Travel Writing by Cory Hanson

Easter Rising Self-Guided Walking Tour, Kilmainham

You’re a young, energetic Irish upstart in the early twentieth century, your friends have always told you you’re full of piss and vinegar. You’re probably a member of Dublin’s working or middle class. You’ve seen a lot in your twenty- or thirty-odd years of life in Ireland: political strife, labor disputes, British forces tightening the screws on Ireland as the bloody war of attrition in Europe continues to grind up thousands of youths like yourself every day.

A few months ago, you — heck, maybe your whole family — were recruited to one of the nation’s rebellious organizations, organizations with one goal: independence. You might have joined because your financial prospects weren’t looking good; you might have joined because your family has directly suffered at the hands of the tyrannical colonial government; you might have joined simply out of love for Ireland and her people. Whatever the reason, you joined, and you fought in the Rising of Easter week, 1916.

And now, the fight is over. Your unit — maybe the Four Courts Garrison, although your descendants will likely claim that you served inside the General Post Office, standing aside Patrick Pearse as he read the Irish Proclamation from the front steps — has surrendered. You are in handcuffs, your friends and neighbors are lining the streets to watch, some are cheering and singing Irish songs to honor your service, some are cursing you and spitting at your feet. You and your unit are being marched west toward Kilmainham, where you will face your as-yet-unknown fate.

This was the situation for many young fighters in the aftermath of Dublin’s Easter Rising. Their surprise attack on the occupying Brits had first been a success, but British forces soon regrouped and reinforced — including bringing a battleship up the River Liffey to bomb O’Connell Street to rubble — and captured hundreds of defeated Irish volunteers. No one, including the victors, knew what was going to happen to the rebels, so they were marched away en masse to a temporary holding area for processing. Today, thanks to a joint effort by Ireland’s Office of Public Works and a local community organization, you can follow in their uncertain footsteps and take for yourself what must have been a very, very difficult walk for these young Irish revolutionaries.

About this walk

This walk begins and ends on the Luas Red Line route, making getting to and from the walk from city centre easy. This could be part of a much longer walk from city centre along the Grand Canal, but if you have tours booked, use the Luas to get there on time. From the DRIMNAGH Luas stop to Arbour Hill Cemetery (near the MUSEUM stop), expect about an hour of walking, roughly 2.5 miles (4 km), not counting stops for tours or extra exploration (highly recommended).

Map of 1916 Walking Tour Kilmainham

Richmond Barracks and Goldenbridge Cemetery

From the DRIMNAGH Red Line stop, cross the canal on the footbridge and continue straight onto St. Vincent Street West, with the cemetery on your right. At the end of the cemetery wall, turn right to cross the big, open green space to Richmond Barracks.

The Restored Cupola atop the Gymnasium Richmond Barracks Dublin Ireland

The Richmond Barracks gym cupola

After the surrender, hundreds of Irish volunteers — men and women — were packed into the gymnasium of this busy military barracks (which, at the time, was much larger) for recording and courts-martial overnight. (Women were escorted to separate quarters for their overnight incarceration.) Depending on their role in the Rising, some were released, some were remanded to other jails, and some were sentenced to execution in nearby Kilmainham.

It was a difficult night for those facing and uncertain future, and you can now see for yourself the gym and the rest of Richmond Barracks with a guided or self-guided tour (booking for the guided tour in advance highly recommended). If you have time, the guided tour includes a walk through Goldenbridge Cemetery, which predates the Rising, but has its own very interesting history.

[RELATED: Check out my review of the Richmond Barracks experience and my book review of We Were There: 77 Women of the Easter Rising.]

The march to Kilmainham

Those with death sentences were swiftly taken up the street to Dublin’s infamous Kilmainham Gaol. Follow their (possible) route by turning right (north) as you face out from the Richmond Barracks front door. Follow St. Michael’s Estate around a bend to the right, going around what was once the barracks chapel (note the separate entrance on the side for enlisted men, who wouldn’t have shared a church door with their officers) and is now St. Michael’s Church. Take a short left on Bulfin Road and a right onto busy Emmet Road and follow it for about one half-mile. Note the curious art deco facade of Inchicore Library, one of a series of identical public libraries that are a polarizing force in the city — most Dubliners either love them or hate them. Turn left onto South Circular Road, cross the small stream, and take your first left onto Inchicore Road to arrive at Kilmainham Gaol.

