A gaol full of ghosts

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by eilidhcatriona on May 9, 2012

When you visit historical attractions in Dublin, you can't help but hear about the Easter Rising of 1916, the war of independence which followed and the civil war after that. Even on the open-top bus tours, a lot of things pointed out are linked to the rising. Once place which is prominently connected to the rising and the wars is Kilmainham Gaol, now a national monument.

Easily reached by public transport and served by both open-top bus tours, Kilmainham Gaol was once located outside the city, but as Dublin has expanded, it is now inside the city, close to the Gallery of Modern Art and Heuston Railway Station.

Entry is €6 for adults, and visits are by guided tour only. For most visitors no pre-booking is necessary (only for larger groups) and tours start regularly - on the weekday afternoon we visited it seemed to be every 20 minutes.

As it was lunchtime, we chose to visit the tearoom before touring the gaol. I have to be honest and say it was rather underwhelming. I had a piece of spinach quiche, the only vegetarian choice, which was served with some salad, coleslaw and what looked like cold colcannon but tasted like potato salad. The quiche wasn't bad, although probably would have been better cold than reheated in a microwave. The salad was fine, although a bit sad looking with it's shredded lettuce. The best part was actually the mystery potato stuff. My partner had a sausage roll, which was simply served on its own. The quiche seemed overpriced at €5.95, but the sausage roll was fine for €2.25.

Anyway, off we went to join our tour. You enter the gaol through a small museum area, and at the start of the tour the guide explains you must stay with the group at all times as it is easy to get lost in the gaol. Our group was quite large, probably more than 20 people, many of whom seemed, like us, to have come to the gaol following a visit to the Guinness Storehouse (I don't mean everyone was a bit tipsy - there were a lot of Guinness carrier bags in the group!).

Kilmainham Gaol was restored by volunteers between 1960 and 1980, having been abandoned after it was closed in the 1920s. It opened in 1796, and it is the older sections which you see first. Our guide, Orla, explained that these sections were very much like they were when the gaol was opened. It seemed to me like they were probably in slightly more disrepair now than they had been then, with damaged walls and some modern graffiti, but it was clear just how grim the place must have been then. The windows all have glass in them now, but that was not there when the gaol was in use. Prisoners back in the 1800s had only a wooden plank to sleep on, and a thin blanket. It was easy to imagine just how miserable incarceration there would have been.

We were shown a brief presentation in the chapel, with some slides showing pictures of the gaol in its early days. It was here that we were introduced to the gaol's connection to the 1916 rising - the leaders were held and executed at the gaol. We were shown pictures of them, and told the story of Joseph Plunkett, who married Grace Gifford in the gaol just the day before he was executed.

Continuing round the gaol, we reached a corridor of cells where many of these leaders had been held. Signs above the doors show the names of the cells famous occupants - unfortunately in this particular corridor the signs had been placed near the very high ceiling and were not very easy to see.Through peepholes in the doors we could see into the grim cells themselves. It was a depressing and somewhat creepy experience, and I didn't feel entirely at ease. I didn't feel the same urge to run that I do in religious buildings, but I did feel chilled and was careful to stay close to my partner, and the rest of the group.

We moved onto the much larger cell of Charles Stewart Parnell, a distinguished prisoner whose wealth and popularity ensured that he was kept in some style and comfort. He was even allowed to leave the gaol to attend a funeral in Paris - he went alone, having given his word as a gentleman that he would return and finish his sentence. Rather amazingly, he did. If it was me, I would have been off like a shot!

The Victorian section of the gaol is an entirely different place to the dark, miserable early sections. Of course it is still a prison, with small cells, but by this point it had been realised that light was important to the human psyche, and so the cells are situated around a large open atrium, a model which is familiar from any film which features a prison. In fact, the Victorian section of Kilmainham Gaol has been featured in numerous films and TV shows, perhaps most famously In The Name Of The Father starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

Finaly we saw two of the outdoor yards, used for hard labour and executions - notably those of the leaders of the Easter Rising. They are commemorated on plaques, on the wall beside a flagpole flying the Irish flag.

The tour was truly fascinating, very informative and very well presented. Orla was a very good guide, speaking clearly and authoritatively, although she did remind me of a slightly stern schoolteacher. What did strike me about the content of the tour however, was its bias. Of course what happened at the gaol is part of Irish history, and it is rightly a monument to the struggle for independence, and it is their history, to be told as they remember it, but everything said those fighting for independence from Britain seemed to be painting them as martyrs, saints almost. Now, I am by nature inclined to take the side of the Irish, my vague knowledge of Irish history and their relationship with England seeming similar to Scotland's, but I was surprised just how biased towards the leaders of the rising and the war the history was. Of course history is going to have some bias depending on who is telling it, but I've never heard anything quite to that extent, even in Scotland. But the Easter Rising took place less than 100 years ago, and the relationship between Britain and Ireland is still strained to say the least, so it is still recent and relevant.

Despite this, I found the visit to Kilmainham Gaol to be interesting and informative. It may not be a pretty attraction, or even one that is comfortable to visit, but is certainly worth a visit - although you will be happy to get back into the sunshine afterwards.
Kilmainham Gaol
Inchicore Road
Dublin, Ireland
+353 1 453 5984


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