This world is strewn with emblems of past that defy the ravages of time and stand there- unyielding, venerable and graceful. I’ve always been acutely fascinated by historic sites and nothing seems as seductive as some of the oldest ruins that unravel the stories of ancient times. When my husband and I travel, we make a point of finding out about the history of a place, its iconic buildings and knowing why everything is the way it is. Heritage is a constant touchstone of the times the place has been through. It is what forms a nexus between the enigmatic past and the curious present.
2016 is an important year for the Irish. This year marks the 100th ANNIVERSARY of the Easter rising of 1816.
The Easter Rising also known as the Easter Rebellion, was an armed revolution in Ireland during the Easter Week of April 1916. The Rising was launched by Irish republicans to end British rule in Ireland and establish an independent Irish Republic.
The General Post Office (GPO) was the headquarters of the Irish Volunteers. On Easter Monday of 1916, armed groups of the Irish Volunteers and the Citizen Army, commanded by Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, took over the GPO and several other prominent locations of the Dublin city where they proclaimed the Irish Republic. The British army soon brought in thousands of reinforcements as well as artillery. There was fierce street fighting on the routes into the city center where the rebels put up stiff resistance, slowing the British advance and inflicting heavy casualties before surrendering on 29th April.
Dublin city center was almost completely destroyed after the Easter Rising. There was a total of five hundred people killed. Three hundred of the dead were civilians who were not involved in the fighting. Fifteen executions took place after the Rising, and 1,841 suspected rebels were sent to prison in England. This was the most significant uprising in Ireland since the rebellion of 1798 and the first armed action of the Irish revolutionary period.
Thus, it is an exciting time to be in Ireland. The Government is committed to ensuring that 2016 be an year of diverse celebratory activities where the full complexity of the last 100 years on this island can be explored and acknowledged.
Soaked in this ubiquitous ambience of the patriotic sentiment, I decided to visit Kilmainham gaol, one of the most popular attractions of Dublin. This famous prison has captured a special place in the history of the Irish struggle for independence. The building’s long existence has given it plenty of time to witness the unfolding story of the entire country. The jail has held countless Irish revolutionaries and is most famously remembered as the place where the fourteen leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916 were executed.
The prison facilities are open to the public via guided tour only. I strongly recommend booking the tickets online in advance to avoid the disappointment of not being able to get in or even waiting in long queues for hours outside the museum. I got my ticket pre-booked a day before.
On a sunny Thursday morning, I set off from home to visit the gaol (pronounced as Jail) alone. I am not a fan of going sightseeing on Saturdays & Sundays when the attractions are overcrowded and usually close early for the day. Also, hubby works through most weekends these days and I decided that it’s high time that I started exploring Dublin on my own. I was a bit nervous about the bus changes and wandering about the city alone for the first time but apart from that, I was also extremely excited.
I reached the location comfortably and quite early for the scheduled tour. So I wandered into the nearby ‘Irish Museum of Modern Art’ to kill some time. The building (especially the courtyard) itself is magnificent and I found the art interesting but also a bit too quirky for my taste.
Around an hour later, I made my way back to the Gaol to report for my guided tour.
First of all, I can’t stress enough that the staff associated with Kilmainham is excellent! Even before I had entered the museum building, I could see members of the staff cheerfully reaching out to the people to assist them in any way they could. When I told a gentleman that I had a pre-booked ticket, he accompanied me to the reception personally and made sure that I didn’t join the long queue of people waiting to buy their entry ticket. The person at the reception too was very polite and cheerful. In my opinion, this makes a huge difference.
My assigned tour did not start for another 40 minutes and so, after having a quick cup of cappuccino with a heavenly slice of apple-pie at the museum cafe, I strolled around the fantastic three story museum to get myself acquainted with some background of this legendary building I was in.
Kilmainham Gaol opened in 1796 as the county jail for Dublin and closed its doors for the last time in 1924. In that time it saw a great lot. It saw tragedy and triumph, witnessed events within its walls which were to change the world history. From the United Irish rebellion of 1798 to the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) this prison held almost all the main leaders of resistance to British rule. When one looks through this proud Gaol’s registers, one can see many names that stand out in the history of Ireland such as Robert Emmet, Anne Devlin, Thomas Francis Meagher, Michael Davitt, Charles Stewart Parnell, Countess Markievicz, Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke, Rosie Hackett etc. While these are all great people and deserve to be remembered with pride, they are only a few of the many who were in this prison.
Of course, it was the executions in 1916 that most deeply etched the Kilmainham jail’s name into the Irish consciousness. 14 revolutionaries were shot by firing squad in the Stonebreakers’ Yard between the 3rd and 12th May 1916 for their part in the failed Easter Rising. It was the cumulative effect of that suffering that inspired the Irish to throw off the yoke of oppression, to fight for the right to become a united and free nation which could determine its own future and manage its own affairs for the benefit of its own citizens.
