Much like the whole of Dublin and Ireland, Kilmainham Gaol is an incredible place worth visiting, but it has a dark past full of injustice and suffering. Since its opening in the late 18th century, Kilmainham Gaol has held just about every incarcerated leader of the Irish rebellion, along with men, women and children who had often only committed petty crimes.
Today, Kilmainham Gaol represents the suffering, as well of the courage, perseverance and will of the people on their road to Irish independence. It is a must visit location on Inchicore Road, Dublin for any local or tourist wanting to learn more about the country’s road to freedom.
History of Kilmainham Gaol
When Kilmainham Gaol officially opened in 1796, it was meant to replace and serve as somewhat of an upgrade to the dreadfully unpleasant dungeon that was previously being used to contain prisoners.
The Kilmainham Gaol, which was known as the new county gaol, was built only a short walking distance away from the previously used gaol. This made transporting prisoners over from the old establishment to the new one, an easy task. After the opening of Kilmainham Gaol, the old gaol was promptly closed and the ‘New Gaol,’ which was run by the Grand Jury for County Dublin was officially named the County of Dublin Gaol.
Although many of the United Kingdom’s more troublesome adult prisoners were deported to Australia throughout the 19th century, the County of Dublin Gaol (later the Gaol Kilmainham) held men, women and children, with no segregation or separation of any kind. It is said that most of the prisoners within the first century of the usage of the county gaol were actually arrested for petty theft and other non-serious crimes. Many of the petty-theft ‘offenders’ were actually children, with the youngest person to ever be incarcerated being a seven year old boy.
Despite the fact that the County of Dublin Gaol was meant to be an upgrade to the old gaol and that many of the prisoners were being held for ‘less serious’ crimes, the conditions in Kilmainham Gaol were bad to say the least.
Although the roughly 28 metre squared cells are quite large in comparison to most prison cells, prisoners were usually forced to share a room with up to 4 other people. Rather than having to struggle with being cramped in a small space, prisoners would spend their days in their cells, surrounding a singular candle, which was intended to provide both heat through the cold winter days and light in the dark, dreary cells.
The five prisoners to a room, which could be any random grouping of men, women and children prisoners, would only receive a new candle every two weeks. This meant that they had to ration its use, unless they wanted to spend days freezing in the dark.
Although no one had good conditions while incarcerated at County of Dublin Gaol, it is said that women prisoners got the short end of the stick during their stay. For example, men were often given iron bedsteads, while women slept on straw. Even a century after the opening of Kilmainham Gaol, both genders were finally segregated into their own sections, it is said that the women’s quarters received poorer treatment and were often painfully overcrowded.
The Importance of Kilmainham Gaol
Although it is indisputable that Kilmainham Gaol had poor conditions, that is not uncommon with gaols at the time. However, what truly sets Kilmainham Gaol apart from other prisons is not its conditions but its prisoners. Ireland, and more specifically Dublin has had a difficult history, plagued almost entirely by oppression, which was painfully resisted by Irish rebellion forces.
Seeing as the now-celebrated forces, which defended Ireland’s country, culture and traditions, were going against the government at the time, the rebellious forces were seen as criminals and many rebellion leaders were incarcerated at Kilmainham Gaol. Kilmainham Gaol was a working gaol between 1796 until 1924, meaning that it held rebellion leaders from Ireland’s 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867 and 1916 rebellions and the Anglo-Irish War (1919-21.)
The list of important Irish rebellion leaders that were at some point incarcerated in Kilmainham Gaol goes on, but to name some whose names are intrinsically tied with the prison; Henry Joy McCracken, Robert Emmet, Anne Devlin and Charles Stewart Parnell. This explains why this specific prison is so important to the country’s culture and Ireland’s road to freedom.
Kilmainham Gaol officially closed its doors in 1924 when the Irish Free State Government took power and for a long time it was only regarded as a horrible place that staged some of the country’s darkest days. Although throughout the following decades there were suggestions of reopening Kilmainham Gaol as a museum or once again as a prison, all the subsequent governments shut down the idea.
It was not until the later 1950s that a group was formed known as the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society that plans to reopen the historic Gaol as a museum, which would focus on teaching the Irish history of Ireland’s nationalism, suffering and difficult road to freedom to tourists visiting Dublin, were finally set into place.
The restoration led by the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society was finally completed in 1971 and it was opened as a museum and art gallery about a decade later when it was handed to the Office of Public Works to manage.
Kilmainham Gaol Today
Since the reopening of Kilmainham Gaol in the 1980s as a museum, it stands as one of the largest unoccupied prisons in the continent and one of the most important places to visit for those wanting to learn about the Irish rebellions. It has been run by the Office of Public Works ever since.
Today, the Gaol is split into a museum which visitors can take guided tours with an audio-visual presentation, and a unique art gallery, which holds art of all kinds made by prisoners throughout the country. The Inchicore Road prison is also used to house various exhibitions and has been used as a set for various Irish movies and television shows.
Much like many of the country’s landmarks, Kilmainham Gaol is a building riddled with a history of suffering and oppression, that the Irish have managed to transform into a beautifully necessary reminder of the courage and perseverance of the population of Ireland during the many wars and rebellions. It is today a must visit location for any tourist, local or history enthusiast alike wanting to learn more about Ireland’s past.