who had been one of the very last prisoners to be set free back in 1924.

Dedication

The group then spent the following two decades working on a staggering programme of works on the prison building that had housed, amongst other, members of the Young Irelanders and many involved in the Easter Rising. They raised the funds they needed in a variety of ways: some came from the government and public donations, and others resulted from enterprising uses of the space, including leasing it out as a film set. Films such as The Quare Fellow, The Italian Job and The Last Remake of Beau Geste were filmed, at least in part, at Kilmainham Gaol. In addition, the hugely successful In The Name of the Father, Michael Collins, The Escapist and the recent Rebellion TV drama were all shot using the building as a backdrop.

The Prison Today

Over the last thirty years, the Gaol has become extremely popular as a place to visit among tourists and locals alike, and it is associated in the minds of many with the 1916 rebellion and the tribulations of the Young Irelanders and the key players in the Easter Rising. Today, Kilmainham Gaol sees in the region of three hundred thousand visitors every year. They flock to explore the artefacts in the carefully curated museum and also to enjoy a variety of events that are entirely in step with its history, including operas, plays and art shows.

The weight of bloody history hangs heavily over Kilmainham Gaol. Despite the enlightened ideas about incarceration that inspired its design, the prison soon slipped back into older, darker ways, and generations of Irish men, women and children suffered within its walls, often unjustly.

The Gaol played a crucial role in Ireland’s turbulent political history. Several key figures from the numerous Irish rebellions were imprisoned and executed here, perhaps most famously the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916.

Visiting the Kilmainham Gaol Museum

While touring the site is an understandably emotional experience, it is nevertheless pivotal to understanding the indomitable Irish spirit of those that suffered there through key decades in the nation’s history.

The Kilmainham Gaol Museum operates a timed ticket service (arrive 15 minutes ahead of time); advance booking is highly recommended.

The Gaol can only be explored via the guided tour (maximum 35 people). Groups of 10+ people must book in advance.

An average visit lasts approximately 90 minutes. The guided tour lasts approximately 60 minutes. Please note that the Gaol is very cold during the winter months, so do wear appropriate clothing.

Ticket prices (including guided tour):

Walk-up: Adult: €8, Senior: €6, Child/Student: €4, Family: €16
Advance (Online): Adult: €7, Senior: €5, Child/Student: €3, Family: €15

Open every day (except 24th, 25th and 26th December)

A café is located on the 1st floor.

The taking of photographs is permitted; video is prohibited.

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