Kilkmainham Jail

Built in 1796, Kilmainham Gaol (or Kilmainham Jail) has an unique place in Irish History and was where for more than 100 years those who fought against the English occupation of Ireland were imprisoned and where many of them died.

It is a sombre, even chilling, place to visit, but absolutely fascinating.

There is a heavy emphasis during the tour here on putting the gaol in its historic context and visitors will leave with a much deeper understanding of the often complex forces which shaped the Irish nation.

Kilmainham Gaol: The Building

A Corridor of cells, photo by by TimBrighton

A Corridor of cells, photo by by TimBrighton

There are two main wings to the Gaol, very different in character.

The East Wing (pictured top) opened in 1864, during a period of Victorian prison reform and is almost identical in design to Pentonville Prison, a soaring 3 story high space surrounded by catwalks onto which the cells open. It is architecturally very impressive.

The older part of the gaol in the West Wing (left) remained in use however, a dark and claustrophobic corridor of cells where prisoners awaiting execution were held.

The corridor leads directly to the Stonebreaker’s Yard, scene of many executions.

A Place of Death

Death Mask of Robert Emmet, photo by storkk

Death Mask of Robert Emmet, photo by storkk

In 1803 Robert Emmet, leader of an ill-fated rebellion against the English, was imprisoned in Kilmainham before being taken to Thomas St where he was hung and beheaded. The block where he was beheaded is in on exhibit here, as is his death mask (left).

Emmet’s famous speech before his execution included the following words:

“When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth then and not till then, let my epitaph be written”.

Many of those who took up his struggle would follow him too into Kilmainham, and meet a no less tragic end. Charles Stewart Parnell, who led the Land Reform movement and agitated for home rule for Ireland, was held here for 6 months in 1881.

Two years later an extreme group of republicans known as ‘the invincibles’ assassinated Lord Frederick Cavendish, British Secretary for Ireland and his undersecretary Thomas Henry Burke in Phoenix Park. Five of them were hanged in the prison yard.

The Stone Breakers Yard, Kilmainham GaolThe most famous, or infamous, executions of all in Kilmainham were those of fourteen of the leaders of the failed 1916 Easter Rising. These took place in May 1916, in the early hours of the morning in the Stonebreaker’s Yard.

Among them was leader of the Rising Padraig Pearce and his brother William, James Connolly, Eamon Ceannt and Sean McDermott. Stark black crosses now mark the places where these deaths occurred.

While the Easter Rising ended in failure, the execution of those involved was a disaster for the British as it rallied even those who had opposed the Rising to the cause of Irish Freedom and eventually led to the formation of the Irish Free State in 1921.

Kilmainham and the Irish Civil War

The treaty which created the Irish Free State involved compromise – freedom for 26 counties but the retention under British rule of the 6 counties of Northern Ireland. This led to bitter division between the leaders of the new state and those of their former colleagues who were against the treaty and resulted in the divisive and bloody Irish Civil War.

During the Civil war executions of anti-treaty Republican prisoners took place in Kilmainham, this time not at the hands of the English but on the orders of their civil war opponents, the government of the Irish Free State. Their number included four young Dublin men whose only crime was the possession of firearms.

It is a sad fact there were more people executed in Kilmainham, by their fellow Irish men, during the few years of the civil war than in the more than 120 years preceding it. Even now this is a truth that is often glossed over and little talked about. These executions created a lasting legacy of bitterness which is still not far below the surface in Irish politics to-day.

Eamonn DeValera – the last prisoner

DeValeraThe last prisoner held in Kilmainham was anti- treaty IRA leader Eamonn De Valera (left), who in later years served first as Toiseach (Prime Minister) and subsequently President of Ireland.

After his release the prison was closed, locked and essentially left to rot by a population who hated even the mention of its name and wanted to forget the injustice, torture and executions with which it was associated.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that efforts began to preserve it and open it again to the public. It opened in time for the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising and is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Dublin.

Joseph Mary Plunkett and Grace Gifford

One of the most poignant events that ever took place in Kilmainham was the marriage of Joseph Plunkett, one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, and Grace Gifford.

Painting by Grace, photo by Declan McAleese

Painting by Grace, photo by Declan McAleese

Grace was born a protestant but after she met Plunkett took instruction in the Catholic faith, was baptised in April 1916 and the couple were due to marry on Easter Sunday that year, the very day the Rising commenced.

When she learned that her fiancé was to be executed, she persuaded the authorities to allow the wedding to go ahead in the prison. Thus on May 3rd 1916 the two were married in the small prison chapel.

The next morning Joseph Plunkett was shot by a firing squad. Grace lived until 1955 and never remarried. Grace herself became a prisoner in Kilmainham in February 1923, during the Civil War.

She was an artist and during her 3 month imprisonment she painted pictures on her cell walls, including one of the Madonna and Child (above) which survives. The chapel were the wedding took place has been restored.

Visiting Kilmainham Gaol

Kilmainham is open all year round and is easily accessible from Dublin City Centre on the following bus routes: 51B, 51C, 78A, 79, 79A.

There are long, long lines here in high season and at weekends all year round. You can skip these if you have a Dublin Pass, otherwise get there as early in the day as possible to reduce your waiting time.

The visit includes an excellent and essential guided tour, led by knowledgeable guides who really know their history.

