Tour Guides of Kilmainham Gaol call the prison “the labour ward of the modern Irish state”. After taking the tour its hard to argue with this statement. This week alone marks the 130th anniversary of the Kilmainham treaty which saw the release of Parnell an event that effectively ended The Land War while 96 years ago the prison witnessed the execution of the leaders of the 1916 rebellion. The prison incarcerated many key figures from the last two hundred years of Irish history and politics. Rebels from the 1798 and 1803 rebellions spent their final hours in Kilmainham awaiting execution while thousands passed through the prison on their way to serve long sentences in Australia. During the Land War many activists were held here while those found guilty of the phoenix park murders were hung in the prison yard. The 20th century saw rebels from the 1916 rebellion and the war of independence held in Kilmainham, while the last executions in the gaol were after independence during the civil war.
The old wing of the prison is dark and consists of long passages with high ceilings.
The cells in this section were narrow and bare. Although they were designed to accomodate one prisoner they often contained up to five.
Not all prisoners were held in cramped conditions. It was in this cell that the aristocrat and land leaguer C.S. Parnell was held. The class distinction of 19th century society even penetrated prisons. Parnell’s fellow landleague activist the working class fenian Michael Davitt was held in brutal conditions in Portland prison in England at the same time.
Without question the most famous prisoners held in Kilmainham were the 1916 rebels many of whom were held on this landing.
On May 4th 1916 Constance Markievz was returned to this cell after she was sentenced to death. She was the only female 1916 rebel to be handed down such a severe sentence. It was later commuted.
One of the first stops on the tour takes you to the prison church. The 1916 rebel Joseph Mary Plunket married Grace Gifford here in the hours before he was executed.
This is the new wing of the prison built in the late 19th century. Tom Barry the anti-treaty republican and commander at the famous Kilmichael Ambush was held here during the civil war. Later he recalled (in the clip below) witnessing the most remarkable scene in this wing on hearing of the death of Michael Collins.
In many ways the yards of the prison are the most poignant part. In the 19th century behind this wall the children serving as prisoners exercised in silence.
Moving into the stonebreakers yard this plaque commemorates 4 people executed by the Free State after independence reminding the visitor of the particularly brutal final years of the prison (1922-24) that saw more prisoners executed than during the entire war of independence.
The Stonebreakers yard gets its name from the “work” the prisoners were forced to do in the prison. In this yard the prisoners literally broke stones. The yard however is most famous as it was the location where the 1916 leaders were executed. The cross above marks the spot where James Connolly was shot, sitting in a chair as he was too weak to stand.
Kilmainham Gaol is the best historical attraction in Dublin without a doubt. The tour guides are excellent and give the visitor a great overview of modern Irish history in the course of the tour.