Everyday Tourist goes to gaol

One of the most moving experiences we had in 2015 (perhaps in the last few years) was our tour of the Kilmainham Gaol (KG) in Dublin, Ireland.  Not big fans of guided tours, we decided to take the tour, as it was the only way to get inside. We were glad we did. Our tour guide made the experience so “moving,” sharing real life stories of the hardships and heroics associated with the Gaol.

At the end of the tour, we even both thought she was going to break down into tears when we were standing in the desolate “stone-breakers” yard, the site where several political leaders were executed.  Afterwards, when we asked her if she had any personal association with the events or people in the Gaol she said “No” but she, like most Dubliners, have a deep respect for their history and those who suffered for their beloved Ireland.

Kilmainham Gaol 101

KG opened in 1796 as a one of the most modern prisons in Ireland, yet the conditions were inhumane by today’s standards - no glass on the windows, no lighting, no heat; it was a cold, dark and damp place.  In the early years it was filled with prisoners detained for begging, stealing, assault, prostitution and drunkenness. 

The gaol doors have centuries of grime encrusted on them to create a rich patina. 

During the Irish Famine of 1845 to 1850, many women and children were charged with begging and stealing food and placed in jail.  Our tour guide told one story about a mother who stole a single loaf of bread for her starving children was thrown in the dungeon-like cells with a half a dozen drunks and murders who reeked of their own body fluids.

We were surprised to learn that women made up a significant portion of the population until 1881 when it became an all male prison. Persons convicted of violent crimes were routinely hanged in front of the gaol for everyone to see.  The last women to be hanged were in 1821.

In 1862, the spectacular east wing (large open space, high ceiling with huge skylight and grand staircase) was added based on the Victorian belief that the quality of prison architecture was crucial to the reform of the inmates.   The prison philosophy became one of silence and separation. Communication between prisoners was forbidden with most of their time spent alone in their cell so they could read the Bible, contemplate and repent their crimes.

In 1958, after years of neglect (prison was decommissioned in 1924) the KG Restortion Society was formed to preserve the Gaol as a monument to Irish Nationalism.  After years of clean up, the eventually turned it over to the state and it has become a major tourist attraction. 

Looking in the peep hole you see the open window which was too high for the prisoners to see out of and let in a only minimal amount of light. 

Political Prisoners

The hallways have a strange haunting glow that magnifies the decaying walls. 

The story of KG really begins with its link to Ireland’s violent political history of rebellions, guerilla warfare, imprisonment, hangings and executions in the mid 1800s. 

Following the failure of the Young Irelanders (inspired by the spirit of revolution in Europe) in 1848 and the Fenians in 1867 (a secret, oath-bound group sworn to overthrow British rule), the Gaol was cleared of common prisoners and security strengthened to accommodate political figures.

In 1881, the governing Irish Parliament Party rejected the British government land act and Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Party and his MPs were imprisoned from October 1881 to May 1882.

Four days after Parnell’s release, two senior officials of the British government were assassinated by members of the group called “The Invincibles,” an offshoot of the Fenians. Five members of the group were hanged at the gaol in 1883 for their role in the assassinations.  

The prison closed in 1910, only to be reopened in 1916 to house hundreds of men and women who participated in the Irish Republic’s Easter uprising.  Between May 3 and 12, 1916 fourteen men were executed by firing squad in the stone-breakers’ yard.  It was while standing in this yard, hearing this story that our tour guide’s voice cracked and many of us were moved close to tears.

When the War of Independence broke out in 1919, KG was used to hold captured Republican Army members, four of which were executed in the same yard.  The War of Independence differed from other rebellions with the introduction of guerrilla warfare between the Irish Republican Army, British forces and Dail (a radical republican party who won a landslide victory in the 1918 general election but refused to take their seats in the British Parliament). This war ended with a truce in July 1921.

However, the truce didn’t last long as tensions eventually erupted in a Civil War from 1922 to 1924.  From February to September 1923 during the Civil War over 300 girls and women between 12 and 70 were housed in KG.  The War ended in 1924 and its last prisoner, Eamon de Valera was released – he later became President of Ireland.

As a mid-20th century Canadian, who has never fought in a war, never fired a gun, never had to physically fight for anything, it is hard to understand the intense passion and pain that was endured over centuries by the people of Ireland as they fought for their independence.

In the museum area there are lots of artifacts, but the most touching were the letters which tell very intimate stories. This one is about Joseph Plunkett who married his wife the night before his execution. 

The cross marks the spot where the prisoners stood in the stone breakers yard waiting to be executed by gun fire. 

Old Idaho State Penitentiary, Boise, Idaho

One of the highlights of our 2014 travels was the discovery of Boise, Idaho with its vibrant downtown and university campus.  We loved the markets, auctions, restaurants and the neighbouring Snake River wine district.  One of the pleasant surprises of our visit was the Old Idaho State Penitentiary (OISP), which started as a single cell house in 1872.

Like KG, the stories and the conditions the prisoners of OISP endured are almost unbelievable. It housed over 13,000 inmates, including 215 were women from 1872 to 1973. One of the most famous inmates was Lyda Southard (aka Lady Bluebeard) who killed several husbands to collect the insurance money.

The penitentiary closed in 1973 after riots in 1971 and 1973 to protest the horrible living conditions.

The penitentiary is like a campus with 18 distinctive buildings surrounded by a 17 foot sandstone wall that was quarried by the convict from the ridges of the nearby hills (today they are wonderful walking trails).   While the men were kept busy with the construction of new buildings, maintenance and/or agricultural activities (including growing the best watermelons in the state) the women were engaged in repairing clothing, taking classes and reading the bible.

While Boise was part of the Wild West of the 1800s, the violence and hardship seemed pale in comparison to what the Irish suffered to gain their Independence.

The Idaho State Penitentiary seem charming in comparison to Kilmainham Gaol. 

The sand stone wall, guard house and walkway.  

The women cells were in a separate building. While the conditions were minimal there was some colour and lots of light. 

Last Word

We are not big history buffs and gaols are not usually on our list of must see places, but sometimes you have to challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone.  Both were pleasant surprises.  One of the ten commandments of an everyday tourist is “Thou shalt never over research or over plan your trip.” 

By Richard White, February 25, 2015.  

Richard White has written urban development and urban living for over 20 years. He is the Urban Strategist at Ground3 Landscape Architecture. Email Richard@ground3.com  follow @everydaytourist 

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