The Dublin of today has often been described as a “cosmopolitan city,” with the Irish capital having a constant flow of energy, people and ideas that fill it with a kaleidoscope of colours. While this is true, there are also parts of Dublin that live in the “Dublin of before”; buildings cemented in time that showcase Ireland’s proud history and struggle. One of these buildings being Kilmainham Gaol (jail).

On the outside, the prison’s door is heavily timbered with oak and guarded with large black iron spikes, with a stone carving of snakes entwined with chains above it. The building itself, built in 1796, looks as though it has never known a youthful era, with the stone walls marked with weather stains and many other indications of age.

As my boyfriend, Gerry, and I enter the iron gates, the only sound is our feet slapping against the concrete path to the gloomy front, and the fluttering of the Irish flag waving to us from the side. The path is dotted with tiny petals from the flowers blooming on a nearby tree. The only way into the jail is with a guided tour, so we meet with the rest of group once inside.

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Kilmainham Goal

Kilmainham Gaol was originally built to replace an older prison and was a place for public hangings to take place. However, this rarely happened after the 1820s.

Our tour guide tells us that with the coming of the Great Potato Famine, most of the prisoners from the early to mid 1800s were debtors. “Sometimes, children were arrested for petty crimes, like stealing a loaf of bread,” he says solemnly. “The youngest ever recorded was a seven-year-old child.”

At the peak time of the Famine the cells, built for one, were crowded with five or six people, and the rest were forced to sleep in the dank, dark hallways. The harsh living conditions in the jail were horrendous, with tiny, claustrophobic cells covered with limestone.

It wasn’t until 1864 that “the East Wing” was built, providing 96 more cells. Conditions in this part were better so prisoners were brought here, but the old wing continued to be used for those being executed.

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“The East Wing” cells in Kilmainham Gaol

The jail may be notorious for holding prisoners during the Famine, but it also had a presence in other times in Irish history. Kilmainham Gaol has held countless Irish revolutionaries, including the 15 leaders of the Easter Uprising in 1916 who were executed by a firing squad.

These brave men took a stand at Dublin’s main post office to declare Ireland to be a republic separate from England. However, within six days they were defeated by the British troops and the leaders were sent to jail and were executed.

There are some heartbreaking stories in this part of Ireland’s history.

One of the leaders, Joseph Mary Plunkett, married his fiancée, Grace Gifford, in May 1916 in his prison cell the night before he was executed. He was the youngest of the seven signatories to the Proclamation to die at age 28.

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Joseph Plunkett’s proposal letter to Grace Gifford, 1915

Joseph Plunkett was besotted with his love, and proposed to Gifford in December 1915. The poet exclaimed to her “Darling, Darling, Darling, I can’t believe it. It’s crazy, it’s impossible. I was never meant to be so happy… I love you, love you, love you altogether, body soul and spirit.” He was ecstatic when she accepted.

He got the one thing he wanted most, but, heartbreakingly, he didn’t live long enough to see what married life would be like. Gifford never married again and spent the rest of her life as a widow, dying alone in 1955.

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Grace Gifford’s cell

The last part of our tour takes us into the harsh stone-breakers yard, where the remainder of the 14 men from the Easter Rising were executed. Two black crosses stand in the gravel to mark it.

Another one of the leaders, James Connolly, was so badly injured in the events of the Rising that he was too ill to stand and was placed on a chair in front of the firing squad. It was this pivotal moment that changed the overall public opinion in Ireland, and led to both Irish War of Independence and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921.

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Stone-breakers yard where the crosses stand, marking the place where the executions took place

As we stood next to these crosses, everyone fell silent. Gerry, who’s heart has deep-rooted connections in Ireland, had turned to stone. His deep ocean eyes had turned to ice; his usual easy smile was replaced with a grim expression. Looking around, everyone else’s faces mirrored a similar expression. Too moved to talk, no one uttered a word until we made our way out.

Kilmainham Gaol best sums up the story of Ireland’s history more than any of the other sights I saw, and made our visit to Ireland more meaningful because it enhanced our understanding of it’s culture and past.

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