A visit to the local shopping mall can sometimes feel like strolling through a prison, except for the food court, Sharper Image, and pimply teenagers. After touring Kilmainheim Jail, an imposing stone fortress in far west Dublin, I realized that that mall-ish sense of conformity is, indeed, not entirely fortuitous.
It was here at Kilmainheim Jail that some of Ireland’s most revered, and controversial, revolutionaries were held and ultimately executed. Thomas Russell, Robert Emmett, Wolfe Tone, and Michael Collins all did time in the jail, the design of which bucked the trend of that time period’s standard prison blueprint.
Kilmainheim had true reform goals in mind for its inmates, i.e. one prisoner per cell instead of throwing everyone—men, women, children, murderers, petty thieves—into one chaotic room that inspired anything but thoughts of penance. Of course, the great famine of 1880 brought those romantic ideals (well, romantic to the warden, I suppose) to a crashing halt. Because of a nightmarish potato season, food supply became so short that people were purposely committing crimes just so they could be guaranteed a meal every day behind bars. Daily rations were later cut to help discourage these desperate tactics.
And where did I learn all these scintillating factoids? Through hours of research in the Old Library at Trinity College? I’d like to say yes, but my crash-course in Irish history was graciously provided by my group’s tour guide, a genial fellow whose spot-on narrations were supplemented by references spoken in Gaelic, his native tongue. He even managed to make a Power Point presentation—given in the wedding chapel Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett were wed in on the eve of his execution—into a fascinating look at the jail’s history. I was especially keen on film footage from the aftermath of the 1916 Rising in Dublin.
The jail itself dangled precipitously close to the execution block in the early 20th century. After seeing its last inmates depart in 1924, Kilmainheim was nearly demolished in the 1940s before being saved by a small but determined group of volunteers who rightfully saw the landmark as an important part of Dublin’s history. After years of restoration work, the jail was handed over to the government in 1986, and today stands as one of the city’s must-see attractions.
Admission will set you back 5 euros for adults and 2 euros for students, and includes access to the jail’s award-winning museum on the main floor. Visitors can only tour the jail in groups under the supervision of a guide, except for in the East Wing cell block, a section often rented out for film shoots. It was here in the newest part of the prison that our guide informed us that the layout, one that allowed prison guards to quickly scan all the cells without changing their vantage point, was the foundation for designing our modern shopping malls. The only question now is which is worse: prisons or malls?