Kilmainham Gaol is now just a museum, but in 1796 when it was built, it was a jail for men, women and children who committed all sorts of crimes. There was no segregation between the prisoners, which obviously caused violence and led to really poor conditions. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the jail was reformed to separate the prisoners into individual cells. This idea was brand new and innovative for that time, which is hard for us to believe today because it seems so logical to keep people away from each other, especially those who are potentially violent.
The way the jail cells are laid out was also innovative for that time. The Victorian Wing, or the East Wing, was a large oval room is open in the middle with the cells all the way around. It was three floors with access to each floor by a main staircase in the middle of the large room for the guards, and a small spiral staircase that was used by the prisoners. The set up of the room was so that the guards to see everything that was happening.
The prisoners that were held at Kilmainham are one of the most interesting parts of the history. Many of the Irish nationalist leaders were imprisoned there including Daniel O’Connell and Michael Collins. It was also used to hold prisoners during the Irish War of Independence. There were so many stories that the tour guide told that were almost hard to imagine happening because it was difficult to see it as a functioning jail. Kilmainham was decommissioned in 1924 and was eventually turned into a museum.