On the edge of parkland is the grim Kilmainham Gaol. It was built in 1789 and continued as a prison until the 1920s –- its story is well-told with visual displays, interesting museum artifacts, and a fairly graphic guided tour. If you’re going to Dublin, this is a must-see.
We approached the prison and were immediately struck by the allegorical stone carving of serpent-like monsters writhing across the arched entrance. If that wasn’t a message about sinners being sent to Hades, I’m not sure what it was!
The guided tour started in the huge, open space -- the main body of the prison. The design is classic, covered by a spiral staircase and enclosed upper galleries. It was not hard to imagine the din that would have echoed round the place when it was full of restricted (and probably hungry) prisoners. The cells in this part of the prison seem airy and light, but when the door is closed behind you, you’ll realise how claustrophobic life would have been.
The upstairs museum displays numerous personal mementos and clothes of former inmates and comprehensive photographic and written records confirming that this prison was not used just for political internment but, during the 1800s, also the incarceration of minor felons. The "poor and needy" were imprisoned for trying to obtain food to keep their families from starvation and spent time inside for being drunk and disorderly, or for not having a permanent abode. And sentences were not light, as prisoners were subjected to hard labour for apparently trivial offenses such as trespassing on the gentry’s land.
The museum gives fascinating and chilling insight into Ireland’s social and political history, and it is hard not to begin to offer judgments about the role people played in the oppression of their fellow man. The dark, dank west wing, with its tiny, gloomy cells, is where the political internees were held, and it leads to the "stonebreakers’ yard" (the enforced exercise yard for prisoners), where 14 leaders of the Easter Rising were executed by firing squad. When we entered the yard, the light drizzle added extra atmosphere to the stories recounted by our guide. We heard about James Connolly, who was so ill that he was unable to stand and so was seated in a chair to be shot, and Joseph Plunkett, who was married in the prison two hours before he was shot. I’m not sure if that was a humanitarian act or plain vindictiveness. Perhaps you’ll have a view? The bullet holes in the prison yard wall were a stark reminder to those proceedings, and no matter what your views may be about the events, you will not fail to be moved. This is the more sinister side of Kilmainham and the role it played in Ireland’s political past.
It’s interesting to note that the last prisoner to be held was Eamon de Valera, who was Prime Minister and then President between 1932 and 1959.