It broods over Dublin on even the finest of Irish mornings. A silent, glowering, monolithic monument to evil times and wicked men; to injustice and executions so vile they turned the conscience of an Empire and the world.
When it was built in 1796, it was called “the New Gaol,” designed to replace what was described as “a noisesome dungeon.” It would eventually be named Kilmainham Gaol and serve with a disgraceful record in England’s attempt to bring Ireland under submissive control.
Almost from opening day, the Irish called Kilmainham “The Irish Bastille,” with public hangings just outside its front doors and ghastly conditions inside. Encyclopedias tell us there was no segregation of prisoners in the early years of Kilmainham. Men, women, and children could be housed in same cells – 28 meters square. There was no running water and after dark, illumination and heat came from a wax candle. Each prisoner was issued one candle every two weeks.
As the years went by, there was little improvement in conditions. Public hanging was getting an unseemly reputation and was moved “inside” to a specially built hanging cell. Prisoners still existed under abominable conditions with women suffering far more than men.
In1809, the Inspector of Prisons reported male prisoners were provided iron bedsteads and a slim mattress while female prisoners slept on straw “on the flagstone of the cells and common halls.”
Kilmainham reached a zenith of evil in 1916, the year of the great Easter Rising when a volunteer Irish army challenged the military might of Great Britain and was badly mauled in the process. In May, the now old jail became the execution headquarters for the rebel leaders.
On May 3, 1916, Thomas James Clarke, the first signer of the Proclamation of Independence, led the parade of the doomed to Kilmainham’s inner courtyard of execution. Nine days later, on May 12, James Connolly was the last to face the jail firing squad – in a way that brought world condemnation on Major-General Sir John Maxwell, commander-in-chief of operations in Ireland, and his country.
Connolly had been badly wounded in the few days of fighting. And his leg wounds had turned gangrenous. He was unable to walk or stand when he was transported to Kilmainham, where he was tied to a chair, allowed a few minutes with a priest, and executed. Between May3-12 more than a dozen executions after brief and cursory military hearings were carried out at Kilmainham.
A few years later, Kilmainham was closed and, by 1936, plans were considered for its demolition. However, there was a stirring among the people that it would be wrong to demolish – to obliterate – such a powerful monument to the growth of a nation. By the 1950s, rumours that the Office of Public Works was about to seek tenders for the demolition sparked action, and in 1958 the grassroots preservation people formed the “Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society.”
Wikipedia informs us that in May 1960, 48 years after Connolly’s execution “with a workforce of 60 volunteers, the society set about clearing the overgrown vegetation, trees, fallen masonry and bird droppings from the site. By 1962, the symbolically important prison execution yard … had been cleared of rubble …” But not of memories.
Today, Kilmainham Gaol jokes about being the largest unoccupied jail in Europe – maybe the world. Empty of prisoners, but now a national museum jammed with history, it tells the world the story of a nation’s journey through tragedies to today’s point in time.
And, it tells us that story, warts and all, the good guys and the bad, the unimaginable cruelties and the equally unimaginable beauty of the courage of people who believed things could be better and made them so.
Maybe Canadians – native and immigrant – should think of Kilmainham the next time we get the urge to hide a statue or eliminate a building with harsh memories.