Sometimes we let our emotions race ahead of reason and we make decisions we later come to regret. And I think the recent cheers of triumph and jeers of contempt as the first steps to remove abandoned St. Michael’s Indian Residential School from the face of the earth were taken are a case in point.
The school should have been preserved as a ghastly monument to the evil “civilized” people can do to their fellows when cloaked in religious fervor, convinced that their way of life is the only way and that it was sinful to hold any other belief. It has been written in newspapers, and our first nations appear to believe, that with the bricks and mortar of St. Michael’s removed from Alert Bay “an important step has been taken in the healing process” and we can just say we’re sorry and get on with life. That is a comforting lie, but still a lie. Simply removing a structure in which bigotry, physical domination and intimidation were the norm does not mean “out of sight, out of mind.”
We need more than personal memories which can be embellished and polished by time to remind us that “the heart of man can be deceitful above all things and desperately wicked”. Sometimes we need more than bronze plaques on a wall to remind us where evil once held sway – with our approval.
One of the first decisions of the newly created Irish Free State in 1924 was to decommission Kilmainham Jail – or Gaol to use the Irish term. Kilmainham had been built in 1796. In its early days Kilmainham –”the Bastille of Ireland” – offered public hangings outside the front gates, a practice ending around 1820.
It was a handle-all prison with men, women and children incarcerated and up to five prisoners to a cell. Most of the children were there for petty theft, women from petty theft to prostitution, and most males for any crime known to man. The cells had no heat or running water – but each cell was provided with a candle. It was expected to last two weeks. Meals were described as “primitive”.
Kilmainham was a bad place to be at any time but didn’t reach its lowest ebb until Easter, 1916; the year Irish rebels attempted the wrest control of their country from England. The 100th anniversary of “The Rising” will be celebrated next year because although it failed in 1916 it did lead to Ireland’s freedom as a nation a few years later – with events at Kilmainham playing a key role.
As the rebellion was put down many arrests were made and retribution was swift for 16 “leaders”. Having signed the rebellion manifesto they were all, quickly sentenced to death. Two – Countess Constance Markiewicz because of her sex, and Eamonn de Valera because he could claim U.S citizenship via his father – were sentenced to jail time.
The other 14 were executed by firing squad over a nine day period, executions which shocked the world and turned sympathy for England’s cause to world-wise revulsion – with one execution among the many summing up the brutality that had been Kilmainham’s norm for more than a hundred years.
When the time came for James Connolly, 48, to face the firing squad he was in hospital being treated for chest wounds and severe leg injuries sustained in the fighting. One leg was diagnosed gangrenous. Unable to walk Connolly was taken by ambulance from hospital to Kilmainham where he was carried to a courtyard, strapped to a chair and shot.
Kilmainham had reached its lowest point of shame. Eight years later the then Irish Free State shut it down and over the years let it fall apart to dereliction and eventually talk of costly demolition.
Some wanted to erase the wretched history of Kilmainham; others felt the need for a physical, monumental, reminder of Irish history. The latter view prevailed and back in 1958 a Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society was formed. It has been a long road back but in 2015 Kilmainham is again open – but only to thousands of visitors who walk through its main gates every day to shiver in the cold, heartless cell blocks and tremble in shame at the simple wooden cross marking the spot where they tied Connolly to his chair.
It is not the only standing, living, monument to man’s inhumanity. In Europe Hitler’s concentration camps still stand, all with their somber reminder: “Never Again.”
And they tell all their shameful stories with far greater power than a vacant lot.