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Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin

  
- darkometer rating:  7 -
  
A large old prison in the west of Dublin. It's the place most linked with the various key rebels and leaders of uprisings during much or Ireland's struggle against domination by England, perhaps most notably the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. Most of them were executed here. The jail was closed in 1924 shortly after Ireland did (mostly) gain independence. After many years of neglect the site was comprehensively refurbished and a museum added. It's easily Dublin's No. 1 dark site today! 

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

 
More background info: The prison was originally constructed in the late 18th century on a plot of land that was then still way outside Dublin's city limits. Originally it held mostly "regular criminals", many of them debtors or beggars! But from fairly early on eminent political prisoners were also incarcerated in Kilmainham, i.e. those who openly opposed English rule in Ireland or even led rebellions. One of the first was Robert Emmet who after leading a short uprising in Dublin was held here until his public execution in 1803.
 
The very last political prisoner, and one to walk out of Kilmainham alive, was Eamon de Valera, who later became Prime Minister and President of Ireland and is still regarded as one of the most eminent Irish politicians of the 20th century.
 
The original rectangular cell block of the first prison was augmented in 1862 by a new East Wing. This was designed as a much more modern cell block, constructed in a style that was favoured at that time in the Victorian era: it was composed of individual cells on three levels arranged around an enclosed horseshoe-shaped yard with walkways for guards along the cell doors on all levels plus catwalks between the north and south side – ideal for constant surveillance of the prisoners. This new wing became the heart of the prison. And it is today the most spectacular piece of prison architecture to be seen at Kilmainham.  
 
The prison had already closed in 1910 when the Easter Rising of 1916 (see Ireland), crushed by the English army, saw the prison drawn back into service, namely to house the arrested leaders of the rebellion.
 
Only weeks later, the rebellion leaders were executed in the yard at Kilmainham jail – and thus they were unwittingly elevated to the status of martyrs by the English, who must have totally underestimated the repercussions!
 
After this the push for independence from England became only stronger, so much so that in 1919 in became a brutal guerrilla war – the War of Independence. Now Kilmainham was used to hold captured IRA fighters.
 
After the Truce that ended the War came the vote in favour of the Anglo-Irish Treaty which granted Ireland self-determination and semi-independence, but still required it to pledge allegiance to the English Monarchy … and partitioned Ireland – as the Ulster provinces in the north remained part of the UK (see Northern Ireland).
 
This outcome was unacceptable to many who had fought for full independence, and so it quickly led to the Civil War of 1922-1924. After that Kilmainham Gaol was closed for good.
 
The vast complex was then left abandoned. After many years of neglect with the former prison increasingly falling into ruin, new interest in this historic landmark emerged and calls for the preservation of the building became louder. This developed into a kind of grass-roots fundraising campaign and lots of voluntary work was put in from 1960. Slowly but surely the place was secured and refurbished. It finally passed into ownership of the State again in 1986 to become a museum.
 
Further improvements since have brought the site into the 21st century, especially with the addition of two modern museum exhibitions which provide comprehensive historical background information and feature lots of original artefacts.
 
Today, Kilmainham Gaol has to be considered one of the prime tourist attractions in Dublin – even from a more traditional perspective on tourism, but of course especially from that of dark tourism. For any dedicated dark tourist, or indeed anybody who has an interest in trying to understand Anglo-Irish history, the struggle for Irish independence and the frictions between Irishness and Englishness it can still arouse, simply cannot afford to miss out on this absolute must-see institution.
 
 
What there is to see: Even approaching it from the outside, this grey imposing pile looks impressively menacing – although you can't really tell yet how big the complex is beyond those impenetrable stone walls. As you enter the main gate, take note of the stone masonry above the portal depicting serpents (as symbols of evildoers).
 
When you get your ticket inside, you will be told when the next available guided tour of the prison starts and where you have to join the group … namely by a big glass door next to the downstairs historical exhibition. Before you get to the latter also have a look around the foyer, where there is a scale model of the prison and some old photos and documents, as well as shop selling books, brochures and information packs about the prison.
 
If you have time to kill before the guided tour starts, do look around the ground-floor exhibition first.  
 
This provides a context and historical background of the prison system in Britain and Ireland (and beyond) through the centuries. It covers prison design and reform, especially during the Victorian era, and the underlying ideologies of punishment, penitence and/or re-education. The shipping of convicts to the colonies, especially Australia, is also touched upon.
 
Items on display include locks and keys (no surprise there), bits of prison cell furniture, some personal belongings of particular prisoners, a vintage camera for taking mugshots, as well as modern-day surveillance equipment.
 
