Kilmainham Gaol opened in 1796, closed in 1910, reopened in 1914 and closed for the last time in 1924 – a total of 124 working years. During much of that time this small county prison dominated and had an inordinate influence on Ireland and its developing history.
Designed by a Scottish engineer and architect, John Trail, the foundation stone was laid in 1787. It finally opened with great hopes in 1796, after nine years of frustration, argument and design changes. It was a new, reform jail, based on the ideas of such great prison reformers as John Howard (left, by Mather Brown, from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia)
and Jeremiah Fitzpatrick, (right, courtesy The Sibbald Library)who were proposing the separate system of incarceration as a replacement for the crowded dens of iniquity which had preceded it, and Jeremy Bentham (below, by Henry William Pickersgill, from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia).
But events outside the prison were to adversely affect it – a series of rebellions (including the United Irish rebellion of 1798 – just two years after it opened) and the Great Famine (1845-1850) all pushing the capacity of the jail to its limit – and beyond.
Political prisoners were to be regular inmates. Thomas Addis Emmet and Robert Emmet to name but two from two different rebellions – graced its cells, as did many of their followers. But others, too, were incarcerated there – common criminals, debtors, lunatics.
Under these extreme circumstances, with over-crowding frequently the norm, changes were gradually made to the prison. It was enlarged and modified, first by Architect Parke Neville’s three rows of cells in c.1845 and then the magnificent Panopticon or East Wing in 1862, with its 96 cells, by John McCurdy . (Photo at left shows the late great Frank Carson in the East Wing shortly before his death. ((c) Micheál Ó Doibhilín)
But these changes could not save the prison and it was finally closed in 1910, when the last 17 male prisoners were moved to the younger (1850) Mountjoy Jail.
These bare facts tell little about this building and about why it should be a National Monument. One must look to the inmates for the reasons for that honour. Already mentioned were the Emmet brothers, but also in Kilmainham Gaol were Anne Devlin, Thomas Russel, Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Davitt … And hundreds of other high and not so high profile political prisoners.
Scottish readers might recognise David Haggart (subject of the film “Sinful Davey”) who was to spend time there before being brought back to Scotland to be executed for killing a prison guard there.
There, too, were many of the condemned prisoners after the failed Easter Rising of 1916, fourteen of whom were executed by firing squad in the Gaol’s Stonebreakers’ Yard, the pivotal event that changed public opinion in Ireland and led, eventually, to the Irish War of Independence and the establishment of the Irish Free State – forerunner of the Irish Republic – and the Irish Civil War which provided the last prisoners for this iconic place.
Over the years 150,000 prisoners had been held there – men, women and children from all walks of life, and all strata of society. Here you had beggars, thieves, murderers, debtors, lunatics and innocents. Age, sex or religion were no bar to admission to the Irish Bastille. Young or old, male or female, fit or ill – all were ‘welcome’.
The staff, also, were to influence this Gaol’s existence. For 40 years Dr. Edward Trevor – medical inspector of the Gaol – ruled with impunity, backed by the British Secret Service. His protégé, George Dunne, first Governor, was to continue his reign for another five years until 1842, when the baton of governorship was passed on to a series of men who all left their mark in more ways than one.
The Gaol was to the forefront in many innovations, and not just architecturally. Thomas Flewitt, Assistant Governor, was one of the first practitioners of the art of the ‘mug shot’, capturing images of the prisoners on film and sending them to other prisons for identification etc.
As more and more research is carried out on this magnificent and historic prison, its involved and wonderful history is gradually being uncovered. Kilmainham Tales Teoranta was established to encourage research not just into the Gaol and its prisoners, but to all allied and associated places, events and people. It will be a never-ending task, but undoubtedly a rewarding one as the results of some of this research is recorded and brought to as wide an audience as possible.
Of course, Kilmainham Tales Teoranta has no connection with Kilmainham Gaol or the Office of Public Works which looks after it. However, we do have a good working relationship with all who love the Gaol and all it represents, and are always open to suggestions for new publications which fall within our broad remit.
For the latest information on the Gaol and its history, however, one must visit the Gaol itself. There, the wonderful guides will take you on a magical tour of this place and its pivotal history, a history that affected not just the Gaol, but Ireland and … ultimately … the world.
Don’t forget that there is also a museum (not part of the tour) and a tea-rooms with delicious cakes and excellent coffee! So, allow at least 90 minutes and preferably 2 hours at least for your visit. Oh, by the way, wrap up well on most days as the Gaol is damp and, especially in the winter, very cold.
If in Dublin, make this a must-see item on your itinerary. If you don’t believe us, see what others say about it on TripAdvisor.
In the Media:
Kilmainham Gaol's Panopticon
Did you hear Sunday Miscellany on RTE Radio 1 on Sunday 14th July, 2015?
If not, you missed a great explanation of the Panopticon - Jeremy Bentham's revolutionary prison design which was the basis for Kilmainham Gaol's East Wing. This spoken essay was written and delivered by Paul Thornton, and deserves to be listened to. It is available on the RTE Player here
Visiting the Gaol
Visiting is easy. For ordinary members of the public prior booking is now possible, but this means that it is not advisable to turn up at the Gaol withou8t a pre-booked ticket, even for the unbooked tours as so many others will be doing this also.
Book well in advance.
Tours currently begin at 9.00am and the last one is at 17.45 (5.45 pm). Tours are less than an hour long (they seem to be being gradually reduced in length, for some reason) and there are occasional "flash tours" of the Gaol also - 30 minute quick tours which are a poor replacement for a full tour but are marginally better than nothing.
o simply arrive at the Gaol any
The Gaol is open all year round except for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day.
Each tour consists of an Audio-Visual presentation of the Gaol's history by the guide of up to 15 minutes duration, and then you are taken on a guided tour of the Gaol itself.
One can only see the Gaol on a guided tour, and the tours are in English although, by prior arrangement, tours in Irish can be taken also. Groups – historical societies, schools, active retirement, etc. – can book a ‘Group Tour’ where they are taken on their own without other members of the public. Be aware, though, that ‘Group Tours’ are booked up to a year (yes – up to a year!) ahead, so plan your trip well in advance and ensure you have a booking before you turn up. People with mobility issues can be catered for too.
To book a special group tour (i.e. 10 or more people) e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with "Bookings" in the Subject, and details of required dates (give alternatives if possible), what kind of group you are, numbers expected to take part, and any special requirements, e.g. wheelchair access.
Adult - €7.00
Senior/Group - €5.00 (maximum 35 people in a group)
Child/Student - €3.00
Family - €15800
Credit/Debit cards are both accepted.
Payment on site can be by cash - €uro only, of course – , Credit Card, Dublin Pass or OPW Heritage Cards. English Heritage Cards are also accepted.
(N.B. Cashback is not given, but there are two cashpoints within a couple of minutes' walk of the Gaol, for those who need cash).
Buses from Dublin city go direct to the Gaol – nos. 69 and 79 stopping directly outside it, as do the Hop-On-Hop-Off busses.
The nearest Luas stop is about 10 minutes away at Suir Road,
Open most days 9.30am to 5.00 pm (4.30pm WInter).
The Legal Bit:
Of course, all of the above information is presented purely as a guide and we in Kilmainham Tales Teo. do not take any responsibility for its accuracy. It has not been provided by either Kilmainham Gaol or the Office of Public Works, nor are they responsible for it. For the latest, official information always visit http://kilmainhamgaolmuseum.ie/ before visiting.