Kilmainham Gaol - An Irish Revolutionary View
Kilmainham Gaol is synonymous with the 1916 rising, but right from the very start, this Gaol has had a massive connection to Irish Revolutionary history.
Built-in 1796 to replace the dungeons just a few hundred metres away in Kilmainham on the south side of Dublin city, it was supposed to be a new modern Gaol, but it quickly became a very harsh place.
The Gaol had no windows, a candle was given to each cell for light and heat for two weeks, so it was a freezing and damp place with no segregation, men, women and children were kept in cells together.
Prisoners were sent out to the stone breakers yard to break rocks and told not to speak; the thinking at that time was if conditions were made as harsh as possible prisoners would not dare re-offend in case they ended up back in the Gaol, ridiculous considering the poverty they were sent back out to.
The vast majority of prisoners were in for petty crimes like stealing food such was the poverty in Ireland at the time, many were held in Kilmainham before being transported to Australia.
During the great hunger of the late 1840s, the Gaol was at breaking point as people were so desperate for food they would commit a crime to get a “meal” in Kilmainham Gaol.
Public hangings would take place at the front of the Gaol, but by 1820 there were very few public or private executions, by 1891 a small hanging cell had been built.
The Irish Republican group the Invincibles had five of its members executed & buried in Kilmainham Gaol in 1883, for their part in the Phoenix Park assassinations. There is a campaign to rebury these revolutionaries.
As I mentioned earlier, Kilmainham Gaol is synonymous with Irish Revolutionary history, with many Irish Republicans & Nationalists having spent time there including:
Henry Joe McCracken 1796
James Napper Tandy 1799
Robert Emmet 1803
Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa 1867
Charles Stewart Parnell 1881
Joe Brady 1883
Padraig Pearse 1916
Countess Markievicz 1916
Grace Gifford 1922
Eamon De Valera 1916 & 1923
Revolutionaries from the 1798 rebellion, the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848, the Feinain rising of 1867, the 1916 rising, the Tan War of 1919-1921 and the civil war 1922 - 1923 ended up in Kilmainham Gaol.
Anne Devlin spent three years in a black hole in Kilmainham Gaol 1803 - 1806, in an attempt to break her, the British also imprisoned her family which led to the death of her younger brother who died from illness brought on by the conditions of his confinement.
But not all prisoners had such harsh conditions, the Nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell was imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol in October 1882 for eight months, while there he had his own cell and was given meals well better than his fellow prisoners.
The Gaol is most famous for its role in the aftermath of the 1916 rising, it had stopped being a Gaol and was a military barracks at the time of the rising but it would now house prisoners again after the rising most of the leaders were sent there before their execution.
On the eve of his execution, Joseph Mary Plunkett married Grace Gifford in Kilmainham chapel, and this event is immortalised in the ballad Grace which is very popular with Glasgow Celtic supporters.
Between May 3rd - May 12th 1916 there was fourteen executions in Kilmainham Gaol, James Connolly was the last to be executed, there was such an outcry over him being tied to a chair because of his wounds, the order was given to stop the executions.
In the weeks and months after the rising, the Gaol emptied again, but the Tan war and civil war saw it full again with Irish Revolutionary political prisoners.
There was prison escapes, hunger strikes and executions in this period with the civil war seeing the most brutal of conditions in the Gaol.
The Free State executed four Republicans in the Gaol on November 17th 1922. This was a clear message by the Free State to Irish Republicans that they could be as bad if not worse then the British, even if it meant executing prisoners in Kilmainham Gaol.
Paradoxically Grace Gifford, who was married in the Gaol in 1916 ended up being a prisoner herself during the civil war in 1923, the conditions were so bad that they went on hunger strike.
When the civil war ended in 1923 the Gaol emptied again, Eamon De Valera was its last prisoner when he was released, the Gaol officially closed in 1924.
The Gaol was forgotten about like many other historic buildings connected with the 1916 rising, it's as if the 26 county state wanted to forget about this vital part of Irish Revolutionary history.
The free state contemplated reopening it again in 1926 but this was finally shelved in 1929, in fact, when Fianna Fail got into power with De Valera as Taoiseach they considered knocking it down in 1936 but felt it would be too costly.
The National Graves Association by the late 1930s had urged that the Gaol be turned into a museum, but this was rejected by the Department of Education, and throughout the forthcoming year's many reports and recommendations were never acted on.
In the early 1950s rumours emerged that the Gaol was to be knocked down, so this saw the formation of a grassroots movement for the preservation of Kilmainham Gaol which resulted in the creation of a society in 1958 called the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society.
This movement got the backing of the National Graves Association NGA, IRA veterans, Dublin Corporation, and trade unions etc. They put a proposal to the department of finance for its restoration.
The department agreed, in 1960 the keys to Kilmainham Gaol were officially handed over to the society, in May of that year, 60 volunteers began working on restoring the Gaol.
The work ended in 1971, and the site was given to the Office Of Public works (OPW) to manage the Gaol which was now a museum.
For Irish Republicans, Kilmainham Gaol is a significant reminder of the sacrifice of those who were imprisoned there, executed there, and hunger striked there etc. and what they struggled for has yet to be achieved.
I live only fifteen minutes walk from the Gaol and I always get a sense of pride every time I walk past it but also very sad that there are still Irish Republicans imprisoned today in Portlaoise, Maghbaeey and Hydebank.