Easter Rising 1916

the 1916 Easter Rising was the first major uprising since the end of the 18th century, but it didn’t go well and was quashed within a week. popular opinion of the rebels at the time was not favorable; no one joined the cause and the British were able to quash the uprising entirely. they did produce and sign a proclamation of independence, which the signers knew might likely lead to their executions (which it did).

the general post office in the middle of O’Connell Street was the center of the action (though the taking of the Four Courts was crucial as well). there’s a good narrative of events here.

the leaders of the uprising were taken into custody at Kilmainham, tried, and promptly sentenced for execution.
one of the leaders sentenced to death — James Connolly — was wounded during the final battle at the GPO. consequently, he was never held at Kilmainham, but rather transported to a prison hospital, where he was held until the day of execution. a gunshot wound he’d received doing battle with the British became infected and doctors did not give him more than a few days to live. this did not appease the British, who determined that he must still be executed based on the order handed down. on the appointed day (12th May 1916), he was transported from the Royal Hospital by stretcher to the jail. whereas the other thirteen men executed at Kilmainham for their part in the uprising were marched to the far end of the yard, Connolly was in such bad shape that the British decided not to inflict the additional, excruciating pain of carrying him to the far end of the yard. instead, he was tied to a chair — as he could neither stand nor even sit up on his own power — and shot.

word of the executions got out and turned the tide of public opinion. despite the best efforts of the British, details made their way into newspapers and other publications. although the executions were carried out in the isolated hard labor yard (which could not be seen from elsewhere in the prison), the priests present to administer last rites were appalled by the treatment of the condemned (and particularly James Connolly) and felt no compunction about sharing the horrors they witnessed. it was these reports that re-cast and illuminated for the general Irish populace the ideals for which the rebels fought and died and, ultimately, which shifted public opinion towards demanding independence.

the far end of the yard in the second picture is where all but one of the leaders of the Easter Rising were executed. the final man, James Connolly, was executed on the spot directly to my right as I took this picture.

Kilmainham Gaol

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.