The Many Stories of Kilmainham Gaol

Back home after two wonderful weeks in Ireland. There is so much to write about, but I think the logical place for me to start is Kilmainham Gaol (Jail) in Dublin. It, more than any other place I saw there, sums up the story of Ireland’s social and political history from the late 1700s onward.

The oldest part of the jail (known as the West Wing) opened in 1796 and was considered state of the art at the time. Hard to believe, viewed with modern eyes. There was no glass in the barred windows, and prisoners were given one candle every two weeks for warmth. If their candle burned out before the two weeks was up, they were out of luck.

A section of the East Wing
A section of the East Wing

Many of the people housed at the prison in the early to mid-1800s were debtors. With the coming of the Great Potato Famine, children as young as six or seven were arrested for stealing a loaf of bread or some such. Sadly, these children had a better chance of surviving in jail, since at least they had a roof over their heads and some meagre food rations. Outside of jail, they likely would have starved. At the peak of the Famine, jail cells were crowded with five or six people when they were designed for one. The overflow slept in the dark, dank hallways.

Looking through the "peep hole" into one of the cells in the old section of the jail.
Looking through the “peep hole” into one of the cells in the old section of the jail.

In 1864, a new section of the jail known as “the East Wing” opened. While conditions were more humane, the old wing continued to be used and held prisoners that were to be executed.

The new wing.
The new wing.

This included the 15 or so men who led the Easter Uprising in 1916 and who were executed by firing squad. Essentially this group took a stand at the city’s main post office, declaring Ireland to be a republic separate from England. British troops moved in and quashed the uprising within six days, and the leaders were carted off to the jail and very soon after were killed.

There are some heartbreaking stories related to this period. While visiting a tiny museum in Sligo, I came across a letter that one of the leaders – Patrick Pearce – had written to his mother just hours before he was shot. Apparently the authorities refused to allow this letter to be delivered to her, but it later came to light. Patrick writes, in part:

I have just received Holy Communion. I am happy except for the great grief of parting with you. This is the death I should have asked for if God had given me the choice of all deaths to die…a soldier’s death for Ireland and Freedom.

We have done right. People will say hard things of us now, but later on they will praise us. Do not grieve for all this but think of it as a sacrifice which God asked of me and of you.

Good bye again Dear Mother. May God bless you for your great love for me and your great faith, and may He remember all that you have so bravely suffered. I hope soon to see Papa, and in a little while we shall be all together again. I have no words to tell you of my love of you and how my heart yearns to you all. I will call to you in my heart at the last moment.

Your Son, Pat

Another of the leaders, Joseph Plunkett married his sweetheart Grace Gilfford just hours before he was executed. They were married in the chapel and he was then led away. They had about 10 minutes together, but the story goes that the guard kept interrupting them, so really they had no time alone at all. Grace would later become a prisoner at the jail during the Civil War.

Then there’s the story of James Connolly, another of the Easter Uprising leaders. He was badly injured during the fighting and the doctor said he only had a day or two to live, but the authorities insisted on executing him anyway. He was unable to stand in front of the firing squad, so they hauled him into the exercise yard on a stretcher, tied him upright to a chair, and shot him. His body was thrown in a mass grave with no coffin along with the other leaders.

The exercise yard where most of the leaders of the Easter Uprising were shot.
The exercise yard where most of the leaders of the Easter Uprising were shot.

It was in part because of how James Connolly and others were treated that public sentiment turned against the English. Until then there hadn’t been much support for the uprising, but after the executions that all changed, and soon after Ireland gained its independence.

Of course the fighting didn’t end there, and there were more executions in this jail at the hands of the Irish than there ever were when it was under British control. More on that chapter of Ireland’s history coming soon.

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