There's also a special section about capital punishment. In the old days hangings were common and were performed publicly. This changed in the mid 19th century, when executions were hidden away from public view. Also the methods became somewhat less cruel. However, the principal question remains: can capital punishment be justified at all or not. There's an interesting interactive display including a touch screen on which visitors can cast a 'yes' or 'no' vote on this question. Another screen is integrated into a diorama recreation of a hanging cell – complete with a dangling rope with noose (but thankfully without a dummy dangling from it!) – on which the results of the votes are constantly updated. I cast my own vote and instantly saw the "no" count on the right-hand side of the screen go up by one. The majority of the votes cast in that way were also against capital punishment, but only quite narrowly, with less than a ten per cent margin between the two sides.   
 
The guided tour of the actual prison starts in the old wing. But before you get to see any grim cells or so, the group is asked to take seats in the prison chapel. There's no sermon coming, just a short introductory talk by the guide, and then a more comprehensive audio-visual intro that's projected onto a screen lowered down in front of the altar. The presentation covers the history of the prison as well as various individual stories of particular inmates. Some are especially tragic, such as that of Joseph Plunkett, one of the masterminds of the 1916 Easter Rising, who only hours before his execution at Kilmainham asked to be married to his sweetheart Grace Gifford in the prison chapel. The wish was granted – but he was executed all the same. She went on to become a kind of rebel herself and ended up imprisoned briefly in Kilmainham too in 1923 during the Civil War.
 
After the video presentation the guide leads the group through the dark and dank corridors of the old prison. It is indeed eerie in here. The guide enhances this by a lively commentary and delivery of various stories from, or connected to, Kilmainham Gaol. You can peek into ordinary cells, but also get to see the more privileged larger cells that prominent prisoners could be granted (esp. for payment) in the earlier days of the prison regime. One particular cell is marked by the name of one of the first political prisoners of Kilmainham: Robert Emmet.
 
When you step into the newer East Wing it immediately strikes you as impressively huge. What a contrast to the dark dank corridors of the old wing. This is more like a "cathedral" of prison cells! The vaulted hall with its skylight at the top is huge, four storeys high. The actual cells are lined up around the outer wall on three levels from ground floor to second floor with an extra floor above them, presumably for prison guards' observation of the inmates only.
 
The hall has the shape of a giant horseshoe. Catwalks run from one side to the other on the first and second level. In the middle a stairway connects these catwalks with the ground level. On the straight wall where the new wing meets the old one, a narrow spiral staircase winds up the three levels … and further down another level into the basement. These were the stairs for prisoners – deliberately narrow and steep so that they had to closely watch their step and could not speed up. The straight stairs and catwalks across from side to side were for the guards only.
 
The sight of the hall is absolutely awesome. I've visited a few prisons-turned museums/memorials, both ancient/Victorian and modern and this is the most impressive one architecturally of all those I've seen so far! Totally wow!
 
Thankfully, the guide lets visitors have a good look around on their own for a good while without any narrative, so you can really let the atmosphere of the place sink in (well, as much as the chatter of the other tourists allows that). When I was there in December 2012, there was a storm raging outside and this provided the add-on of a really spooky soundscape as it whistled through and rattled the skylight above.
 
You can't go up the central stairs, but you can inspect the cells on the ground floor. Again, some have inscriptions or plaques with names of prominent prisoners above the doors, right up to those last few held here just before the prison was closed. One is the cell in which Grace Plunkett (nee Gifford) was held for three months in 1923 – see above. A religious mural (of the Virgin Mary) which she painted onto the far wall of the cell back then has been preserved and restored.
 
At the crest of the semicircular far end of the main vaulted hall I spotted a door which had an emergency exit sign above it – but was barred and locked all the same. I found that kind of ironic.
 
But all these details aside, it's the incredible, almost cathedral-like ambience of this spectacular space alone that left the strongest impression on me.
 
After this highlight, the tour recommences. There is one final significant stop: outside in the execution yard! It's mostly a plain gravel field enclosed by the outer high stone walls of the prison. The space is completely bare, except for a few crosses in the corners and a flagpole flying the Republican Irish flag in the centre, right in front of the spot where the Easter Rising leaders of 1916 were executed (14 of the 15 in total were executed here), namely by firing squad, between 3 and 12 May 1916. A plaque on the wall commemorates this and gives the names and respective dates of execution.
 
Back inside the tour concludes where it had started. I found the guided tour excellent – the narrative delivered by the guide provided the best crash course in Irish history you could possibly wish for. Very educational – and very entertaining at the same time.
 
If you haven't done so before the tour, you can now go round the exhibition on the ground floor about prison history and then proceed to the much bigger second museum exhibition upstairs.
 
