This must-see Dublin landmark is the best way for a foreign tourist to get a primer on the complex birth of modern Ireland. It is operated by Ireland’s national monument service OPW, which means it is run tastefully and efficiently, and is well worth the small admission fee and the trip out to the edge of town.
When the oldest part of the gaol was built, the Kilmainham area was well beyond the city, the perfect place for what was then considered a major step forward for incarceration. In the oldest parts of the gaol men, women, and children shared overcrowded cells and sometimes slept on the cold stone floors when beds ran short. Public hangings were once conducted above the front entrance. Much later, the East Wing was added, and Kilmainham Gaol was again seen as a revolution in prison systems. Each prisoner had his or her own cell, and silence was strictly enforced by guards in the central chamber.
At the end of the Easter Rising week in April 1916, the rebel commanders and signatories to the Irish Proclamation of Independence surrendered to British authorities and were quickly court martialed. From May 3–May 12, fourteen Rising leaders were given the blindfold and cigarette and stood before the firing squad here in the prison yard. James Connolly, injured during his capture, was unable to stand and was tied to a chair for his execution. The brutality and swiftness of the executions—particularly the indignity of Connolly’s—helped sway public opinion to the side of the rebels, who were seen by a significant proportion of the Irish population as troublemakers and terrorists.
Many Irish rebels were held and executed in the prison—not just the most famous leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. Troublemakers in the rebellions of 1798, 1848, and even anti-treaty fighters in the post-independence Irish Civil War were held captive in the cold stone and steel of Kilmainham. The last “resident” of the gaol was Éamon de Valera, the 1916 Rising leader who escaped the firing squad by virtue of his American citizenship and later became the President of Ireland.
The iconic East Wing has been used for a number of film and television productions, most famously 1969’s The Italian Job and the music video for U2’s “A Celebration.”
Today, the gaol is only accessible by guided tour. The one-hour tour visits the chapel, several cell blocks, and the prison yard—site of the 1916 executions. The tour examines the living conditions in the prison at various times of its operation and points out cells that held historically significant prisoners. Before or after the tour, be sure to check out the well-presented museum exhibits. Don’t miss the displays of letters and personal possessions of the victims of the 1916 executions.
From 2014–2016, the gaol underwent a massive restoration and expansion project to mark the 100-year anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. The main part of the gaol was refurbished, and the adjoining courthouse, which long stood derelict, was added to the tour experience. The new expansion opened at the end of March, 2016.
Dublin in Detail: Kilmainham Gaol is an excerpt from The Frugal Guide: Dublin, a totally free eBook guide to the great Irish capital by Cory Hanson. Find out more about the book, and download your free copy in your choice of multiple formats, on the Frugal Guide page here on Five Suitcases.