Kilmainham Goal was a grim place after the Rising — not that it was ever very cheery. In the two weeks following the arrests, the leaders of the Rising were executed by ones and twos in the prison yard — what was called “a staccato rhythm of executions” by historian Alvin Jackson. Sad stories — including that of Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford, married in the jail chapel just hours before his execution, and that of James Connolly, badly injured during the fight and too sick to stand for his execution, shot while tied to a chair — slowly trickled out of Kilmainham Gaol, turning the tide of public sentiment to the side of the revolutionaries and their newly branded martyrs. Officials stayed the executions of the remaining leaders, but the public relations damage was done, and the War of Independence was now inevitable.

Kilmainham Gaol East Wing

Kilmainham Gaol East Wing

After a massive renovation and expansion, the Kilmainham Gaol tour and museum is open and better than ever (pre-booking well in advance required to secure your date and time). On the tour, you’ll visit the aforementioned chapel, the original dungeon-like wing of what was once a marvel of modern prison design, the beautiful wrought-iron-and-glass expansion, and the infamous prison yard. Take some time after your tour to visit the exhibits of the included museum, making sure not to miss the handwritten letters of revolutionary prisoners written before their executions.

[RELATED: Read my full review of the new Kilmainham Gaol experience here.]

The resting place of the executed

The fourteen Rising leaders executed at Kilmainham were buried in Arbour Hill Cemetery, across the River Liffey and a mile east of Kilmainham. Return to South Circular Road and turn left (north) to cross the Liffey. If you are looking for some optional diversions, cross South Circular at Kilmainham Gaol and enter the gate to the Royal Hospital Kilmainham grounds and gardens, home of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (free). Later, you’ll pass the entrance to the Irish National War Memorial Gardens — dedicated to those list in World War I — on your left.

After crossing the river, turn right (east) along the Phoenix Park border wall. Continue east until you cross the Luas rails, then take Benburb Street around the small park, continuing east. Turn left (north) up Temple Street West, which becomes Arbour Hill. Follow Arbour Hill around a right turn (east again) and you’ll see the old prison. East of the prison is the church, behind which is the cemetery. At the back, find the granite memorial, with the text of the Irish Proclamation engraved in English and Irish.

Arbour Hill Cemetery memorial

Arbour Hill Cemetery memorial

Wanting to curb the swell of anti-British sentiment after the executions, the brass decided to bury the bodies of the victims in secret in the back yard of Arbour Hill Prison, covering them with quicklime so that they couldn’t be exhumed and given martyrs’ burials. The bodies weren’t recovered, but their stories were enough to keep the wave of revolution rolling. In 1963, nearing the 50-year anniversary of the Rising, a memorial was slowly being planned and built. But when US President Kennedy announced his Irish visit, the powers-that-be were suddenly able to find the necessary funds and attention to finish the memorial, just in time for JFK to stop by and lay a wreath.

Finishing the walk

You’ve walked in the dark-but-hopeful footsteps of those who fought in the 1916 Easter Rising, and followed some of those who didn’t live to see their new republic gain independence (with partition) to their final resting places. If you’re ready to go back to city centre, simply return to the river and walk east along the Liffey or catch the Luas Red Line at the MUSEUM stop in front of Collins Barracks. If you have some time, pop in to the large Museum of Decorative Arts and History in the Collins Barracks complex, making sure to catch the Asgard gun-running yacht exhibit and the special 1916 Rising expansion.

To learn more about the Rising and the people involved, visit the General Post Office Museum (GPO: Witness History), and maybe pay your respects to many others involved in Ireland’s independence at Glasnevin Cemetery.

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