Kilmainham Gaol is a fascinating site to visit for anyone interested in penal history, prison architecture and Irish Revolutionary history. The long slightly spooky and uninhabited corridors of the Gaol, the panopticon structure of the East Wing, and the stories of the execution of the 1916 leaders and of ordinary prisoners transported to Australia, or hung for stealing, leave a long-lasting impression on the visitor.
Kilmainham is the largest uninhabited jail in Europe, copyright Heather Winlow 2006
History and Architecture The Gaol on the current site was in operation from 1796 until 1924 when the last prisoner left and by the 1940s the site had fallen into disrepair. By the late 1950s the site was under threat from demolition and in 1958 a group of volunteers, including many ex-prisoners, formed the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society with the aim of restoring the Gaol in memory of those who had been imprisoned here. Restoration began on the site in 1960 and after 26 years of work by volunteers the Gaol reopened as a museum in 1986 under the care of the Office of Public Works.The site remains as a museum and a memorial to those who fought for Irish Independence, but also to the many ordinary prisoners who passed through here.
Kilmainham Gaol was built slightly further along the road from an older prison site as a new or reformed Gaol in 1796. The elevated position allowed for ventilation and the prison was designed around individual cells, which was intended to aid in the reform of prisoners. British prison reformer John Howard's The State of the Prisons, first published in 1777, suggested the principle of single cells (previously multi-occupancy was widespread) and included many maps and plans. Howard is credited as being the first to suggest single-celling and his ideas influenced prison design in Europe and the US. During much of Kilmainham's history, however, the overcrowded conditions meant that there were often around 5 people per cell, with other prisoners in the corridors. The highest prison population was over 9000 in the course of 1850, the worst year of the Famine, when some deliberately tried to get incarcerated as conditions were better inside the Gaol than outside.
While the original new Gaol was Georgian, additions were made in the Victorian period – this included the introduction of gas lighting and window panes in 1840 and the building of the East Wing in 1862. The East Wing was built on the principle of the panoptican (or 'all seeing eye') where prisoners could be surveyed from a central point but could not tell when they were being watched. The panopticon idea as applied to prisons was widely discussed by Jeremy Bentham in the 1790s and was very influential in nineteeth-century prison design.
Plan of Bentham's Panopticon penitentiary, by Willey Reveley 1791, Wikipedia
Victorian East Wing, copyright Heather Winlow 2006
The design was still based around single cells with high windows to let in light, but to prevent prisoners from seeing outside. The East Wing may seem familiar to visitors as it has featured in a number of films, including In the Name of the Father (1993) and Michael Collins (1996).
Guided Tours Visits to the prison are by guided tour, and are tailored by individual guides. They begin with an audio-visual presentation in the Catholic chapel. Key elements of all tours include: parts of the older section of the Gaol including the 1916 corridor; the Victorian East Wing; and the Stonebreakers Yard. During the tours the audience learns about some of the social and political history of the prison, with a focus both on the sentences and living conditions of ordinary prisoners and on the stories of a number of well-known political prisoners.
Corridor where leaders of 1916 Easter Rising were held, copyright Heather Winlow 2006
Political prisoners held in Kilmainham have included: John Stuart Parnell who was held for 7 months in 1881; Eamon De Valera, later President and Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland, who was imprisoned here twice and was the last prisoner to be released in 1924; and many of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, including Joseph Plunkett, Patrick and William Pearse, Michael Malon and James Connolly who were among the fourteen men executed for their role in the Rising at Kilmainham. Female political prisoners included Countess Constance Georgine Markievicz, later to become the first female MP in the House of Commons (although she did not take her seat), and Grace Gifford, wife of Joseph Plunkett.
Countess Constance Georgine Markievicz, Wikipedia
Exhibition As well as the guided tour there is a two floor permanent exhibition which again focuses on the plight of both ordinary prisoners and political prisoners. The second floor centres around Irish political history from 1798 until 1924, including The Easter Rising, The War of Independence and The Civil War. These histories are in part told through the extensive use of personal objects and artefacts. The use of these artefacts is effective in helping visitors to understand the effects of the British political system and the punishments given to individuals. Aspects of the exhibition also act as a shrine to the political prisoners. Information panels provide useful background to help familiarise visitors with key historical events.
The ground floor exhibition space focuses on the punishments given to ordinary prisoners, on the relation between the Famine and the prison population, and on wider punishment issues, such as the development of the 'long drop' method of hanging (seen as more humane as much quicker than the previous method). The development of photography, and in particular of mugshots in identifying prisoners, is also explored.
Snakes above entrance to Kilmainham Gaol. Public hangings used to take place here. Copyright Heather Winlow, 2006
Once you have heard enough about various imprisonments, poor prison diet, hangings and execution by firing squad, some light relief can be provided by a visit to the cafe on the third floor. A small shop also sells books about the history of the prison.
For those with an interest in history and architecture this is a must see. The guides, who are humourous, well-informed and passionate about their topic, bring some insights into what life was like in an overcrowded prison, in contrast with the hauntingly empty prison today.
The site is easily accessible by bus from Dublin city centre and the ticket prices are very reasonable. A visit to Kilmainham Gaol can be combined with a trip to the Irish Museum of Modern Art housed in the Royal Hospital on Miltary Road (less than 10 minutes walk from Kilmainham) to make a day trip.
Cell door with spy-hole, copyright Heather Winlow 2006