ON THIS DAY: 10 April 1966: Kilmainham Gaol opens as a museum

Since the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising the men and the words that inspired the eventual founding of the Irish Republic are thankfully being given a prominence by at least some people in the public arena – in places such as the voluntarily restored monument of Kilmainham Gaol.

There are two facets to Kilmainham Gaol. Its inventory records a cross- section of native Irish society from its founding in 1796 to its closure in 1923. Amongst these involuntary patrons of the English colonial penal system were patriots from every rebellion and conflict that took place from the 1798 Rebellion right up to the Civil War. It is this political aspect that makes Kilmainham unique among Irish prison museums.

When starting the guided tour of Kilmainham, the first place shown to the visitor is the converted prison chapel. Amongst all the famous landmarks in Kilmainham, this chapel especially stands out as the spot where Joseph Plunket and Grace Gifford married just hours before he was executed in the Stone-breakers’ Yard on the morning of 4 May 1916.

The chapel is now an auditorium where the modern-day visitor, through a presentation of slides and video clips, gets a glimpse of the famous Irish patriots who passed through the doors of Kilmainham, as well as of the severity of prison life in the 19th century. Included in the the video clips are re-enactments of actual incidents, where children and adults were all treated alike. One eleven-year-old told how she received a two-month jail sentence as well as a six-year stretch in a juvenile correction facility for stealing four vests and a frock.

We went from there to the old part of the jail where the penitentiary system was explained. It was a ghastly system, but it was revolutionary in its time. It was devised by a famous jail reformer of the Georgian era who advocated a system of segregation and strict discipline. Segregation soon went out the window as the jail was crammed with petty offenders, particularly during the period of the Great Famine. At this time there were 9,000 inmates in the jail (just the old part) with people piled up in the cells, corridors, and out in the open yards. Ironically, you were probably better off being in the jail at that time than out in the general community as at least there were regular meals and shelter.

The next section of the jail was the political prisoners’ wing, where our guide talked at length about the leaders of the 1916 Rising. ‘Pearse’, he said, ‘was an extraordinary leader of men who before he became the leader of a military rising devised the blueprint for the education system of the Irish Republic. … He called the English education system which denied the existence of Irish culture and history “the murder machine”, and established his own educational institution, Naomh Éanna in Rathfarnham.’

Amazingly, Pearse remained an unknown in Irish politics until 1913, after which he became extremely prominent. Eventually he was instrumental in issuing a proclamation which surpassed all other declarations of citizens’ rights, and which formed the basis of Bunreacht na h-Éireann.

As our guide pointed out, these men were not plain idealogues – a point he illustrated nicely with the last lines of the farewell letter of Tomás Ceannt. In his letter Tomás bade farewell individually to each of his children, and as he addressed his youngest child his heartbreak was barely restrained in his letter. ‘If only I could hold my little man’, he wrote, and despite all the intervening years the emotion was palpable in the confines of Kilmainham’s stone cells.

The tour ended in the Stone-breakers’ Yard where crosses mark the execution spot of the leaders of the Rising. The last execution took place on 12 May when James Connolly, who had a shoulder wound and gangrene in his leg, was taken in on a stretcher in such a weakened state that he had to be tied to a chair to face his executioners.

‘But rather than being the extinguishing of the revolution this turned out to be the defining moment in the foundation of the state’, our guide explained. ‘The execution marked a turning point in public support for the Rising which would not be quenched by the English authorities.’

 

 

Former prisoners

  • Henry Joy McCracken, 1796
  • Rev. Sinclair Kelburn, 1797
  • Oliver Bond, 1798 (Bond, a native of St Johnston, County Donegal, was to die in the prison).
  • James Bartholomew Blackwell, 1799
  • James Napper Tandy, 1799
  • Robert Emmet, 1803
  • Anne Devlin, 1803
  • Thomas Russell, 1803
  • Michael Dwyer, 1803
  • William Smith O’Brien, 1848
  • Thomas Francis Meagher, 1848
  • Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, 1867
  • John O’Connor Power, 1868
  • J. E. Kenny, 1881
  • Charles Stewart Parnell, 1881
  • William O’Brien, 1881
  • James Joseph O’Kelly, 1881
  • John Dillon, 1882
  • Willie Redmond, 1882
  • Joe Brady, (Phoenix Park Murders) 1883
  • Daniel Curley, (Phoenix Park Murders) 1883
  • Tim Kelly, (Phoenix Park Murders) 1883
  • Thomas Caffrey, (Phoenix Park Murders) 1883
  • Michael Fagan, (Phoenix Park Murders) 1883
  • Michael Davitt
  • Patrick Pearse, 1916
  • Willie Pearse, (Younger brother of Patrick Pearse) 1916
  • James Connolly, (Executed, but not held, at Kilmainham) 1916
  • Conn Colbert, 1916
  • Constance Markievicz, 1916
  • Éamon de Valera, 1916 and 1923
  • Paul Galligan, 1916
  • John MacBride, 1916
  • Joseph Plunkett, 1916
  • Michael O’Hanrahan, 1916
  • Edward Daly, 1916
  • Seán Mac Diarmada, 1916
  • Grace Gifford, (wife of Joseph Plunkett) (1922)
  • Ernie O’Malley, during the War of Independence and the Civil War
  • Peadar O’Donnell, during the Civil War
  • Frank McBreen, during War of Independence
  • Thomas MacDonagh, 1916
  • Thomas Clarke, 1916
  • Mairead De Lappe, During the Civil War. (Mother of broadcaster Proinsias Mac Aonghusa)
  • Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, 1916

 

 

RTÉ Archives: Watch wreath laying ceremony at the opening of Kilmainham Gaol in 1966

 

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