This is really a separate museum altogether. It's designated a 'political history museum'. And indeed, this is much less about Kilmainham Jail as such, though some parts still are, but much more about the wider context of Irish political history at large. So if you feel you still haven't learned enough about this on the tour then you can really dig in deep here.
 
The museum offers an almost overwhelming wealth of information. It's spread out over three levels and covers a wide array of sub-topics, from the beginnings of the Irish struggle against English rule to the present day. There's way too much to even attempt a summary here. Only a few highlights amongst the exhibits shall be mentioned:
 
One is the original (?) death mask of Robert Emmet, one of the few surviving prints of the declaration of the Republic from the 1916 Easter Rising, various weapons and communications from underground resistance fighters, a copy of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 and several items from Kilmainham Gaol prisoners.
 
A separate section is about the restoration of the prison after decades of neglect following its closure in 1924. From 1960 to 1986, volunteers painstakingly restored this landmark building. On display in the exhibition are photos of the ruined building before the restoration and also of Eamon de Valera visiting the prison in the 1970s (he was an ex-prisoner at Kilmainham and in later life President of the Republic). Also on display is an original collection box through which funds for the restoration work were raised, as well as various promotional materials also in aid of fundraising. One of these was a vinyl record sleeve with the title "Kilmainham Jail – It's heroes and songs". That's a bit puzzling … so in the prison it's all just about heroes and songs? But it's probably just a punctuation error and it should have been "its heroes and songs" … Never mind. This mistake of the misplaced apostrophe is a very common one.
 
On balance, Kilmainham Gaol and its museum are an outstanding site that no dark tourist coming to Dublin can afford to miss out on. It's possibly the most (darkly) historically charged site in the whole of the Republic of Ireland. It offers a highly educational angle that is really superb – plus that incredibly atmospheric visual impression on the tour of the actual former prison. In particular the East Wing with its splendid horseshoe hall of cells is breathtakingly impressive. An absolute must-see!
 
 
Location: in Dublin 8, a good 2 miles (3.5 km) west of the city centre, south of Phoenix Park, at Inchicore Road.
 
Google maps locator: [53.3419,-6.3096]
 
 

Access and costs: a bit out from the centre, but quite easy to get to by bus; not expensive for what you get.
 
Details: Kilmainham Gaol is perhaps just a little bit too out of comfortable walking distance from the city centre of Dublin, unless you really like city strolling, of course. Much of the ca. 2 miles (3.5 km) from, say, Temple Bar, is along the river, so it's quite a nice route … at least if the weather is reasonably nice.
 
Alternatively you can get a bus from Aston Quay (stop 326) by the Liffey in Temple Bar near O'Connell Bridge (line 69 or 79). When you arrive, the bus stop is conveniently right by the prison's gate in Inchicore Road. But since that's a one-way street, it's a lot trickier to find the stop for the return journey! But if you're combining your visit to the jail with trip to the nearby Irish Museum of Modern Art (see below), then you could walk from there to Heuston Station and get any bus or train back to the city centre from there.  
 
Admission: 6 EUR (seniors 4 EUR, students 2 EUR)
 
Opening times: daily 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer (in winter it closes an hour to an hour and a half earlier). Last admission one hour to an hour and a half before closing time!
 
While you can walk around the museum exhibitions freely at your own timing, the actual prison can be visited by guided tour only! It's best to go on the tour first and leave at least the main museum for afterwards.
 
Note that tickets are sold on a first-come-first-served basis and cannot be reserved in advance for individual visitors (whereas groups have to pre-book!). So at busy times of the year it's advisable to get there early, or you risk that all the places on the remaining guided tours for that day may already be taken. Tours depart regularly ca. every half hour or so.
 
 
Time required: The guided tour of the prison lasts between 60 and 90 minutes. This does not include the museum, so you have to allocate time for the two exhibitions too: the smaller one downstairs can be done in ca. 30 minutes, but the much bigger one in the upstairs museum part is much more comprehensive and can require several hours if you really want to study every detail. But if you already have a halfway decent grasp of the subject matter and/or are pressed for time, you can make do with just another 60 to 90 minutes. In total, then, two and a half hours to almost a whole day have to be set aside to do Kilmainham Gaol justice (i.e. quite a bit longer than what some tourist info sites claim!).
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see under Dublin.
 
Right opposite the old prison, set in the pavement in front of an incongruously modern-architecture pile, stands a separate monument dedicated to the 1916 Easter Rising leaders who were executed at Kilmainham (see above and under Ireland). It consists of a group of 14 stylized bronze figures arranged almost in a circle around what looks like a stool. At the bottom of each figure a "verdict" is engraved, such as "Verdict: Guilty. Death by being shot".
 
