Kilmainham gaol might not be first place you think of visiting when you head over to Ireland but it should be! This dark old prison might seem like an odd choice for an wander out of the city centre but within it’s historic walls lies the foundation of the Republic of Ireland its self. This prison has seen it all and the events that transpired inside these walls and bars helped to spark a revolution! And if that isn’t enough, the building itself is a wonder to see!
It might be a little out of the city to come and walk around an old prison but the history here had us captivated from moment we crossed the threshold. Usually we hate guided tours but as this was the only way to visit and it was so cheap. Kilmainham gaol is not only a prison full of the tales of those unfortunate souls who found themselves in here, the injustices they fought and also the way this prison changed the penal and reform systems of the world. But more interestingly this place is one of the most important locations of the Irish republic and its creation. The events which took place here shaped the future of Ireland and had a massive impact on the Irish people. It turned opinions, paved the way for a revolution and changed history. If there is one place in Ireland to visit, it’s the birthplace of its freedom!
History of Kilmainham as a prison:
Kilmainham has a long and infamous history as a harsh centre for discipline. Built in 1796 it was a “new” prison which concentrated on reformation of the prisoners rather than just simply locking them up and sending them out worse than they arrived. This was implemented through a harsh regime of discipline and fear. The prison itself, the largest unoccupied “Gaol” in Europe, was built to replace the old prison just a few hundred feet away.
The prison soon became known as a place of oppression and suffering in which inmates where kept unsegregated, sometimes each cell could house up to 5 prisoners whether male, female or children. No heating or lighting was provided either to these tiny cells which on average measured only 28sq meters. Instead prisoners would have to sit in the dark and cold with only a single candle to last up to two weeks.
Many of the adult prisoners would eventually be transported on the long and arduous journey down to Australia, separated from their families many died en route or never returned home. Those who did stay in the prison may have also been hung, public executions took place over the front of the prison until 1820 when the practice was limited to the “hanging cell”.
Women and children suffered the most in the prison due to the lack of segregation. Often children would be arrested for petty crimes, most often theft, and thrown in jail with adults, the youngest is thought to have been around seven! The women were also reported as laying on “straw on the flagstones of the cell and common halls” when their fellow prisoners who were male where provided with “iron bedsteads”.
An important location for Irish independence:
However Kilmainham Gaol is most known for the role it played in the heroic and tragic events of the emergence of Ireland as an independent nation from the 1790’s to the 1920’s. The prison became famous for its incarceration of almost all of the most important figures, military leaders and famous politicians in the Irish struggle for independence over the years. This included the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, Charles Stewart Parnell, Robert Emmet and Eamon De Valera. As such its story has become intertwined with that of Irish nationalism.
The narrative of the battle for independence became centred on this prison when the high profile inmates of the Easter Rising entered the jail. At the time most of the public opinion favoured the British, most simply didn’t want any trouble. This group of revolutionists were at the time seen as trouble makers who instead of fighting for the Irish people were just causing unnecessary suffering.
However as these men were one by one put to death the Irish public began to turn against the British, seeing these executions as unjust and an over reaction. Instead of crushing the heart of the rebellion the British only succeeded in creating martyrs for the cause. The Irish banded together and rose up against their occupier. As a they result changed Irish history forever and turned this prison into a monument to the struggle for Irish independence.
In this respect it could be argued that the “Stone breakers yard” in which these prisoners were put to death is the most important place in modern Irish history!
Before visiting I had little idea of the journey we would be taken upon visiting this prison. The reason for initially wanted to come and have a look around was due to the impressive pictures I had seen of the main hall and was not too privy to the history of this important old building.
I have to admit to being a little disappointed that we could only visit the Gaol with a guide, this usually is something we try to avoid instead preferring to explore on our own terms. But I kept an open mind and followed the group with interest. I have to say that our guide was brilliant and offered up comprehensive and impressive knowledge of not just the prison but Irish history itself. He was quite clearly passionate about his job and the history of his country and that is something that in infectious.
Coming from Irish ancestors myself I was even more moved by the stories of these heroes in the fight for freedom. We learnt so much more about Ireland than we ever knew over the course of the hour we toured around the prison. In the end it became one of our favourite places we visited in the whole of Dublin, not to mention one of the cheapest.
Not only is the history of this place impressive but the structure and architecture itself something that will leave you in awe. Thankfully the guide gave us plenty of time to take photos too as this is something I always worry about when we join group tours. As I mentioned at the beginning this is the largest unoccupied Gaol in Europe and it really does feel huge. With wing after wing to visit the prison feels like a warren of tunnels and darkly lit corridors adding even more atmosphere.
The main hall however is the awe inspiring centre of the prison, you really get a sense of the scale of the place stood in here as well as the dramatic impact this must have had on the prisoners. The room was designed so that all cells could be visible at one time by only one guard. It was a revolutionary idea at the time which went on to inspire prison design around the world. Not to mention just how aesthetically pleasing this oval shaped space is with its symmetry and glass celling! It is unsurprising then that many films were shot in here including The Italian Job, Michael Collins and the music video for U2’s Celebration!
How to get there:
It is a little out of the way of some of the other things in the city being about 3.2km from the centre. We stopped off at the “James” stop on the LUAS and walked around half a mile to get up there. It is a nice walk if you have the time and energy!
Dublin Bus Route(s): No. 69, 79 from Aston Quay Dublin 2; No 13 & 40 from O’Connell St. Dublin 1 or College Green Dublin 2.LUAS Tram: Red Line – Nearest stop Suir Road.
Open all Year
April – September: Daily 09:30 – 18:00 (last admission at 17:00)
October – March: Mon -Sat 09:30 – 17:30 (last admission at 16:30)
Sunday: 10:00 – 18:00 (last admission at 17:00)Average Length of Visit: 45 – 50 mins
Closed on the 24th, 25th & 26th DecemberTickets are sold on a first come first served basis and cannot be booked in advance. It is advisable to arrive early to avoid the disappointment of finding all the tours for that day booked out.
Have you visited Kilmainham Gaol or Dublin? Check out some of our other experiences in Ireland