I first saw the crumbling, run-down hulk of Richmond Barracks in 2014 on a Let’s Walk and Talk tour led by renowned Dublin historian Pat Liddy. At the time, the barracks were little more than a historical footnote in a neighborhood that had seen better days. Pat, with his own personal brand of flair, put the empty, gray walls of the gymnasium into their proper historical context — painting a picture of what this ramshackle block may have looked like between 1916 and 1922.
With his knack for getting access to places beyond the beaten path, he brought us along into nearby Goldenbridge Cemetery — normally locked tight with a heavy chain around the bars of its iron gate — and noted the history and important burials of this neglected landmark. At the time, it was rumored that there were stirrings among the surrounding community and the local government to revitalize the barracks and cemetery and open them up in time for the centennial celebrations of the 1916 Easter Rising, but Pat — and the rest of the assembled group of Dubliners — were a bit skeptical that the notoriously slow process of government restoration of historic landmarks would gain the momentum necessary to fix it up in time. I overheard one incredulous local say to another, “And if they don’t get it open in time for the centenary, you can forget them ever getting it open at all!”
But our fears were unfounded, and on May 2nd, 2016 — just in time for the 1916 centenary celebrations — the barracks opened its doors for the first time as a museum, telling the whole story of this unique piece of Dublin history.
A Community Effort
Two years after my first view of the barracks, I’m visiting with Éadaoin Ní Chléirigh, the chair of the Richmond Barracks Advisory Committee, an all-volunteer community group dedicated to restoring and promoting the history of the barracks and the Inchicore neighborhood. She proudly credits the neighborhood residents and Dublin City Council for their efforts to get the restoration project off the ground and finished in time for the 1916 commemorations.
We begin in the gymnasium, the most famous — or infamous — room at Richmond Barracks. After the short-lived 1916 Easter Rising was quelled, hundreds of rebels were rounded up and brought here for processing and courts-martial. Most of the notable names learned by Irish students were among those held under guard in the close quarters of the gym: Heuston, Pearse, Plunkett, and many of their brothers-in-arms all awaited their fate huddled overnight on the floor. Some were released, some were deported to England to serve their sentences, and some, including the signatories of the Irish Proclamation of Independence, were sentenced to death in nearby Kilmainham Gaol.
Among those captured were dozens of women, willing participants and combatants during the week of the Rising. Until now, the story of these brave women was largely ignored; their achievements overshadowed by those of the men of the Rising. In Richmond Barracks 1916: We Were There: 77 Women of the Easter Rising, a new book published by Dublin City Council, Irish historians Mary McAuliffe and Liz Gillis dig deep to collect the stories of these women, in their own words when possible. One of the more stirring accounts in the book tells of Rose McNamara and her unit serving at Marrowbone Lane, who demanded to be arrested with their male comrades when they surrendered, saying, “we were not going to leave the men we were with all the week to their fate; we decided to go along with them and be with them to the end whatever our fate might be.”
[View We Were There on Amazon (affiliate link)]
As I walk the gymnasium space — which is lit from above by the restored central cupola — I study the Commemoration Quilt honoring the 77 women once imprisoned in the married quarters of the barracks, one square for each, and each designed and hand-crafted by a contemporary Irish woman.
We finish the gym tour with a stop at the centerpiece of the exhibit: an intimate a/v theater hutch. Inside, I see and hear images and words of those involved in the Rising projected within the small space. Letters and journal entries are dramatically narrated with corresponding visual displays. Éadaoin invites me to simply sit and listen to their inspiring words. I do.
The Whole Story
While best known for its short-lived role in the processing of Ireland’s founding fathers and mothers after the Rising, the campus of Richmond Barracks had been in operation for more than a century before April 1916, and it served many different roles throughout the twentieth century. The Advisory Committee, aware that the venerable old barracks have many stories to tell, has dedicated the old soldiers’ quarters to exhibits reflecting the barracks’ post-war role as government tenement housing and as a private boys’ school.
Éadaoin first shows me into a fully restored Christian Brothers’ School classroom — complete with original desks, chairs, and chalkboard. She has collected stories and input from many former students to recreate the layout exactly as it was in its days as a private school. Continuing the theme of connecting the voices of the past with the people of the present, I notice modern student artwork on display — creative responses done by students of the neighborhood schools.
