‘Have a bit of respect, lads. We’re in a place where people have died for Ireland. We need to respect this building. This history.’
The three Spanish men – each tipping 50 – looked a little askance. I’m not sure they knew what was going on. They each had cameras and they all appeared interested but they didn’t seem to understand what it was all about. In fact, of the 45 people dutifully following our guide around Kilmainham Gaol, I’d say only a handful had a sober appreciation of what was being said.
Visiting Kilmainham Gaol has been on my list of things to do for all my adult life. Driving out of Dublin last weekend, with a couple of hours to spare, I suggested to the ever-obliging pH that spending a few hours in jail would be so much better than enjoying the great outdoors. And I could get to cross something off my bucket list. We arrived to find the next two tours booked up (they have three an hour – every 20 minutes – each one lasting about an hour). We were slotted in for the 2pm. That left an hour to kill in the museum. Which wasn’t difficult.
After cemeteries and the Holocaust, and war in general, my next fixation is jails. Prisons. Penal servitude. Until last weekend, I lived in blissful ignorance of the transition from Victorian-era prisons where all sorts of prisoners were housed together making hardened criminals out of petty thieves, to the more modern, single-cell format with the ‘all-seeing eye’ – the panopticon – which controlled all aspects of an inmate’s sensory experience. The thought that at any time that eye might open and see whatever it is you were doing – how could a body ever relax or switch off. Enough to drive a body mad.
Nineteenth-century thinking on penal reform was split when it came to the idea of separation. Some advocated silent separation for the first 12 months of a prisoner’s sentence. But as this played havoc with their minds, it was soon stopped. Kilmainham practised the silent association system whereby prisoners worked together in silence during the day and spent their nights alone in their cells.
The idea of photographing prisoners didn’t take root until the 1860s. Until then, it was possible for repeat offenders to get away with being first time offenders, repeatedly, as no record was kept of their faces or fingerprints (introduced in the 1890s). When the jail opened first in 1796, all executions were by public hanging. [Can you imagine the conversation: What are you up to today? Oh, I hear there’s a hanging down at the jail. Thought I’d go take a look. You coming? Nah – I was there last week – you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all. ] Public hanging was done away with in 1848; from then on hangings were carried out in private.
Not all hangings were carried out in the jail, though. Robert Emmet, the 1803 revolutionary, was hanged in Thomas Street that year. He hung for half an hour but his neck failed to break. He was taken down, still alive, and decapitated with a blunt butcher’s axe. His body was later stolen by his faithful and buried somewhere; his whereabouts remain unknown to this day. His speech from the dock is famous and the final paragraph often quoted:
I have but one request to ask at my departure from this world: it is the charity of its silence. Let no man write my epitaph, for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, and my memory in oblivion, until other times and other men can do do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.
As no one knows where he’s buried and arguably as a United Ireland has never taken her place among the nations of the earth, he got his wish. I wonder if this is a secret passed down from father to son – and whether those in the know keep vigil lest the planners rezone the area and upon his grave another shopping centre is built.
At the height of the famine, many people deliberately fell foul of the law so that they might enjoy a roof over their heads and at least one meal a day in the jail. Cell numbers swelled to five or six and conditions were less than stellar. Records show people being jailed for a week for stealing onions. It was all a little too much to take in.
Yet it was when we came to the cells and saw familiar names like McDonagh, Pearse, Connolly, and Plunkett, that it finally began to sink home what had happened here all those years ago. Moving out to what’s known as the Stonebreaker’s Yard, we saw two single crosses, one at either end. At one, 13 of the 14 Republicans faced their firing squad of 12. Six soldiers on bended knees, six more standing behind them. All aiming at the piece of white paper placed over the prisoner’s heart.
At the other end, the cross marks the place where James Connolly, bullet ridden and nearly dead, was propped up on a chair just inside the gate. The guards had brought him there by ambulance from the hospital and inside the yard by stretcher. Unable to stand of his own accord, he was propped up on a chair to face his executioners. One wonders whether he felt relief.
Outside, drained, and just a little reflective, I was uncharacteristically at a loss for words. The modern sculpture facing me underscored everything that I’d seen and heard, and made it even more meaningful. With the bullet holes visible in the blindfolded metal effigies, I wondered what they’d think of the Ireland we have today. And if asked, would they think their sacrifice was worth it? Would they think we have achieved the inclusivity that would
‘[cherish] all the children of the national equally – oblivious of the differences – which have divided a minority from the majority in the past’.