A few weeks ago I traveled to the Kilmainham Gaol Musuem, where I was offered the intriguing to opportunity to learn of the criminal and political history of Dublin and Ireland as a whole. As a political science major and hopeful law school graduate, my interest in the aspects of criminality and politics immediately caused me to become curious about the subject.
When Kilmainham Gaol was first built in 1796, it was used quite frequently as a location to house criminals, as prisons are typically used. Conditions in jail were quite horrible throughout its’ existence. There was no segregation of prisoners first off. Men, women, and children were all placed in small, and crammed cells. Despite the size of the cells, 28 meters squared, typically there were five people per cell. Each prisoner was given a single candle and therefore most of his or her time was spent in the cold, damp, and dark environment. Overall it sounded like a very awful experience granted that there was no discrepancy for degree of crime or age. Those who committed petty crimes such as theft or tax avoidance and those who committed more serious crimes such as murder or rape were housed in the same prison hall. In addition, there was no restriction on age with prisoners ranging from the very young to elderly.
While the prison itself was horrible, there was one distinct part that I remember being quite nice. The Chapel in the prison was quite lovely particularly in comparison with the bold and dark structure of the rest of the establishment. I think that the demonstration of how nice the Chapel represents the strong relationship Ireland and Catholicism shared. For even in one of the darkest establishments in Ireland, God’s presence was still prevalent.
Though the criminal history of the Kilmainham Gaol was quite fascinating, I was very much so more interested in the political past. After all, the paper I am writing for Irish Life & Culture is about Eamon de Valera who was housed in the jail after the 1916 Easter Rising and Irish Civil War. The prison tour briefly discussed de Valera and I found it interesting how the fact that de Valera was born in America saved his life after 1916. Although while that is one theory for why de Valera was given exemption from execution, there lays another theory that after the British guards had killed seven Irish political leaders. It is important to note that some suggest these killings helped the cause of the Irish rebels, as many Irish citizens were outraged that so many Irish leaders were executed. Prior to these executions few Irish citizens really cared about the struggle for Irish independence, as it did not affect their everyday existence.
Kilmainham Gaol was decommissioned in 1923 by the Irish Free State and after a few decades of deterioration, it was restored by a group of citizens that identified its’ importance on Irish history. After attended the tour of the Kilmainham Gaol I have to say that I have gained a deeper understanding of both the criminal history of Ireland and the important role that Dublin played in the quest for Irish independence.