Kilmainham Gaol is a former prison that now serves as a prison museum, it is located on the outskirts of Dublin city centre. It was constructed in 1796 opening its doors as the new County Gaol for Dublin, and was decommissioned as a prison in 1924. It is one of the largest preserved Victorian unoccupied prisons in Europe.
Visitors will get a powerful and realistic insight into what it was like to have been incarcerated in this imposing grey building. There is an excellent audio-visual presentation, that provides an introduction to the building, this is followed by a provocative tour of this eerie prison.
It is now home to a museum on the history of Irish nationalism. The prison is filled with history and narrates the turbulent historical and political past of Ireland. It was here that a number of Ireland’s political prisoners were incarcerated, tortured and executed, particularly those involved in the 1916 Easter Rising.
It was not just a political prison and housed thousands of ordinary inmates. Their crimes ranged from petty offences like stealing food to much more serious offences such as murder. Conditions were difficult and poor in Kilmainham, there was no segregation of prisoners with men, women and children all incarcerated together, with up to five people in each cell. There was only one candle for light and heat and this had to last for two weeks. Most of their time was spent in the cold dark cell that measured about 28 squares metres in total. The held convicts from all over Ireland and there were often held for long periods of time before being transported to Australia.
When it was first built public hangings took place at the front of the prison and the pole can still be seen. In 1891 a small hanging cell was constructed in the prison, it is located on the first floor and can be seen on the tour. From the 1820’s onwards very few hangings either in public or private took place here.
The guided tour takes in the Catholic Chapel there was also a Protestant Chapel too, it was here that most inmates would have attended mass on a Sunday and also saw a wedding. The West Wing is the only surviving wing of the two symmetrical wings that bordered a central bock, it is the oldest section of Gaol, and is dark, gloomy and cold. There are seventy nine cells here, and when first built they would have had no glass in the windows, and no heating or light. This wing saw a famous escape in 1921 and was were the worst off prisoners were held, mainly those caught stealing food during the Famine years, many on purpose for at least here they were guaranteed a basic diet. The East Wing was a later addition in the 1860’s, and was based on the new ideals of Victorian prison theory, were every cell is visible from a central platform. There are ninety six cells in total, and light is more prevalent here, with a huge skylight filing the space with natural light. There were also small windows in the cells but they were too high up for the prisoners to see out of. The tour concludes in the Stonebreakers Yard, the most famous yard here in the gaol. It was originally used by the men sentenced to hard labour, they would have to break up stones manually. However, more importantly it was here that fourteen leaders of the Easter Rising were executed in May 1916. There is a plaque and two crosses in the yard to commerate this.
Kilmainham Gaol is open seven days a week throughout the year from 9.30am.