Some very good interactive audio visual displays have been created, which are both illuminating and thought provoking. Once for example gives a well balanced history of the death penalty, with arguments for and against it’s use nowadays and allows visitors to vote for or against.

Visiting with Kids

It is hard to call a visit to Kilmainham Gaol fun, it may even be quite frightening for younger children and many of them will find the emphasis on history a tad dull. However older kids and especially those with an interest in history or in the ‘grisly and gory’ will both enjoy it and learn a lot from it.

Visit Website

Map and Location of Kilmainham Goal

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14 Comments

  1. hi i was over in ireland a few years ago and bought a book called
    “the last words” about the 1916 easter rising, i have missed placed it and would like to buy it again.  i obtained it from the jails gift shop, can you please help me find it as i have look everywhere and every site possible but cannot find it. 

    i would be greatfull.

    Natalie Bourne

  2. I think what you are looking for is a book called “Last words: Letters and statements of the leaders executed after the Rising at Easter”, which is out of print now and not available in the museum shop anymore.

    I had a look around though, and there are some secondhand copies available.

  3. I am researching Susan Craig who was just 14 when she was held in Kilmainham Gaol in 1836, before being transported to New South Wales Australia in 1837 for theft,  The history of this goal seems fascinating and I would love to know more on what Susan may of experienced during her stay,  Can you please suggest any books that I may be able to purchase
    Cheers Ellie, Victoria Australia

  4. Please can you help i have just read a letter from a relative who was executed in 1923 the letter is heartbreaking as it was four hours before he was actually killed his name was luke byrne and spent his last hours writing this letter to my grandmother  i am so upset as i am now searching the net for the last four hours and cant believe that this man any man that was executed for his country and there is no record of it anywhere i cant believe that men died in vain unless if you were michael collins or someone else well known then you get listed every where surely there is a list of all those men who died even if it was just there name to say yes he was executed and died for his country

  5. Hello Sandra O Reilly i was very interested reading your post and i hope you have found out more information about your relative.I would love if you could get back to me and tell me more.

  6. Kilmainham goal is a fantastic piece of Irish heritage that should be preserved for generations. It is a fantastic historical monument which we can all be very proud of. However, I have taken several groups of teenagers on the guided tour of the gaol over the summer. I must express my disgust at the bias viewpoint being rammed down young visitors throats by very republican minded tour guides. Of the several time I visited the goal, not one of the tour guides mentioned the anti-treaty soldiers who were executed in the gaol. The cruelty of the 1916 executions deserve sympathy and respect yet giving tourists and young children a completely unbalanced view of our history and conveniently hides away our brutality towards our own people.

    • Well I’m writing an assignment about Kilmainham Gaol. After a visit, I believe that most of the tour-guide’s presentation came from Wiki. Not cool.

    • The republican minded tour guides probably aren’t giving you a bias viewpoint at all.
      This prison was used before 1916 and children as well as adults were held the in terrible conditions and the same were then sent to Australia and Canada to be cheap labour/free labour for building the colonies. I’m a Brit/Canadian but why would you want The British side of things their experience as they were cruel and inhuman to the Irish who have every reason to see feel as they do. The best comparison is the treatment of Native Americans or blacks in American or the Jews in Europe if you want to know how it felt.

  7. I visited Kilmainham Gaol on the 22nd July 2011 with my 11 year old son . it was the best tour we have everbeen on . the tour guide was excellent even though i had learnt about the rising of 1916 at school i learnt alot more that day by visiting the museum and the tour i hope to return again with my husband and other son.

    • Charlotte RussellNovember 9, 2011 at 2:04 am

      I just found that my great great grandfather was imprisioned there and released in 1802.  He then left and moved to the United States.  Do you know if they have a list of prisioners there and if so do you know how I would able to find it.

        I do hope to make a trip to Ireland in a couple of years but until then I’m trying to fill in some big gaps.

      Any info you could provide would be appreciated.

      Thank you  
      Charlotte Roberts Russell      

  8. I hav´nt been able to book aguided tour because they are very busy at the prison and require reservations 4-5 months in advance. Does anybody know if it is worth while to go to the prison site anyway? Is there a part of the exhibition that is open to the public and interresting to visit?
     

  9. Dont know about the book but we have wonderful Easter Rising Centenary Coins that are currently retailing at Glasnevin Museum, Dublin and also in Time Pieces, Roscommon, Ireland. Hope this helps Natilie, Cheers, Tommy

  10. I visited Kilmainham  Goal in September 2011. This was the highlight of my two weeks in Ireland. The suffering that went on there is hard to believe. My ancestors on my mothers side (Downey and Fitzpatrick) came from Ireland. I have a great love for that country.

  11. Geraldine McCarthyFebruary 15, 2014 at 8:22 pm

    Hi,
    I was wondering if there were any other weddings in the chapel in Kilmainham apart from Joseph and Grace Plunkett.
    Many thanks.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By IMMA and The Royal Hospital, Kilmainham on March 17, 2010 at 2:40 am

    [...] buses and a short an pleasant walk though the grounds at the back of the gallery will take you to Kilmainham Goal , so combining visits to the two is a good [...]

  2. By » Week 2- Sunday Cheerio on July 12, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    [...] More info on the jail here. [...]

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