Kilmainham Gaol

cell-door-in-west-wing

the Kilmainham Gaol was the one thing, above all others, that I wanted to see while in Dublin. it was used for the Daniel Day-Lewis film “In the Name of the Father,” though the prison ceased to function as such in 1924, and a trip here seemed to cap my interest in the legacy of conflict in Ireland.

construction on the prison began in 1796 and construction of both wings reflects the prevailing beliefs in penal reform at the time. the west wing is dark and initially the hallways had no natural light. the cells were packed beyond capacity almost as soon as the prison opened, dozens of people sharing a single cell. unlike now, prisoners were neither segregated by age nor gender, and oftentimes entire families would be shut up together. despite the cramped quarters and general squalor of the prison, during the famine, Kilmainham and other jails provided an acceptable alternative to starving on the street. you could commit a petty crime and get locked up for a day or two, where you were guaranteed three square meals and shelter, more than you could say for living on and begging in the streets.

while the west wing represented one school of penal thought, the newer east wing represented another. many of the features of the newer wing are aimed at reform, rather than strict punishment. the “pan-optic” style (seen in the second photo) meant that you could see almost everything from any one point along the wall. relatively few guards could keep an eye on the large population (who were not allowed actually into the open area for any kind of recreation). the skylights were intended to draw the gaze of prisoners upwards — to remind them of the appropriate source of inspiration to repent for their crimes. the windows in the cells were located high up on the walls, and the inside of the peep hole was shaped to look like an eye: you were always being watched and you couldn’t forget where they expected you to turn for “help.”

much of Kilmainham’s notoriety stems from its famous prisoners. the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were held in the west wing, and executed in the hard labor yard. other nationalist prisoners, including Eamon de Valera, were held in the prison twice. following the Treaty with the British that established the Irish Free State, the Pro-Treaty forces imprisoned members of the Anti-Treaty faction, many of whom they had fought alongside during the war for independence.

after the prison was abandoned, it fell into quite a state of disrepair until it was decided to turn the facility into a museum investigating the history of the prison, and the evolution of nationalism in Ireland. the OPW now operates the facility and runs the tours. our guide was quite good and knew far more about the facility than what she covered on the tour. it was refreshing after a couple of other anemic, lamely-scripted tours of facilities steeped in history. it was also rather interesting to see her react to questions from people who had no clue about the history of the Troubles, or about the political history of relations between Ireland and Britain. after going in to some detail about how poverty and class divisions are at the root of the Troubles, one person (for whom English was not a first language) came up to ask “so, why is it that there’s a problem between Catholics and Protestants?” she took a breath, and diplomatically explained that, in fact, it’s nothing to do with religion. at all.

few more stories about Kilmainham and its prisoners in upcoming posts.

Author: Erica

born in the midwest with wandering feet.