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Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin: Raw History


When you think of it, a prison seems an odd choice for a tourist attraction, much less a focus of national tradition.


While Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, among others, draws tourists with a sort of macabre fascination, Dublin's Kilmainham Gaol is a different matter. It is linked in so many ways with the history of Irish struggles for independence that it cannot be viewed merely as a jail; on the other hand, in its last use as a prison, it saw the execution of Irish nationalist fighting other Irish nationalists.


Irish history is definitely complicated!


Kilmainham has a number of superlatives to its name; it's the largest unoccupied prison in Europe, and the oldest purpose-built prison still standing. Built in 1796, it held nearly every leader of Ireland's struggle against English rule, whether political or physical, with the leaders of the rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867 and 1916 all held there, and many hanged, including the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rebellion.


And then, after 1922 when all but six counties became independent, it was the execution site of leaders of the faction that rejected the partition and started a civil war against the new state and their former comrades.

Varying degrees of restoration—and a slogan painted by a prisoner.

After 1924, when it was last used as a jail, it was abandoned and fell to ruin; from then until the 1960s there were proposals to restore it as a museum, and equally as many proposals to tear it down. A major push for restoration came from the National Graves Association, a nationalist society that still rejects the 1922 partition and tends only graves of those who died fighting Britain; of civil war victims it only recognizes those who fought against the new government.


Part of the issue of restoration was cost; the other was political, and when it was finally agreed to let a non-profit association restore it, it was a new Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society, not the NGA that got the nod to rent it for a penny a year and restore it. And, it was clearly understood that the narrative of the museum and tours were to focus on the struggle against Britain, and conditions of life in Ireland, and to practically omit the civil war from the story. 

In the 'modern' Victorian-era wing

Using a largely volunteer workforce, the work began in 1960rubble was cleared from the buildings, new roofs were built where old ones had collapsed, and other work was done, In 1971, with the work completed, the Department of Public Works took over and opened the museum.


But Kilmainham's story didn't begin with politics or rebellion; it was built as a civil jail and courthouse, under the Grand Jury of Dublin, which actually functioned as city administration. It replaced an ancient dungeon nearby, but from the beginning it was a grim place.

But even the Victorian cells themselves are grim, in contrast to the center.

At first, Kilmainham was filled with prisoners of every sort: men, women, children as young as seven; people arrested for stealing bread to survive and serious criminals, all crammed into dark cells. Each held as many as five prisoners, with cots for men, and women sleeping on the floors. 

P1090796In the prison yards, a cross marks the site of the 1922 executions

Within a few years, reformers complained about the conditions, but little was done until mid-century when a prominent Dublin architect, John McCurdy was hired to add a new wing to the jail; grim as its cells are, the central court he built is actually a quite handsome place—if you were not locked up there.


The building conveniently also housed the County Court, making it a one-stop shop for the convicted. Sessions of the court were often crowded and chaotic, as seen in the old picture below.


My original inclination on our trip this spring was to skip Kilmainham. I can be picky about my sights (no interest in the Guinness Storehouse, either) and jails are not high on my list. But a New York friend whose family had 1916 rebels incarcerated there suggested we go, that it was an exception because of its history. I'm glad we did.


If you're in Dublin and you decide to go, note that Kilmainham's immediate neighbor (entrance above) is the former Royal Hospital, a home for British army pensioners from the 18th century on; today it's home to Dublin's modern art museum.

I've left a few extra photos in the slideshow below. Today's title picture was our One-Clue Mystery this week, and it was enough for George G to identify it.


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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