On a cold day in Dublin two friends and I found ourselves at the front gates of Kilmainham Gaol. As we waited in line at the door, unbeknownst to us, we were standing directly beneath the gallows where public hangings were performed until the 1820s. Two small white studs are seated about a meter apart above the door to mark where the gallows used to be embedded into the wall.
What we thought was nothing more than interesting stonework and innovative design was really a reminder of some of the most heroic and tragic events in Ireland’s history.
When it was built in 1796, it was given the name “New Gaol” in order to distinguish it from the old gaol it was set to replace. The prison was modern for its time. Similar to modern day prisons, the prisoners were intended to be put to work in order to learn responsibility in hopes that they could be a better benefit to society when their terms were up, as opposed to essentially being sent to their death as was the case in most dungeon style prisons up until this time.
As we walked through the cold, dark halls, there was an eerie breeze that blew over our shoulders, causing the hair on our necks to stand alert. Looking around, we knew the living conditions as a prisoner were far from great. With modern clothing and covered windows, we still found ourselves shivering as we walked from one corridor to the next. The tour guide took no pity in reminding us that during the gaol’s operation there were no coverings on the windows and ceiling vents, and the clothes they had to wear could not have been as thick as ours. For light and warmth the prisoners were given one candle per room which had to last them two weeks. With five prisoners per room, composed of a mixture of men, women, and children, it is difficult to imagine that most of their time was spent in the cold and dark.
The prison was most significantly home to Irish nationalist leaders who had been captured and incarcerated for the rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867, and 1916. Interestingly enough, this includes every nationalist leader except for Michael Collins and Daniel O’Connell. It housed prisoners from 1916-1921 from the Irish War of Independence and many of the anti-treaty forces during the civil war. Due to its iconography it has been featured in the 1996 film Michael Collins starring Liam Neeson. Today, Kilmainham Gaol stands as a reminder of the struggle for independence in Ireland and the tragedies associated with it.