Ideally, the visitor interested in Irish history will arrive in March next year. 27 March 2016, Easter Sunday, will mark the political anniversary of the 1916 Rising, when the Irish Volunteers and others, led by Pádraig Pearse, seized the General Post Office (GPO) and other strongpoints to overthrow British rule in Ireland. It was the first act in a drama that ended with independence.
During 2015, major refurbishment works are happening at Kilmainham Gaol – located not far the GPO – where the rebel leaders were brought after arrest. Work is being done on the imposing, east wing of the prison and its museum. The adjoining, now closed courthouse, which dates back to 1820 and where Daniel O’Connell is said to have practiced law, is also being renovated. Next year, a tourist’s visit to the goal would encompass the renovated courthouse with all works completed and 1916 commemorations in the air.
Despite this, a trip to this highly popular venue is essential if you’re visiting this year. Opened in 1796, the prison housed many political prisoners during 130 years. Henry Joy McCracken, rebellion leader in 1798, was imprisoned there. Charles Parnell, leader of Irish nationalism during the 1870s and 80s, was detained in Kilmainham from October 1881 to May 1882 after rejecting the 1881 Land Act. After independence in 1922, anti-Treaty political prisoners were kept there, with the first four of seventy-seven republicans executed by the Free State government meeting their fate in the prison. The gaol eventually closed in 1924. The last prisoner released, Eamon de Valera, became Ireland’s longest serving taoiseach, then president.
The lives and significance of these major figures are brought alive during the hour long guided tours. Tours have three different themes, and whichever one you find yourself on, you’ll get a good overview of political imprisonment and prison life during the twilight centuries of British rule in Ireland. The cold, dark, damp experiences of many can still be felt during the guided tour of today.
Kilmainham Gaol’s museum provides an informative overview of penal policy, as well as the human stories behind the vast numbers registered at this institution. From its opening, when it was seen as the most modern prison in Europe; to the early 19th century, when it housed many of the 4,000 transported to Australia for committing crime; to the 1862 opening of the east wing, which espoused the Victorian penal principles of silence and separation – the museum documents it all.
Inevitably, the episodes of 1916 permeate tours. They begin in the chapel where leading rebel Joseph Mary Plunkett married his fiancée the night before his execution. It ends in the old stone breakers yard, where the rebel leaders was executed. The notable exception was the last man to hear the sound of gates opening for release.
Despite refurbishment work, the prison remains extremely popular. Ring ahead to check tour availability or you could end up arriving only to have to wait hours or leave disappointed. But if you want to understand modern Irish nationalism, visit. Your own interpretation of an ever-changing history is incomplete without it.