Sunday, 25 November 2007

Dublin Kilmainham Gaol May 2006

I first heard of Kilmainham Gaol through U2's video for "A Celebration" which was filmed there, beyond that, I didn't really know much about the place. Though I have been visiting Dublin for over 17 years I'd never visited Kilmainham, nor had Debbi or Dianne so we thought that it was about time we went there!We got the very smart and high-tech Luas (tram) from Connolly Station to Heuston Station and then walked the rest of the way. It was the only warm and sunny afternoon of our visit so the walk, although long, was pleasant. We got lost enroute and some workmen directed us - on our way back we discovered a much quicker way through Kilmainham Hospital which now houses the Museum of Modern Art, pity the workmen didn't know of that shortcut as when they directed us we were right outside the Museum!

Kilmainham Goal was an imposing building from the outside, solid, impenetrable walls made out of the distinctive, grey Dublin stone that is all over the city. Originally built in 1796 with various additons over the years and it has a fortess look about it.The entrance has a sculpture of a rather scary dragon-like creature above it, and above that are railings of a balcony that our guide later told us were used to hang people from in the days when public hangings were the norm.

The only way to look around Kilmainham is by going on the official guided tour so in the meantime we waited in an area that had an exhibition about the prison. As I looked around it something that stuck in my mind was a register that listed the crimes and sentences, there were so many chiildren there, ending up in Kilmainham for "stealing four loaves of bread". I also noticed on various graphs in the exhibition that there appeared to be a surge in crime in 1850. Later our guide, Connor, said that in order to survive many people resorted to crime during the Famine years to get into the prison where they would at least get some food. During 1850 the prison population (normally 700) swelled to 9000, out of these only 9 died that year. It's really sad that people had to resort to such desperate measures to survive, it gave me an insight into how terrible that time must have been in Ireland.

The first place we visited on the tour was the chapel which was surprisingly a rather nice little place. Our guide told us that one of the Easter Rising leaders, Joseph Plunkett married Grace Gifford here just before his execution later the same day in 1916. She never re-married. She herself was incarcerated in the prison a few years later and painted a quite naive, but touching, painting of the Madonna and Child on the wall of her cell.

We then moved onto the oldest part of the prison that housed long, dank corridors with what appeared to be metal cell doors that had gone rusty and created a kind of strange, mottled effect. The paint was flaking off the walls. Even with the sparse electric lighting in there it was dark and murky, and the misery of the place was almost palpable. I hung back from the tour a little in order to get photos of the corridors and as the people moved on and the voices started to disappear in the distance, the oppressive atmosphere became stronger, I was glad to move on and catch up with the group. I think it still must house spme of the ghosts of the countless souls that have perished within its walls.

We moved on into the newer part of the prison which was built in Victorian times. It was very different to the older area, brighter and not as enclosed, nor as oppressive. We were told many films had scenes shot here such as, "In the Name of the Father" and "The Italian Job". Also, of course, U2 filmed their video for "A Celebration" here many, many years ago now.

Finally we walked outside to the Stonebreaking Yard. This was where the leaders of the Easter Rising, Pearse, Connolly, Plunkett, just to name a some of them, were executed in May 1916. It was just past the 90th anniversary when we were there. The yard was empty except for 2 small crosses at either end near the doors where the men had come in to be executed. One entrance was especially for James Connolly who had been seriously wounded in the Easter Rising fighting and could not walk in by himself. He had been kept alive in hospital and taken there to be killed by the firing squad as he sat in a chair.In the middle of the yard there was an Irish flag and a wall plaque in front of which was a wreath. I looked up, and the sky was a beautiful blue, in stark contrast to the massive, grey, walls around me. It was a sombre moment, and everyone in the tour spoke in hushed tones whilst in the yard.

Afterwards the tour we stepped out into the sunshine and it was almost a relief to be back into our day to day world. Visiting Kilmainham was a moving experience, I learned a lot about it's history and the history of Ireland, and the difficulties the country has been through. I also now fully understand the significance of this building has for the Irish people.

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