The jail decommissioned in 1924 where it sat empty and neglected until the 1960s when a group of volunteers started working towards preserving it as a museum. It was opened to public in 1966 and is currently the largest unused prison building in Europe.
The museum showcases the history of the jail and its occupants, along with the history of Irish nationalism. You can find prisoner crafts, drawings, letters, photographs and all sorts of fascinating memorabilia. Seeing these personal items brings the revolutionaries to life and makes their desperation and suffering so much more real. This jail is another sobering reminder that the freedom comes at a price.
At 12:25 sharp, I reached the gaol entrance to begin the much anticipated tour.
The tour started with an excellent introduction to the building via an audiovisual in the jail church where we sat in the same place the prisoners used to sit. It gave us a dramatic and realistic insight into what it was like to have been confined in one of these forbidding bastions of punishment and correction in those early times.
The West Wing is the oldest part of the jail and is exceptionally gloomy and forbidding. It is here that we made our way right after the audio-visual presentation. One gets to gain a close insight of the claustrophobic inhumane living conditions that the prisoners were subjected to in the prison. The group then proceeded to what is now called the 1916 corridor, the holding place of many of the leaders of the Rising. Plaques of their names are posted above the doors of the cells, the paint cracked and chipped, seemingly untouched since the execution of their previous inhabitants.
The jail may be notorious for housing political prisoners, but it also had a staunch presence in other tragic times in Irish history.
The Great Potato Famine of Ireland lasted from 1845-1852 and it was during the final years of the famine that the prison sadly saw a significant increase in the number of prisoners. During the famine years, over 7,000 inmates were packed into these cells, many of which were women and children charged with begging and stealing food. There were times when people deliberately committed crimes to avail of Kilmainham’s hospitality, their only hope of survival in a world that did not care about them at all. The corridors overflowed with people of all ages. As many as 500 children have been recorded to be imprisoned in this prison at different times. The youngest one was of five years of age who was arrested for 2.5 months for having stolen a thin, silver chain.
In the early years of the jail, more than half inmates were imprisoned for debts. Others were detained for assault, begging, stealing, prostitution and drunkenness. Those convicted of murder and robbery with violence were sentenced to death and hanged in public from gallows erected in front of the jail. The last public hanging was in 1865. The two different colored bricks over the front entrance used to be where the gallows protruded from. The graffiti over a doorway tells the gaolers that they will experience the “vengeance of the risen people”.
Conditions in Kilmainham Jail in the early part of the nineteenth century were unspeakable. Food was usually contaminated, sewers were open and sanitation was non-existent. The inhumane conditions in the prison would never be tolerated nowadays. Being in those dark corridors, listening of the harsh conditions that the inmates were subjected to and the mere thought of living in these bleak cells of the West wing made me shudder several times during the tour. Several days have passed since then and the feeling of having been there still haunts me.
In the center of the prison lies the famous Catholic Chapel where Joseph Plunkett and Grace Clifford were married the night before he was to be executed. They experienced an entire ten minutes together as a married couple before being separated forever. It is one of the most legendary stories of the Kilmainham gaol.
Plunkett was one of those who were stationed at the G. P. O. and was also one of the planners of the Easter Uprising. Although he was in hospital shortly before the uprising started, he struggled out of bed, still in his bandages and took his place beside his compatriots at the post office. He was arrested facing a court martial and sentenced to death by firing squad when he was only 28 years old. He was given permission to marry his childhood sweetheart in the chapel whom he married during his time in Kilmainham Gaol. Unfortunately, the marriage was not consummated as they led away his wife Grace Gifford shortly after the ceremony. Joseph was executed on 4 May 1916.
After Joe’s execution, Grace became much more politically active and was herself imprisoned in Kilmainham. She never remarried. During her time in the prison, Grace painted many pictures on the wall of her cell including a picture of the Madonna and Child, a reproduction of which can be seen through the door to her cell today.
We were then led into the newest part of the gaol, the Victorian East Wing, which was quite beautiful and flooded with light–a welcome change of scenery. If this part of Kilmainham Gaol seems to look slightly familiar, it may be because of its appearance in several films, including Michael Collins and the 1966 English version of The Italian Job.
Opened in 1862, the addition of the East Wing provided 96 more cells. This Wing contains an authentically restored cell block designed in such a way that the inmates could be viewed 24 hours a day from certain points on the floor. Bright skylights illuminate the area and there are no dark corners in which prisoners could hide from their captors. Those who had been held here left behind graffiti that give a glimpse into the past. Here too, many cells are labeled with the names of former occupants and information about them.
This marked the beginning of a time when the jail was run on the principles of silence and separation. The prisoners spent 22 hours within their cells with merely one hour outside for exercising outside in the courtyards (silently walking in a circle with their heads bowed down) and one hour for praying in the church.