Past pupils Eamon Martin, ’55, and Brendan McCormick, ’49-’55, stopped by today to visit their old classrooms pic.twitter.com/wlRZnlnTJG
— Richmond Barracks (@RichBarracks) July 5, 2016
Down the hall, another exhibit has recreated the living spaces of the barracks through time — from the bare bunks and foot lockers of its days as a military training camp to its later function as low-income housing for the working class of the early Irish Republic. I smile as I walk from room to room, each decorated with furniture and pop culture iconography fitting its day. Narration about the exhibit is cleverly piped out of a vintage 1950s tube radio.
Finishing our walk through the bunks, Éadaoin tells me that the primary function of the barracks isn’t to line someone’s pockets by gouging tourists with cheesy tchotchkes at the gift shop, but to serve as a community amenity for the Inchicore neighborhood. It only makes sense that a grassroots initiative such as this would ultimately serve to revitalize the neighborhood as well as provide a unique historical experience for Dubliners and visitors alike. As we enter the new coffee shop, I see what she means. The nearby design school has turned the cafe into a pleasing, functional gallery space; clothing and artwork are on display around the perimeter of the room. Looking out the large windows onto the new gardens, I’m told that this green space will be open for free use by residents of the nearby retirement community.
The barracks buildings aren’t the only long-closed historic site to be reopened this year. Visitors to Richmond Barracks will also receive an exclusive tour of the adjacent-but-unrelated Goldenbridge Cemetery. This small plot was the first (legal) all-denominations cemetery in Ireland — especially important during the time of the Penal Laws when Irish Catholics faced legal challenges to practice their faith in peace.
Before the establishment of Goldenbridge, Catholics had to be buried in Protestant church cemeteries — with Protestant rites read at their services. Champion of Irish religious civil rights Daniel O’Connell successfully established this secular cemetery in 1828 (and later, he would be buried in his much larger, much more successful all-faiths cemetery in Glasnevin).
To prepare for its opening to the public, the cemetery has undergone a comprehensive restoration (for safety and aesthetic reasons) and has at long last had all of its burials correctly mapped and indexed — including that of an eight-year-old boy killed by a stray bullet during the Rising, who was honored on the one-hundred-year anniversary of his death by a class of students his own age with flowers, gifts, and artwork.
As I walk through the sun-dappled path between the markers to the central Greek temple–inspired guardhouse (gotta keep watch for the brave sack-’em-up men coming to steal choleraic cadavers for the Royal College of Surgeons!) I feel plugged into the continuous line of Irish history and the gradual — and painful — path the people of Ireland took to independence. From Daniel O’Connell gently pushing the stodgy English Parliament to ease their draconian restrictions on Irish Catholics, to the men and women of the Rising awaiting judgement in the nearby gymnasium, to post-independence politicians (like W. T. Cosgrave, buried right here in Goldenbridge) who worked to peacefully establish and maintain a free republic that would make their ancestors proud.
And at the heart of it all: Richmond Barracks, now restored and open as a community meeting place and meaningful tribute to the men and women who labored and fought to make Ireland the country it is today.
Nuts and Bolts
- Richmond Barracks is open 10:00–16:00 Mon–Fri for self-guided or guided tours, guided tours at 11:00 and 14:00; open Sat-Sun for a guided tour only at 11:00. Admission with guided tour €8 adult; self-guided visit €6 adult (guided tour highly recommended). Tours must be pre-booked via the Richmond Barracks website*.
- The easiest way to reach Richmond Barracks is by the Luas Red Line, Drimnagh stop. Find more specific directions for bus and car here.
- Richmond Barracks can be the first stop on a 1916 exploration day, following the footsteps of the executed Rising leaders from Richmond to Kilmainham Gaol to Arbour Hill Cemetery.
- Thanks to Éadaoin Ní Chléirigh, the rest of the Richmond Barracks Advisory Committee, and Dublin City Council for restoring the barracks and opening them to the public and inviting me in for a preview visit. Extra special thanks to Éadaoin for giving me a copy of We Were There to further my research and understanding.
*Opening hours and admission prices current as of August 2016 and are subject to change. Confirm hours and prices before your visit.