Ireland day 0247. Thursday 02 June 2022- Kilmainham

Ireland day 0247. Thursday 02 June 2022- Kilmainham
Today’s summary Managed to get tickets (quite sought after so you have to be on the ball) for Kilmainham Gaol.   Not a happy place – the site of mass internments and executions.   Interesting but harrowing visit.   Lightened the mood afterwards with visit to the café in the crypt under Kilmainham Hospital
Today’s weather Overcast but mostly dry.   Light westerly wind.   Some rain in evening.   About 16C but feeling cooler
Today’s overview location
(The blue mark shows the location of our route)
Close-up location
(The green line shows where we walked)
(No GPX today)

I’ll be honest – I don’t think either of us had particularly relished the prospect of visiting Kilmainham Gaol, despite it being one of the most important historic sites in Dublin.  That’s probably one of the reasons why it has taken us nine months to get round to doing it.   But today we crossed the Rubicon and decided to pay a call.

It’s a troubling spot – not just because of the harrowing conditions in which prisoners were held, but also because in its later years, it was the site of numerous executions carried out by the British army, in the hope of supressing the Irish independence movement.  Although these efforts ultimately backfired – and actually stoked the Nationalist cause – to visitors from the UK they are a particularly unhappy reminder of the tortured state of Anglo Irish relations which started a thousand years ago and which, thanks to the recent foolish posturing of some British politicians, still seem to dominate headlines in 2022.   I’m also personally repelled by the notion of capital punishment, and to be exposed to the paraphernalia of state-sanctioned death at such close quarters, I found particularly disturbing.

Anyway – we started the day on a slightly more cheery note, with a visit to the beautiful ornate gardens of Kilmainham Hospital, which are just up the road from the eponymous gaol.   I’d missed seeing them when I visited last Thursday and I’m glad we got the chance to go back together so soon.   They are huge, but quite hard to find, actually, as they are hidden behind the hospital, and screened by the various barricades and fences that have been temporarily erected to control crowds attending concerts in the nearby park.  It was a nice spot to linger and enjoy our lunch.

From there we headed down to the gaol and joined the 2 pm tour.   I’m not sure there’s a lot more I can say about the gaol – I think I have shared most of my thoughts in the preceding paragraphs and in the captions to the photos below.   But despite the grimmer aspects of the facility, when it was originally conceived in 1796 the designers had more lofty ambitions.   Prisoners were to be given individual cells, and personal guards, who would help reform them – with the aim being that they wouldn’t became repeat offenders on release.

Sadly, these ideals didn’t last.   A harsh prison governor was installed shortly after the gaol opened, and rising crime rates associated with the growing urbanity of Dublin soon led to over-crowding.   Ambitions went out of the window and as many prisoners were packed in as possible.   At one time it was housing nine times as many inmates as its design capacity.  The situation was compounded by the Famine in 1845, which forced thousands to turn to crime in an effort to source food.   And possibly even more to turn to crime in the hope of being convicted – because at least in gaol you were regularly fed.

I was surprised to learn that in the early 1800s, there was no lower limit for internment – the youngest inmate was probably just three (yes three) years old, and was sentenced to 14 days imprisonment for begging on the streets of Dublin.   Women were also frequently incarcerated – and hanged – alongside men.   Political prisoners started to feature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – not just as a result of the 1916 uprising, but also as a result of the five failed uprisings which preceded it.   Although many were imprisoned, most were eventually released – generally only a few unlucky ringleaders found themselves heading to the gallows or in front of the firing squad.

The vast majority of the people who passed through the cells were common felons, and generally they didn’t stay long.   Custodial sentences were usually less than a year, so many soon found themselves back out on the streets.   The longest serving inmates were usually debtors – they were supposed to be held until they could pay off their debts, which was often many years.

After the 1916 uprising and the elevation of the fourteen executed leaders to martyrdom, the prison gained some reverence in Republican eyes.   However, this reputation was tarnished during the Civil War of 1922-23 when Irishmen were executed by fellow Irishmen simply for being on the wrong side of the Free State / Republican divide.   As a result, once the war finished and the final political prisoner – Éamon de Valera – was discharged in 1923, the Gaol was closed down.   It remained abandoned and falling into disrepair right until 1960 – mainly because the Emergency (aka the second world war) created other priorities, and because of a shortage of funds meant there was no motivation to do anything with it.   Perhaps more significantly, though, the unhappy memories related to its long history of incarceration and execution meant that there was no particular desire restore it but no real will to to pull it down either.

Eventually a party of volunteers formed in 1960 and set about trying to repair the decades of decay, and in 1966 parts were opened to the public.   Today, it is run and maintained by the Office of Public Works, which pretty much, in my eyes, guarantees that it will be tastefully and skilfully done – and it is.

So – there you have it.  I’m glad we have been though personally I don’t think I would want to go back in a hurry.   But you can’t dodge these uncomfortable truths and it’s important to remind yourself from time to time that life hasn’t always been a bed of roses.   No matter how difficult times might sometimes seem in 2022, I for one am immensely glad that I am visiting this part of Dublin in 2022, and not a hundred years earlier.


Today’s photos (click to enlarge)

First stop – the walled gardens at Kilmainham Hospital.   Originally built in around 1680 when the hospital was opened, they were at first dedicated to the production of medicinal plants for use in the hospital.   They later became the private gardens of the Master of the Hospital.   The gardens eventually fell into disrepair but a restoration project was started in 1980 under the auspices of the OPW.   They are now run by the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) (see last week’s blog) and are absolutely lovely The Gaol – just down the western avenue approach to the Hospital.   It was built over a century after the hospital – in 1796 – and was originally supposed to be a “reform” county prison for Dublin.   But it quickly became overpopulated and used as a detention centre for prisoners awaiting deportation, and finally for the internment and execution of political prisoners in the 1800s and early 1900s
Looking through the peep-hole in the door of one of the cells in the west block.   They were cold, damp and insanitary and had no glass in the windows (to keep the air “fresh” and to keep disease at bay).   They were designed to house one prisoner but soon ended up housing five or more.   The 14 leaders of the 1916 were held in cells like this prior to their executions In the “new” east block – the original east block was demolished in 1864 to create this new “panoptic” prison.   It was based on Pentonville prison in London and was designed so it was easier for a smaller number of guards to keep an eye on a larger number of prisoners.   It had a glass roof to allow more light in – supposedly because by this time, light was deemed to be healthy but perhaps more prosaically to reduce the amount of gas lighting that was needed.   Éamon de Valera was incarcerated here twice – after the 1916 uprising and again in 1923 for his role in the civil war.   He was the last prisoner in Kilmainham and went on to become president of Ireland, living until 1975 when he died at the age of 92.   It is thought that he only escaped execution after the 1916 uprising because he was a dual US-Irish citizen.
By the way, I thought this wing bore a striking resemblance to the main cell block in Alcatraz, California
Inside one of the cells in the east block.   Unlike those in the the west block, these usually only had one inmate each After the rigours of the prison visit, we sought out the IMMA café in the basement of the nearby Kilmainham Hospital.   It’s hidden away along a series of subterranean corridors like this so unsurprisingly there was nobody in it except us.   Nice scones though.
This is a particularly gruesome spot.   The stonebreakers yard, where the 14 leaders of the 1916 Easter uprising were executed by British Army firing squad over ten days in May 1916.   The cross marks the spot.   Anti-British sentiment in Ireland had been fairly lukewarm until the executions happened, but their brutality galvanised nationalist sentiment and was one of the factors which led to the War of Independence in 1919-21.
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(No map today)

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