Kilmainham Gaol is one of the largest unoccupied gaols in Europe, covering some of the most heroic and tragic events in Ireland’s emergence as a modern nation from the 1780s to the 1920s. Attractions include a major exhibition detailing the political and penal history of the prison and its restoration.
Located approximately two miles outside of Dublin city centre, it was built as a county gaol to house ‘common’ prisoners. Due to the many rebellions in Ireland during its operation, the gaol ultimately became a symbol of Irish Nationalism. Built in 1796 close to the site of the old Kilmainham Gaol, this new gaol was designed to ease the overcrowding and rampant disease found in the old gaol. Adopting the reform ideas put forth by John Howard, the new gaol focused on silence, separation, and supervision. The prisoners went from being held in one large room to being separated into individual cells. They were required to remain silent and the gaol was designed so the guards could easily supervise all of the prisoners. The new gaol received its first prisoners on 12 August in 1796.
There are two distinct stories that can be told when looking at the history of the gaol: that of the ‘common’ prisoner and that of the political/military prisoner. The ‘common’ prisoner made up most of the population of the gaol throughout its history. This was especially true during the Great Hunger (1845-1850). Though the gaol was designed for prisoners to be held one in each cell, during the Great Hunger overcrowding was a constant problem with up to 5 prisoners being held in each cell and many lining the corridors. In 1850 the prisoner count in the gaol hit an all time high of over 9,000 prisoners for the year in a building that had less than 200 cells at the time. The completion of Mountjoy Prison in 1850 and the easing of the Great Hunger helped to reduce the numbers. Men, women, and children were housed in the gaol, with the youngest child, aged 5, at the time of his incarceration. Hangings at the gaol were public affairs, taking place above the front entrance of the gaol until 1820. In 1891 a hanging cell was built inside the building and hangings continued to take place there until the early 1900s.
The political/military prisoner and the ‘common’ prisoner, in general, were treated the same. However, these stories make Kilmainham Gaol one of the most important historical buildings in Ireland. With the exception of Daniel O’Connell and Michael Collins, every significant Irish Nationalist involved in the Rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867, and 1916; the War of Independence (1919-1921) and the Irish Civil War (1922-23) were held at Kilmainham. Men such as Charles Stewart Parnell, Éamon de Valera, Ernie O’Malley, and Thomas Francis Meagher tell the stories of armed rebellion and political wrangling that make up Ireland’s struggle for independence. The executions of Robert Emmet in 1803, the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916, and the first four executions during the Irish Civil War created martyrs that are still celebrated today. Women such as Anne Devlin, Countess Markievicz, and Grace Gifford Plunkett tell the story of Nationalist women held prisoner in the gaol. The history of the gaol is intimately linked with the wider history of nationalism in Ireland.
With such a rich history it is interesting that when the gaol finally closed it’s doors in 1924, the site was abandoned for almost 40 years. Several times in the ensuing decades the building was slated for demolition only to be saved by lack of funds or initiative. In 1958 the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society was formed. This volunteer group petitioned the government to allow them to restore the gaol using volunteer labour and donated supplies. The Society’s goal was to preserve the building as a symbol of the struggle for independence. Permission was granted to the Society and work began almost immediately. Work progressed enough for the gaol to be formally opened as a museum in 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, by one of its famous (and one of its last) prisoners, President Éamon de Valera.
Now empty of prisoners, it is filled with history. It has aptly been described as the ‘Irish Bastille’.
Kilmainham Gaol is now run by the Office of Public Works (OPW) and one of the most popular tourist sites in Dublin with almost 300,000 visitors per year. The Kilmainham Courthouse, which lies next to the gaol and had been closed since 2008, however was recently turned over to the OPW and was incorporated into the gaol site for the 1916 centenary celebrations.