As 2015 winds down, many are gearing up for the holidays. But for Ireland, the end of the year brings closer the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. The history of this event is still very prevalent in the city of Dublin—bullet holes from April 1916 can still be seen in the pillars of the General Post Office, and the looming presence of Kilmainham Gaol, just a ten-minute walk from the Guinness Storehouse, is constant reminder of the long struggle for Irish independence.
This past week, I had the opportunity to visit Kilmainham Gaol, and it was a haunting experience. The tour of the gaol began in a small, dark chapel, where the tour guide gave a brief history of the place and its residents over the past 200 years. Men, women, and children were imprisoned here—the youngest being a five-year-old boy who was charged with stealing. Stealing was a common crime, particularly during the Great Famine in the 1840s. Although living conditions weren’t ideal inside Kilmainham, each prisoner was guaranteed food and shelter—a luxury that many could not afford outside the gaol’s limestone walls. This little chapel was also the place where Joseph Plunkett, one of the leaders of the Easter Rising, wed Grace Gifford a few hours before his execution.
The group went into what is now called the 1916 corridor, the holding place of many of the leaders of the Rising. Plaques of their names are posted above the doors of the cells, the paint cracked and chipped, seemingly untouched since the execution of their previous inhabitants. In contrast, the final holding cell (now bearing the name of Robert Emmet, another Irish Nationalist who led a failed rebellion in 1803 and was subsequently killed), the last room many prisoners slept in before facing execution, was bright, adorned with a humble chandelier, and contained a fireplace. The tour guide informed the group that the room was a bit more lavish for the guards who had to spend the night there to supervise the inmates.
We were then led into the newest part of the gaol, the Victorian wing, which was quite beautiful and flooded with light–a welcome change of scenery. It was easy to see those who had been held here. They left behind graffiti that gave a glimpse into the past. A lot of it was political: door frames covered in words that supported Nationalism and the Republic. But there were some that were quite comical. One frame bore the words “To Let,” as if the cell were some sort of apartment or boarding room. Another said “Carndonagh Hotel.”
One of the cells held Grace Gifford (aka Mrs. Plunkett) in 1922, during the Irish War of Independence, in which she was very much involved. Inside her cell is a beautiful mural featuring the Madonna and Child.
The tour then moved to the last destination, the exercise yard, where many men throughout the 17th century labored for hours breaking stones into gravel and where fourteen of the Easter Rising leaders faced their deaths by firing squad. Two crosses on either end of the yard mark the spots where the men, blindfolded, stood—or in James Connolly’s case, sick and sitting, bound to his chair—in their last moments.
Standing there in the yard, looking at the plaque of names of the men who were executed here, my tour guide said, “This was only about 100 years ago. This isn’t ancient history. It’s very real and very recent.”
If you ever get the chance to visit Dublin, I urge you to engage with Ireland’s not-so-far-away past. Make sure that Kilmainham Gaol is on your “to see” list. I believe that, in addition to the Guinness Storehouse and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the gaol is very important in understanding Ireland, its people and its history.
The world awaits…discover it.