This famous prison has captured a special place in the history of the Irish struggle for independence. Known for incarcerating many famous figures, the building was erected in 1789, and its long existence has given it plenty of time to witness the unfolding story of the entire country. With rebellions taking place in 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867, 1883 and 1916, there were plenty of inmates to tell their stories within its imposing walls.
Perhaps Kilmainham Gaol’s most famous occupant was Eamon de Valera, the future president of Ireland, released July 16, 1924, shortly before the gaol was closed permanently. Other figures in the battle for independence that spent time here include Robert Emmett and Charles Stewart Parnell.
Kilmainham Gaol 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. An audiovisual presentation begins each tour in the basement of the building, focusing on 200 years of Irish political history from an Irish Nationalist perspective. The presentation, lasting about half an hour, then turns to a tour of the rest of the building, including the East Wing, the Chapel, West Wing, and prison yards. Each stop along the way inspects not only a part of the structure, but tells the stories of the occupants who have given the building its historical significance.
The East 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.
In contrast to the spacious, well designed brightness of the West Wing, the East Wing is composed of a small, dark, and very cramped series of cells. Many cells are labeled with the names of former occupants and information about them. The graffiti over a doorway tells the gaolers that they will experience the “vengeance of the risen people”. During the famine years, over 7,000 men and women were packed into these cells.
In the centre lies the 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. The Exercise yards were the scene of these famous 1916 executions. One of the men, James Connolly, was injured and had to be tied into a chair to remain upright while he faced the firing squad. Outrage at the executions was limited because at the time, the 1916 rising did not enjoy much popular support among the citizens.
Other interesting sites at the gaol include banners from the various struggles for freedom, the block of wood upon which Robert Emmett’s head was taken off after his 1803 hanging, and a new exhibit that brings together several items focusing on his unsuccessful rebellion.
If 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. It is currently the largest unused prison building in Europe.
Kilmainham Gaol. Image by Sean Munson.