During my Spring Break trip to Dublin, one of the coolest (and perhaps most touristy) places I visited was Kilmainham Gaol. Part of what made this site so interesting to me was the relevance that it had to our class. This jail is located in Dublin and is the place where most of the leaders of the Irish rebellions, including the rebellion that took place on Easter 1916, were imprisoned and executed. The gaol was used to hold all kinds of prisoners, including women and children, the youngest prisoner documented being a five-year-old boy.
The Gaol was built in 1796 and originally referred to as the “New Gaol,” as it was built as a replacement for an older gaol. It operated as a gaol until 1924 when it was closed and eventually turned into the museum that it is today. During the many famines that took place in Ireland during the years that the gaol was functioning, many people would commit petty crimes with the intention of being put into the gaol, because they knew that in there they would at least be given three basic meals. This lead to the gaol becoming significantly overpopulated, and because of this, constant renovations and additions were required to be able to hold all of the prisoners.
The largest area of the gaol is known as the Victorian Wing or the East Wing. It is in this area of the gaol that the majority of the leaders of the Easter 1916 rebellion were held, including Countess Markievicz, Willie Pearse, and more.
Below is a picture of the guards’ staircase in the East Wing of Kilmainham. Their staircase is wide and straight, making it easy for them to get to all floors and cells of the wing. On the opposite side of the room was a small, steep, spiral staircase that was used by the prisoners. It was designed this way to make it difficult for the prisoners to manuver quickly, making it difficult for them to run away.
The East Wing of Kilmainham Gaol is now used as a highlight of the tour, as well as for concerts, galas, fashion shows, and the set of multiple motion pictures, such as The Shawshank Redemption, The Italian Job, Michael Collins, and The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones.
Grace Gifford, the wife of Joseph Plunkett, was also held in this area of the gaol. She was imprisoned after her husband. The night before Plunkett’s execution, Gifford (who was his fiancée at the time) was brought into the gaol so that they could get married before he died. There was a small ceremony with no friends or family present held inside the gaol. After the wedding, Plunkett returned to his cell to be executed in the morning and Gifford returned home.
The executions of the leaders of the Easter 1916 Rebellion started that May. The first three to be executed in Kilmainham were Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke, and Thomas McDonagh. James Connolly was the last to be shot. He spent the night before his execution in The Royal Hospital Kilmainham because of his wounds, but on the day of the execution he was tied to a chair. All of these leaders and more were shot in a corner of The Stonebreakers’ Yard behind the gaol.
This area was used for the prisoners’ “work,” in which they broke big stones into smaller stones. It was supposed to be hard, unproductive, and keep the prisoners busy while they thought about their crimes. Originally, all executions were carried out in the form of hangings from right above the front door of the gaol. This was extremely public.
Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish landlord and a key leader of the national political party, was put into Kilmainham because his paper, United Ireland, directly attacked the Land Act. While this in and of itself was not a crime, English rulers in Ireland feared that Parnell would start trouble, so he was put into a suite in Kilmainham. From this suite he was allowed to conduct business with the outside-world, have visitors, and was even once allowed to leave for a family funeral as long as he promised to return afterwards. For the most part, Parnell was only put into Kilmainham to keep him out of trouble. During his time in Kilmainham, Parnell helped to form an agreement, The Kilmainham Treaty, with the government of England. Below is a picture of Parnell in his comfortable room in Kilmainham, into which he was allowed to bring his own furniture.
During the gaol’s period of function, there were multiple escapes. Escapes were more common earlier on in its’ existence, as at this time guards were paid very poorly and therefore were easily bribed by prisoners. According to my tour guide, in a few cases escapes were successful when a prisoner merely walked out of the front gates at the right time.