We hopped a City Tour Bus and headed off for Kilmainham Gaol. I don't know if I'd recommend this tour for people with weak stomachs, vivid imaginations, or young children. The front of the building is foreboding enough before you find out the history.
Kilmainham Gaol is a grim reminder of what Ireland went through under British rule. As you enter through the stone doorway and metal gates, you feel like you are entering a serious prison. The large, studded wooden doors emphasize the fortress-like feel. The entry hall is small and cramped.
This is a Duchas Heritage site and we used our cards to get in (we hoped they'd let us out). Otherwise it is about €5 a person. There is a small, rather severe tearoom and restrooms to the right. To the left it is the entrance to the museum. We took a quick look while we waited for the tour to start. It is extensive, 3 or 4 floors of displays. I recommend you go through the tour first, the museum will have more meaning after you’ve seen the prison and heard the tour presentation.
The tour enters the prison and goes down an open area before entering the main building. The spikes on the downspouts foreshadow the grim reality of the place. There is a short, but well done, presentation in the chapel that provides images and history as well as what daily life was like. The Gaol saw a lot of activity over the years, from the famine to the 1916 Rising. During the famine, people would commit crimes to get in and be assured of one meal a day. Often the whole family would camp out in the cell or corridor. The cells have been left pretty much as they were with some cleaning. The walls are incised with messages and names. If a well known figure occupied a cell, their name will often be on a plaque over the door. The cells and corridors are cold and damp, even in the summer. We could only imagine what it was like in the winter. After the Easter Rising the ringleaders were held and executed here and a marker in one of the courtyards marks the spot. Another courtyard, we were told, hold the bones of countless dead. The stones were taken up and the bodies buried with lime and then taken up again to bury more. The walls around the courtyards are high and little sun gets in. It is a very oppressive feeling. The corridors inside are mazelike and one always feels a little lost and glad for the guide.
The guides provide historic information throughout the tour and are very knowledgeable. The tour finishes back at the museum. Once back at the museum, you are free to peruse the many floors of documents, artifacts, and multimedia presentations of the history of the Gaol. There are books showing the records of prisoners, the dates they entered, the crime they were guilty of, and their sentence. Several were striking in that the people were quite young, crimes minimal and the sentences many years. Stealing a flower or a loaf of bread could be five or more years. Since the life expectancy in the Gaol could be months or a year or two, this could be a death sentence. We spent a couple of hours wandering through the exhibits and left very sobered.
The best way to get here is by bus--either the city bus or one of the City Tour buses. You can visit the Guinness Storehouse coming or going. Going is highly recommended, as you’ll need a pint to uplift your sober spirits after.
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