Travel Writing by Cory Hanson

Review – Kilmainham Gaol


Sporting a fresh new look — and a fresh new cafe, and a fresh new website — Kilmainham Gaol (pronounced “JAIL”) is back at capacity and better than ever. My old Dublin favorite took her time with a major restoration project spanning from late 2014 until a just-under-the-wire reopening for the 1916 Easter Rising Centenary celebrations in March 2016.

Most of the work is invisible to guests today — as should be safety and preservation works on historic structures — but old-school Kilmainham fans will notice the new entrance and cafe in the neighboring courthouse. And it is here in the courthouse that the gaol experience begins.

After arriving at your pre-booked time — don’t gamble on one of the limited walk-up spaces, you won’t win — you’ll meet your tour guide and step inside the high stone walls of the old gaol. Following the path of the pre-restoration tour, the experience begins in the prison chapel with a narrated video presentation detailing the first few chapters of the gaol’s history, from eighteenth-century stronghold on a rural hillside to overcrowded urban nightmare pit to turning point in the Irish struggle for independence from the United Kingdom.

Continuing through low doorways and well-worn stone steps, you’ll see the oldest part of the gaol: a thoroughly miserable place to imagine spending weeks or months incarcerated. If you visit during the winter, you’ll squint through the dark gloom and feel the icy drafts blowing freely through the hallways. In this old cell block, you’ll get what I feel is the best quick primer on Ireland’s War of Independence and her modern history. With this, you’ll be able to put a face and a (sad) story to some of the names you’ve seen on street signs and train stations, Like that of Joseph Plunkett, who was hurriedly married to his fiancee Grace Gifford in the prison chapel mere hours before he was taken to the prison yard and executed.

Kilmainham Gaol East Wing

Kilmainham Gaol East Wing

Winding through more narrow corridors and passing more cells of notable political prisoners, you’ll enter the “new” East Wing, added in the nineteenth century. This massive open space is quite a turnaround from the medieval dungeon from which you’ll have just come. Three floors of cells look down into the central chamber, generously lit by the glass skylight. The wrought-iron staircases and walkways were designed to allow the entire cell block to be supervised and guarded by just a few “screws.”

The gaol tour ends in the stonebreakers’ yard, site of the 1916 executions. This hard labor yard had been used for executions before — and after — but following the surrender of the Easter Rising, a series of political executions here marked an irreversible turning or the tides.

In an attempt to send a message to future rebels, the Brits hastily courtmartialed the signatories to the Irish Proclamation of Independence and other Rising rebel leaders in nearby Richmond Barracks. As the convicted leaders were marched to Kilmainham for their sentences, it was reported that crowds of locals lined the streets. Some cheered on the brave rebels; others spat at them and cursed their causing so much trouble and collateral damage (after all, more civilians were killed in the Rising battles than rebel fighters and British soldiers combined). Proud Dublin northsiders are quick to point out that those in support of the rebels were mostly working-class families from that side of the River Liffey, while many of the pro-British crowd were from the wealthy south side of the city.

A Kilmainham Cell Lock Kilmainham Gaol Dublin Ireland

A Kilmainham Cell Lock

As the executions — fourteen at Kilmainham, sixteen in total — drew out over two weeks in May, newspapers reported the gory details of each, and suddenly, the public anger shifted from the troublesome rebels to the merciless British military command. The last straw for many was the execution of James Connolly, who was wounded during the battle and dying of a gangrenous infection on the day of his execution. Unable to stand for his firing squad, he was drugged and tied to a chair as his sentence was carried out. (Around Dublin, you might see imagery of Connolly facing the guns, tied to a chair and blindfolded with a piece of white card pinned over his heart as a target.) As the tide shifted, the remaining sentences were commuted, but it was too late: The executed became martyrs and the War of Independence was on.

After a few somber moments at the execution site, you’ll say goodbye to your guide and proceed to the museum’s collection of personal effects and artifacts from the Rising, the War of Independence, and brief-but-bloody Irish Civil War. Take your time with this labyrinthine, multi-floor museum; it’s easy to miss the tear-jerking letter from eighteen-year-old James Fisher to his mother on the eve of his execution during the Civil War, a fascinating feature about the important role of women in the Rising, and the collection of letters and journals written by the Rising leaders before their executions in a darkened hallway on the middle floor.

The guided tour and museum exhibits provide a thorough, hands-on look at modern Irish history, but before your visit, you might wish to do a little bit of research about the Rising and its aftermath — even a skim through the Wikipedia entry would be a good start — as there is a lot to soak in.

I strongly recommend a visit to Kilmainham to anyone coming to Ireland, preferably near the beginning of the trip. After this intimate experience with Ireland’s painful birth, you’ll be able to understand more of your Irish experience in general: Train stations and roads with names like Connolly and Heuston or Plunkett and Pearse will have more meaning; front page newspaper articles about the Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin and the IRA will be more than Irish-language gibberish; and hopefully you’ll go home with a much broader understanding of twentieth-century colonial politics and revolution in general.

Nuts and Bolts

  • Kilmainham Gaol is open every day of the year except December 24–26; tours can (and should) be booked well in advance to secure your place and avoid a long line for limited walk-up tickets, €7.00 adult when booked online*.
  • The gaol is a bit of a jaunt from Dublin’s city centre. Plan for a 45-minute walk along the River Liffey towards Heuston Station, then follow signs and your map to the gaol. The nearest Luas tram stop is SUIR ROAD on the Red Line. Dublin Bus 13 from College Green stops on Emmett Road around the corner from the gaol; the 69 from Fleet Street stops right outside the gate. This is also a stop on the hop-on hop-off tour buses.
  • After your gaol visit, you can easily visit some of Dublin’s other western attractions: Guinness Storehouse, Phoenix Park, Farmleigh House, War Memorial Gardens, Collins Barracks, and Arbour Hill Cemetery.

*Opening times and admission fees subject to change.

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