A suitably gloomy Dublin day accompanied our visit to Kilmainham Gaol, a prison built in 1796 and remembered for the incarceration and executions of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. Decommissioned in 1924, the property was left deserted and neglected until 1960 when volunteers set about restoring the site to preserve it as a museum.
Above the entrance, a carving of five serpents in chains represents the five most heinous crimes: rape, murder, theft, piracy and treason.
The restoration was completed in 1971 with the re-opening of the chapel after reconstruction of the altar. One of the leaders of the Easter Rising, Joseph Plunkett, married his fiancé Grace Gifford in the chapel just hours before he was executed.
The West Wing is the oldest part of the gaol, the corridors are long, dark and cold.
The limestone walls gave no insulation and the windows had no panes, an attempt to reduce the incidence of disease with the flow of fresh air.
Poor health and hygiene was inevitable with five prisoners sharing a cell built for one. There was no segregation between men, women and children and a single candle provided the only light and had to last two weeks.
An inscription has been scratched by a former prisoner over a doorway , “beware of the risen people that have harried and held, Ye that have bullied and bribed”. The quote is from the poem, The Rebel by Patrick Pearse, one of the authors of the Irish Proclamation of Freedom and a leader of the Easter Rising.
The Great Famine contributed immensely to the problem of overcrowding in the West Wing with more people found guilty of stealing food and those committing crimes deliberately so they would at least be fed regularly. Adding to the numbers were convicts awaiting transportation to Australia and people with mental illnesses.
The situation was alleviated somewhat in 1862 with the opening of an additional ninety six cells in the new East Wing. The Victorian era brought different ideas on the reform of inmates and the new addition was more open and much lighter.
The cells didn’t seem to be any bigger but definitely less draughty, a bonus for the men who were moved to the East Wing. The women stayed behind in the dark, cold cells of the West.
With the new wing came exercise yards where the prisoners spent one hour a day, silently walking in a circle. Another hour was spent in church and the remaining 22 hours confined to their cells.
The Stonebreakers’ Yard was stunningly silent, a palpable ominosity hung in the air. Between May 3rd and May 12th 1916, fourteen men, leaders of the Easter Rising, were executed by a British firing squad. The first was Patrick Pearse, a cross marks the ground where he and the next twelve died.
James Connolly was the last. He had been badly wounded in the uprising and, even though he only had a day or two to live, was brought to the courtyard on a stretcher, through the gate.
Unable to stand, instead of being marched to the other end of the yard for execution, he was tied to a chair and shot. A second cross marks the spot where he died.
It seems fitting that the Irish tricolour flies between these two crosses, a symbol of the independence these men fought so hard for.