I visited Kilmainham Gaol the first time in 1998, and the place never really left me. So when I visited with my friends last year, I knew I wanted to bring them there. I know many tourists think the true heart of Ireland is her Celtic past. To me, the true heart of Ireland lies here, between the walls of this prison.
Kilmainham was founded in 1796 as Dublin’s “New Goal”. It was one of the most modern jails in the United Kingdom at that time, and in truth, the prison was always one ahead of its times.
But there’s nothing modern to our eyes in the West Wing, the oldest of the building. It’s a dark, gloomy, narrow corridor with tiny cells on one side and high windows on the other. With its limestone walls, the jail remains cold and dump year-round, and there is no way to get some comfort. Prisoners at the time received a very scant meal, and only one candle every two weeks.
The West Wing
In the first years, more than half of the inmates were debtors. The rest were all there for petty crimes, including begging. There were men, but also women – who made up a large part of the population – together with children, at least up until 1881, when Kilmainham became a men-only prison. It was a very messy, laud environment. It tended to be crowded. Men performed heavy work (mostly stone breaking) in the courtyard, which added to the noise.
Those convicted of murder and robbery with violence (including women) were sentenced to death and hanged in public from gallows erected in the small courtyard in front of the entrance door. The last public execution took place in 1821.
The front courtyard
During the dire times of the Great Famine, the jail became crazily overcrowded because people would intentionally commit crimes so to be arrested and admitted to the jail, and therefore be able to receive at least a basic meal.
In those days, up to five people would live in cells meant for just one. They would jam the corridors, sleeping on the floors. Many of the inmates were women and children charged with begging and stealing food.
In the following years, Kilmainham adopted the more modern concepts of jail management, which included the idea of continuous surveillance on the prisoners. Corridors became larger, thick with rails and bars, peepholes were added to doors. The inmates had to know that they could not do anything without the guards knowing it.
The East Wing
Then in 1862, when the spectacular East Wing was added, Kilmainham once again shifted to modernity: the Victorian ideal of reformation. This marked the beginning of the time were prisons were run on the principles of silence and separation. The prisoners would spend 22 hours alone in their cells, one hour praying in the church, and one hour walking in circles in the courtyard. This was meant to encourage reflections on one’s own deeds and hopefully redemption.
Victorians also believed the architecture of the jail itself was crucial to the reform of the inmates. The main building of the East Wing is, in fact, a large hall, with a beautiful skylark, with the cells all around. It was designed to encourage inmates to look up at the sky (and so at God) in the hope that more righteous behaviours would be inspired.
This main hall is truly stunning, and if you didn’t know you are in prison, you’d hardly believe it. It a spacious place full of light. Cells are bigger than the old ones. In recent years, volunteers have tracked down where patriots were held prisoner and so now their names are on cell doors. There are a lot of familiar names here.
The main hall
Following the failure of the Fenian uprising in 1867, Kilmainham turned into what it is renown for now: the place of the patriots.
It was on that occasion that the jail was cleared of all common prisoners and filled with rebels. Security strengthened.
Then, on 28th February 1910, the prison was closed, only to be reopened, once again only for housing rebels, after the Easter Rising of 1916.
Fourteen leaders of the Easter Rising were shot to death in the Stonebreaker’s Yard. The firsts were the head of the rebellion: Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke and Thomas McDonagh on 4th May 1916.
On the 3rd May, Joseph Mary Plunkett married Grace Gifford, mere hours before he was executed in the yard. The last execution was that of James Connolly, who had been severely wounded during the Raising and was probably already dying. He was so weak he had to be tight to a chair.
The marksmen aimed at white crosses on the condemned’s hearts, and as it was costumery, some of the executioners were issued with dummy bullets so that none of them could be sure who actually killed the other men.
An amnesty sent the last of the rebels free in 1917.
The Stonebreakers’ Courtyard
But the prison was used one last time during the Civil War that blooded Ireland between 1921 and 1924, following the controversial Treaty with Great Britain that, among other things, handed over the four counties of Ulster to Britain. The Free State Government executed 77 Republicans here.
At that time, only the East Wing was used, the cell doors would be kept open, and prisoners could freely meet under the skylark.
At the end of the Civil War, Kilmainham ended its days as a prison and was left to abandonment.
It was only in the 1960s, with the resurgence of the fight for the independence of Ulster, that a group of citizens organised in a Restoration Committee and started restoring the jail. They handed it over to the State in 1986. Kilmainham has been a museum ever since.
This is a very moving place, where so much history has happened and where so many men and women had lost their lives. I’ve visited it twice, but I will visit again if the occasion presents itself. It’s a place were feelings and memories are alive.
All photos © Sarah Zama 2015