LivingTravelKilmainham Gaol: a place to give up hope

Kilmainham Gaol: a place to give up hope

Kilmainham Jail. Why should a place of suffering, despair and ultimately death be on the list of the best places in Dublin? The answer is “1916.” After the failed Easter Rising, the rebel leaders were imprisoned at Kilmainham. Join a long line of nationalists there, from Parnell to Emmet. And he also joined the growing list of martyrs “for the cause”: Several of the men were shot after a court martial, including James Connolly, famously tied to his chair, his battle wounds bleeding and naked (as the song )

Ultimately, it is the blood of these men, victims of high-ranking British idiocy, that caused Kilmainham Gaol to sanctify the Republic of Ireland.

Kilmainham Gaol in a nutshell

Basically what we have here is a historically significant building, which has strong connections to the Irish struggle for independence, on many levels. Mainly because Pearse, Connolly and other 1916 rebel leaders were executed in the prison yard, buried in Arbor Hill Cemetery in a mass grave. In addition to this important event, Kilmainham Gaol itself is fascinating: it is the largest preserved Victorian jail in Europe. And as such, it ticks many boxes, from those made by historians of architecture or the penal system to those that the most morbid crowd appreciates in search of a bit of frisson.

The massive prison was built in the late 18th century and had no concessions to modern ideas of the built-in penal system. It was a place to lock people up and keep them locked up forever. Recreation and education only came into play much later: in the 1960s, when the then unnecessary and partially abandoned building was restored with visitors and tourists in mind, staging exhibits on crime and punishment, and the struggle for independence from Ireland. Despite bringing the building to (tourist) speed, the Interior still tends to be damp and cold even in hot summers.

So you can really feel a little cold here.

Worth the effort?

First things first: Kilmainham Gaol is not on the well-traveled road that tourists take around Dublin. A walking tour of Dublin (even one after the Liffey) probably won’t beat you because the towering Fortress of Justice is out of the way. Not miles away, but a nice walk that really has nothing to recommend. That being said, many Dublin bus tours, including most hop-on hop-off bus tours, pass through Kilmainham Gaol and have a stop there as well.

But why make the effort? It’s all about history: the jail was built in 1789 (the year of the French Revolution, when rulers had a sudden need to build prisons across Europe), and it has housed generations of criminals and neer-well-wells. Now one person’s terrorist is the other’s freedom fighter, so it was also home (if you can call it that) to the heroes of the Irish resistance against British rule. Robert Emmet spent his last days here, Charles Stewart Parnell spent time in Kilmainham, and the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising met the firing squad in the courtyard.

The last prisoner was none other than Eamon de Valera himself. After its release in 1924, Kilmainham Gaol was closed.

Restored in the 1960s, when the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising brought a new urgency about it, Kilmainham Gaol now acts as a museum of punishment, as well as a memorial to all the “martyrs” who once spent time here. And visitors tend to shiver… not just because it’s usually quite cold in the prison. Looking at the chapel, for example, you are not very subtly reminded that Joseph Plunkett married Grace here, just hours before he was executed.

But Kilmainham Gaol is also a monument in itself: one is inevitably fascinated by the building, the archetypal prison complex of the old days. A type of building generally only seen in movies (and Kilmainham actually appeared in the original “The Italian Job” as a movie location, with Noel Coward doing it).

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