Connecting with History at Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin

Forbidding Kilmainham Gaol

Forbidding Kilmainham Gaol

Our taxi driver from Dublin airport wasn’t optimistic when we told him where we were planning to go. “Kilmainham Gaol?” I fancied there was a frown in his voice. “I don’t think you’ll feel very…welcome.”

But we’re here now, shuffling up the stone stairs and past the patched plaster and exposed pipework of some of the cells to take our seats in the prison chapel. This is where the tour really begins. And our guide, clearly a passionate supporter of the Irish nationalist cause, isn’t going to spare us the knowledge of the sins of our fathers: he lets us have it with both barrels. “This is where the convicted rebel Joseph Plunkett was allowed to marry his sweetheart…only to be taken out and shot hours later by the British.”

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You shouldn’t visit Ireland without being aware of its political struggle.
  • Even without its political associations, Kilmainham is a significant historical monument.
  • Great for history buffs.

I think this must be what our taxi driver meant. Kilmainham Gaol has seen many, many atrocities and injustices, most (but not all) at the hands of the British authorities: These days it’s a busy visitor attraction and a monument to Ireland’s political struggle. Hailing from Scotland, we aren’t used to being perceived as villains. But in fact the taxi driver is wrong and I don’t feel unwelcome…just a little embarrassed.

Kilmainham as a Political Prison

Kilmainham’s iconic status is largely associated with the Irish nationalist cause but it began life at the end of the eighteenth century as a model penitentiary. Over the years it acquired the reputation of a stronghold of horror though in actual fact (one thing I like about our guide is that he’s scrupulously fair) many of those interned for political reasons, especially, it has to be said, those whose crimes were merely disagreement with the government, such as the Irish political leader Charles Parnell, were detained in reasonable comfort.

Main prison, Kilmainham

The main auditorium of the prison, more recently a setting for movies.

It’s right and proper that the political prisoners should be the focus of our tour: after all, it was they who made Kilmainham the visitor attraction it is today. But as we troop through its dingy rooms and peer into its tiny cells I can’t help thinking of all the others who passed through its doors – many never coming out. We don’t know the tragic stories of those hanged for stealing just to feed their families during Ireland’s repeated episodes of famine, but we do know the tales of those immortalised in the political history of the Republican movement, in its literature and poetry.

The Main Prison

I’m still thinking about this when our guide flings open a narrow door and ushers us through it, one by one. It’s like emerging onto a stage. If the narrow corridors were the backstage area, the chapel was the green room – and this, the centre of the main prison, is the auditorium. You may be familiar with it, even if you’ve never been. Parts of films such as The Face of Fu Manchu, The Young Indiana Jones and one of the classics, the original version of The Italian Job, were all filmed here.

I can understand why. It’s quite astonishing: its tiered storeys are elegant in style: its glass roof allows cascades of light to flood in. In its time a revolutionary design (if you’ll pardon the expression) this ‘pan-optical’ building is laid out so that every part can be seen by warders and there’s nowhere to hide. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and as I look at the names of the prisoners held here I feel almost ashamed to like it.

The Execution Yard

Kilmainham plaque

A plaque commemorates victims of executions

As we leave the main auditorium (as I think of it) behind, our tour ends on a sombre note. Without question, the execution yard is the most moving place in the prison. Enclosed by high grey stone walls, this claustrophobic square is where many of Ireland’s political leaders and activists were executed, 14 of them in the days following the Easter Rising of 1916. One, James Connolly, was so badly wounded in the rising that he couldn’t stand: he was tied to a chair before he was shot.

We don’t talk much as we stand by the site of his execution, marked these days by a plaque and a flagpole flying the Irish tricolour. But I can’t help noticing another plaque too, which reminds us that Kilmainham had a history after the British. Some of those imprisoned for their republican views later found themselves detained there by the Irish successor state in the war that followed independence. One of them, Éamon de Valera, went on to become the President of the Republic of Ireland. Others were executed.

I’m still reflecting on the taxi driver’s warning as we step out into the sunlight of modern-day Dublin. No, I don’t feel unwelcome — but I do leave the place in silence and thinking deeply on past wrongs.


  • Kilmainham Gaol is in a suburb (of the same name) of Dublin, just about within walking distance of the centre. It’s a stop on many of the city’s hop-on hop-off tour buses.
  • Admission to the prison is by guided tour only and it can get busy in summer: you can book ahead or spend time looking around the gaol’s fascinating exhibition.
  • Admission charge for adults in 2013 is €6 (around $8).

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