Not too far from Kilmainham, a few hundred yards to the north-west on the other side of the river, are the War Memorial Gardens, which feature some huge monuments dedicated to the ca. 50,000 Irishmen who fell in the First World War. The ensemble is said to be set in a beautifully landscaped park as well, so it may well be worth a look – if the weather allows it … which it absolutely didn't when I was there in December 2012. Hence I can't report back anything first-hand. But next time I'm in Dublin and have slightly less bad luck with the weather I'll go and check this out too.  
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Within walking distance of Kilmainham Jail is another huge old complex of buildings that was once the Royal Hospital of Kilmainham and which now houses the Irish Museum of Modern Art. From the prison gate head east, pass through another ornate gate and you're on the long straight approach path to the building, which is about half a mile (700m) away.  
 
North of the War Memorial Gardens (see above) the vast expanse of Phoenix Park extends for miles – it is allegedly Europe's largest park.
 
The main touristic draws of the city are found in or closer to the centre – see under Dublin in general.  
    
  
 
  • Kilmainham Gaol 01 - grim and menacing buildingKilmainham Gaol 01 - grim and menacing building
  • Kilmainham Gaol 02 - anteroom with modelKilmainham Gaol 02 - anteroom with model
  • Kilmainham Gaol 03 - locks and keys under glassKilmainham Gaol 03 - locks and keys under glass
  • Kilmainham Gaol 04 - more modern equipment tooKilmainham Gaol 04 - more modern equipment too
  • Kilmainham Gaol 05 - my vote upped the right-hand side by one to a meagre 60 per cent or soKilmainham Gaol 05 - my vote upped the right-hand side by one to a meagre 60 per cent or so
  • Kilmainham Gaol 06 - grey courtyardKilmainham Gaol 06 - grey courtyard
  • Kilmainham Gaol 07 - prison chapelKilmainham Gaol 07 - prison chapel
  • Kilmainham Gaol 08 - guided tour through dark, dank corridors of the old partsKilmainham Gaol 08 - guided tour through dark, dank corridors of the old parts
  • Kilmainham Gaol 09 - main cell blockKilmainham Gaol 09 - main cell block
  • Kilmainham Gaol 10 - cellKilmainham Gaol 10 - cell
  • Kilmainham Gaol 11 - artwork inside a cellKilmainham Gaol 11 - artwork inside a cell
  • Kilmainham Gaol 12 - no way outKilmainham Gaol 12 - no way out
  • Kilmainham Gaol 13 - stairs for the guards to the upper cellsKilmainham Gaol 13 - stairs for the guards to the upper cells
  • Kilmainham Gaol 14 - narrow spiral stairs for the inmates - no running possibleKilmainham Gaol 14 - narrow spiral stairs for the inmates - no running possible
  • Kilmainham Gaol 15 - rows of cells under a restored roofKilmainham Gaol 15 - rows of cells under a restored roof
  • Kilmainham Gaol 16 - outside facade of the main cell blockKilmainham Gaol 16 - outside facade of the main cell block
  • Kilmainham Gaol 17 - another dark courtyardKilmainham Gaol 17 - another dark courtyard
  • Kilmainham Gaol 18 - execution yardKilmainham Gaol 18 - execution yard
  • Kilmainham Gaol 19 - here the leaders of the Easter Rising were executedKilmainham Gaol 19 - here the leaders of the Easter Rising were executed
  • Kilmainham Gaol 20 - one of the death masks in the exhibitionKilmainham Gaol 20 - one of the death masks in the exhibition
  • Kilmainham Gaol 21 - main political history exhibitionKilmainham Gaol 21 - main political history exhibition
  • Kilmainham Gaol 22 - Easter Rising sectionKilmainham Gaol 22 - Easter Rising section
  • Kilmainham Gaol 23 - a bitter divideKilmainham Gaol 23 - a bitter divide
  • Kilmainham Gaol 24 - relics from the undergroundKilmainham Gaol 24 - relics from the underground
  • Kilmainham Gaol 25 - a grim history rediscovered, albeit in slightly questionable spellingKilmainham Gaol 25 - a grim history rediscovered, albeit in slightly questionable spelling
  • Kilmainham Gaol 26 - serpents over the main doorKilmainham Gaol 26 - serpents over the main door
  • Kilmainham Gaol 27 - main portalKilmainham Gaol 27 - main portal
  • Kilmainham Gaol 28 - monument to the executed Easter Rising leaders outsideKilmainham Gaol 28 - monument to the executed Easter Rising leaders outside
  • Kilmainham Gaol 29 - end ofKilmainham Gaol 29 - end of

    

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