The tour then moved to its last destination.
The Exercise yards were the scene of these famous 1916 executions. In this grim stone-breakers’ yard, there are two black crosses marking where the 14 men from the Easter Rising were executed by firing squad.
James Connolly was the leader of the uprising and he was unable to stand during his execution due to wounds received during the Rising. He was tied to a chair and then shot on 12th May 1916. You can see the cross where Connolly was shot at one end of the prison yard. Most of the others were shot at the other end. He was the last of the leaders to be executed.
Plaques can be seen on the wall with the names of the executed men. These were all the ordinary men who were teachers, poets or artists. They were no fighters yet they willingly sacrificed their lives out of love for their country.
Plaque bearing the names of the executed men.
The bodies were not returned to the relatives but were disposed off quickly one way or another. One fact that I found extremely interesting was that some of the members of the firing squad were given blanks in their guns so they could rest easier thinking that they were not the ones who actually killed the prisoners.
This pivotal event changed public opinion in Ireland and proved to be a catalyst that led to the Irish War of Independence and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921. The 1916 Rising had failed to get independence for Ireland but it had made the cause of independence more popular as the Irish people got so outraged by the executions that they also began to call for liberation from Britain.
Our tour ended here and we were released (no pun intended) into the museum shop from where I picked up a souvenir to add to my cherished collection of fridge magnets.
Other interesting sites at the gaol include banners from the various struggles for freedom and a new exhibit that brings together several items focusing on the unsuccessful rebellion. It is certainly interesting but also incredibly heart-breaking to see the things associated with the revolutionaries who lost their lives after the failed rising.
Following is some more Kilmainham related trivia that I picked up from the tour and wanted to share-
- When the prison was first established, it consisted of 150 cells each of which contained some furniture, candle-light for the nights and mandatorily a Bible for prisoners to pray and repent.
- Meat was served only once a year for the inmates. Three meals of the day usually consisted of watery soup, vegetables and bread.
- The night before a prisoner was to be executed, he was allowed to meet his loved ones for an hour or to write a letter addressed to his family and friends. The museum possesses hundreds of such letters that are superbly preserved.
- Rich prisoners who could afford bribing the prison guards enjoyed luxuries such as bigger cells, home-cooked meals, comfortable bedding/furniture and in some bizarre cases, even leaving the jail for a few days to go for holidays.
- The cell where a prisoner was kept the night before his execution had a little peep-hole in the wall. The executioner looked through this hole to get an idea of the size of the prisoner’s head for measuring the rope to be used for hanging him.
- An associate of Robert Emette (the famous revolutionary) named Anne Devlin suffered for a long time to protect those involved in the Rising of 1803, refusing to barter her principles for money or personal safety. Anne was never convicted of any crime but she was in prison for three years nonetheless. She was kept in solitary confinement for most of that time and endured beatings, starvation and psychological torture. Her tiny cell had unglazed windows and a bed of straw on a cobbled floor. There was no protection from cold or damp. There was no reading material, no visitors and no healthcare. By the end of August 1803, more than twenty of Anne’s family and relatives had been arrested and imprisoned in Kilmainham to break her will and pressurise her into talking. Her young brother James was barely nine years old when he died in the damp cells from sheer neglect. She was also offered a huge bribe of 500 pounds which she refused multiple times. After being released from the prison, Anne died of starvation and poverty in probably the worst slum in Europe.
- Eamonn DeValera was the last and perhaps the most famous prisoner of Kilmainham Gaol. He had been one of the leaders during the Easter Rising but was not executed because he was an American citizen. Imprisoned again during the Civil War, he was released on 16 July 1924. He later went on to be the prime minister and later, the President of Ireland!
- One of the founder members of the Irish Volunteers and the author of the Proclamation of Independence, Patrick Pearse was the Commander in Chief of the Irish forces. During the 1916 Rising, he was in charge of the General Post Office (G.P.O.) When the British army overpowered the Irish rebels, it was Pearse who ordered their general surrender in order to save further loss of life. He was tried and executed by a firing squad in Kilmainham Jail on the 3rd of May 1916. His younger brother Willie was also shot. In addition to being a teacher and a revolutionary, Patrick Pearse was also a poet and a writer. One of his famous poems is called The Mother. It was written the night before his execution and describes his mother’s thoughts on the death of her two sons.
Kilmainham played a huge role in virtually every act of Ireland’s painful path to independence. Even today, it has the power to chill.
If you ever get the chance to visit Dublin, I urge you to visit Kilmainham Gaol to engage with Ireland’s not-so-far-away past. It offers a panoramic insight into some of the most profound, disturbing and inspirational themes of Irish past. If you are a history enthusiast, this attraction should certainly be on your “must-see” list.