Rewind - Kilmainham Gaol

By Sean Heffernan

For this weeks’ offering, off we go down the tree lined avenue of the Royal Hospital and out the gate, back onto Military Road, up Irwin Street, Kilmainham Lane and into Inchicore Road and into Kilmainham Gaol.

We’ve gone from an institution that cared for those who defended the crown, to one that locked up those who sought to defy it.

REWIND Kilmainham Gaol

In the latter part of the 18th and into the 19th Century, there was a growing movement across Europe to improve the conditions prisoners were detained in. 

In a sort of feng shui movement, the idea took hold in many quarters that if you introduce natural light into prisons, and make cells bigger, it might stop felons from re-offending.

Dublin’s prisons, chief among them, Newgate Prison on Green Street (which is a stones’ throw from where the Smithfield fruit and veg markets now reside), were truly awful places to be stuck in, with sewerage flowing all over the grounds and disease rampant amid very cramped conditions.

There was also a much smaller prison in Mount Brown near James’s Street, and inmates there also had to endure similar conditions to the Prison on the other side of the Liffey.

So, with the calls for better conditions gaining widespread popularity, the London Government bowed to pressure and began funding the construction of new modern places of detention.

In what some might see as a most macabre decision, it was decided to build the new jail on the site of what was called ‘Gallows Hill’, so named as it was an area used to carry out executions.

The new design of prisons, as well as ensuring an optimum amount if light could enter, also had the cells built side-by-side ‘in the round’, or as it is more formally known as a Panopticon.

This enabled the prison guards to see all around them, like a performer on stage in a theatre.

The fact that this necessitated the employment of fewer wardens than under older prison systems, meant a big saving to the British Government coffers, which naturally boosted the chances of getting the green light from Her Majesty’s Treasury.

Five imposing designs

There is a huge imposing door that led you from the entrance area of the prison into the cells, and above it is five imposing designs, which represent the five most serious crimes, murder, rape, theft, treason and piracy.

The prison was opened in 1796, and it is reckoned that by the time the doors had closed in 1924, that over 150,000 inmates had been locked up in cells there, with 4,000 of these ending up in ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, Australia.

Many famous prisoners were incarcerated in Kilmainham, with one of the most well known of them marched in past the entrance shortly after it’s opening.

This was the Belfast founder of The United Irishman, Henry Joe McCracken, who spent 13 months there before one of his cousins managed to negotiate his release.

Two years later he was arrested after being spotted seeking to flee to America, and had initially offered to shop the fellow UI leaders in return for sparing his life.

When his father heard of this, he urged his son to uphold his dignity and principles, and that he did, dying via the hangman’s noose with his lips tightly sealed.

In 1862 the East Wing was built which increased the number of cells by 96.

Come the turn of the last century there were less and less prisoners being held in the facility, as Mountjoy prison in particular became the jail of choice of the cities judges.

Come 1916 Kilmainham Gaol became one of those near-forgotten places on the map which persons would think nothing of it as the Number 21 tram from Westland Row (now Pearse) Station rumbled nearby on it’s way to Inchicore.

But then the insurrection known as the ‘Easter Rising’ occurred, and it became the centre of the world for nine days, as the eyes of the world’s media fixed their gaze on the executions of the leaders of the Rising which began on the 3rd of May, ending on May 12th.

The first to be executed was Pádraig Pearse, a man who was discussed widely in a previous piece on the school, St Enda’s he setup in Rathfarnham.

Last to receive the volley of bullets was the noted socialist agitator, James Connolly, who owing to his injures suffered in the G.P.O., was unable to walk or stand up, so was shot in a chair.

Firing squad

The firing squad was then stood down after the Government in Westminster ordered a halt to the shootings, due to the huge outrage it was causing.

The prison once more began to fill up with inmates from about 1918 onwards, firstly sent there by the British colonisers, who sent many independence fighters to it’s cells.

And when the British departed, it was then the Free State Government who ironically were now placing inside it’s walls, many of the very people they’d have tried to free from it two years previous.

The country was now gripped by civil-war with those opposed to the Treaty agreed with the government in Westminster, fighting those who honestly believed it was the best deal they could have gotten, all things considered.

As it was stated earlier, the prison closed its doors in 1924, when thankfully the country began to return to normality as the Anti-Government forces had been routed with all of the Republic now in the hands of W.T. Cosgrave’s Government.

Given the iconic status the building - which is one the top museum’s in the country - it would surprise people to know it was left to rack and ruin until 1960.

It was in that year that a group of concerned citizens, among them ‘volunteers’ who fought in the War of Independence decided to fundraise to enable them to repair the building in time for the 50th anniversary of The Rising in 1966.

With their own money, donations from others who supported the campaign, and help from some builders providers, they managed to repair the severely damaged roof, and other damaged areas to have it looking as new by 1966.

There was understandably some anger at the hoi-polloi from the state - amongst them President Éamon De Valera - were there in all their pomp for the opening.

These people were understandably annoyed that the restoration received little or no help from the state.

Today it is a museum, and if you wish to find out more please check http://kilmainhamgaolmuseum.ie

I dedicate this weeks piece to my late friend and noted historian Shane Kenna, who was a tour guide in Kilmainham Gaol for a number of years.

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