Kilmainham Gaol

Kilmainham Gaol

I’ve always had a curiousity about prisons, crime and the justice system in general. Combining this with my interest in Irish history meant that when the opportunity arose to see Kilmainham Gaol I didn’t hesitate – I’d seen the pictures, had heard the stories but now I wanted to see it for my own eyes.

The tour begins in the Catholic chapel of the jail, the chapel in which Joseph Mary Plunkett married Grace Gibbons just hours before his execution. The chapel is small and cold, but the designs put into the pews and the cloths were to be in stark contrast to the rest of the prison. Oddly enough for somewhere religious there’s something infinitely depressing about the chapel, far from somewhere to seek solace it seemed to serve as more of a reminder of the cramped spaces the prisoners were in.

Following on from a brief presentation in the chapel we were led into the East Wing, a short space with unnervingly creaky wooden floors and green cell doors, all with spy holes so the prisoners could be watched by the prison guards at all times. These were all down a narrow corridor, and they were all situated uncomfortably close together. During the famine years overcrowding was a major issue in Kilmainham, at one stage it was recorded that there were 4000 people imprisoned, which forced prisoners to share already cramped cells made to hold one inmate and other prisoners were also kept along the hallways.

The West Wing of the Jail

A cold breeze was flowing throughout the jail –  the windows used to consist of metal bars and no glass, such was the Victorian way of design, and even though glass has now been installed it’s still very windy. This chill was ever present for the duration of the tour. On the West Wing of the prison, and perhaps the image that most people associate with the prison, there’s a straight metal stair case leading through the three floors of the prison with cells surrounding the centre in a circular formation.

Only the prison guards were allowed to use the straight metal stairs so they could have quick access to the cells on all three floors. There’s a small, spiral stair case adjacent to the stair case the prison guards used, the spiral stair case had sharp twists and very little foot room. These were the stairs that the prisoners had to use, which they had to walk up slowly while the prison guards kept an eye on them. The design of the West Wing was to serve the prison guards, the way in which its laid out gave the gaolers a view of evey single cell on that wing. There’s an echo which permeates throughout the prison with every move, this was fully intended to be there so the guards could hear everything the prisoners did.

The yard in which children ‘exercised’

During the tour of the prison various engravings and grafitti can be seen, one of the first archways before you enter the main section of the prison is inscribed with a quote from the speech of the influential Republican Padraig Pearse, “Beware of the risen people, that have harried and held ye, that have bullied and bribed.” It is believed that this was inscribed by a female inmate shortly after the Civil War.

In the cell of Grace Gibbons, which now has “Mrs. Joesph Mary Plunkett” at the top of the cell door, there is a mural that she painted of the Virgin Mary with a baby and four celtic designs around it. It’s fascinating that it has still lasted this long, and the bright colours she used seemed to almost distract from the bleakness of the prison for just a moment.

The execution yard

Following on from this we were lead out to the adjoining prison yards. For a time children were imprisoned in Kilmainham, they were allowed into the yard for one hour a day for exercise, but all they could do was walk in a strictly maintained circle with their eyes fixed to the ground so that they could not see “God’s light.” Similarly, the windows of the cells are all very high, this was so the prisoners could only get “God’s light” if they climbed up to the window, it was hoped that they’d do this to repent. Next on the tour was the infamous execution yard, where reveloutionaries James Connolly, Charles Steward Parnell and Padraig Pearse, among others, had been executed by firing squad.

Throughout the tour my awareness of the people who had been imprisoned in Kilmainham grew. The execution yard had a cold chill running through it (I’d imagine that due to it’s location that even on a sunny day it’d be cold) and large black crosses marked the execution sites. In both yards the jail seemed to loom, you would not forget no matter what you were doing that you were imprisoned. It seemed that even the small tastes of freedom, such as being outside, were tinged with the inescapable awareness that everything you did was restricted and you were constantly being watched.

At the end of the tour you’re led to the museum, which had various displays showing how the jailers kept an eye on the prisoners andalso information on the frought political history during the time that Kilmainham was in use. The last thing I saw on the tour was the guest book. In a bit of a comedic twist I noticed that above where I signed my name was another signature, which beside it had “Nationality: English. Comment: Sorry!”

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