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.