Going to jail is not fun, but going to Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin is deeply moving. This historic jail is now a museum offering an intense look at the last days of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising and at now how the poor were criminalized. It isn’t fun, but it is profound.
The prisoners who passed through Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol were not just your everyday criminals. They included the martyred leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising as well as their comrades who were not executed.
The stories of those idealists who died for Ireland feel deeply real and tragic when you walk where they did and see the spot where Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford were married hours before his execution. That wasn’t the first time those who fought for Irish freedom were imprisoned in Kilmainham.
Kilmainham Gaol opened in 1796, and that same year Henry Joy McCracken, founder of the United Irishmen, was jailed there. Robert Emmet was another United Irishmen member who was held there. He was imprisoned and executed in 1803. Anne Devlin, his housekeeper, was also jailed in Kilmainham at the same time, but was not executed. Members of the Young Irelanders and the Fenians also did time in Kilmainham for their efforts to overthrow British rule in Ireland. Charles Stuart Parnell and other M.P.s were sent to Kilmainham for their rejection of the Land Act in 1881.
Step Back in Time
While some old prisons might invoke images of mobsters or macabre murders, Kilmainham has a different feel and history entirely. It brings us back to tragic days in Ireland’s past where desperation drove ordinary people to steal so they could survive. Those ordinary people included men, women and children. At one point, prisoners were crowded together without regard for age or sex. Kilmainham’s youngest prisoner was only seven years old. Both of those facts say quite a lot about life in Ireland before independence.
One of the first things independent Ireland did was to close Kilmainham Gaol. President and Taoiseach-to-be Eamon de Valera was the last inmate to leave. Imagine the feelings the place must have stirred for people as a symbol of the efforts to suppress the fight for freedom, and indeed the fight to simply survive for many. For decades, the jail sat unused and understandably unloved. Eventually, people began to see its potential. In the late 1950s, some visionaries rolled up their sleeves.
In 1960, a group of people who saw the need to preserve this sad but critical piece of Irish history got organized. The Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Committee was an entirely voluntary project to preserve the prison as part of our national heritage. Volunteers spent more than 25 years working to transform the derelict Kilmainham Gaol into a museum. Today it is a popular if sombre tourist destination, and this year advance booking is recommended for the guided tours, which offer a crash course in Irish history. Kilmainham is truly one jail you don’t want to pass without seeing.