When I walked through the narrow corridors of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, Ireland, the first thing I noticed was how cold my feet were. As I walked,down a narrow corridor I felt the damp air snake up through the hard stone floor, like spikes through my shoes, sending a frigid chill into my blood and bones, all the say to my shins. And this was early October!
Imagine, if you will, what it would have been like as a prisoner at kilmainham and you’ve been sent here as a child.
You’re scantily clothed, perhaps a thin linen dress or knickers with no stockings. And you have no shoes. You could be very old or very young or even sick. During hard times and especially during the famine years, people committed crimes just to get arrested to get food. You might have stolen a loaf of bread to fee yourself or your family. The youngest prisoner in Kilmainham Gaol was only eight years old!!!!
Walking single file for that is all that can be managed, you look up. The next floor is made up of metal grates and iron railings, the echo of British boots hard over your head.
As you pass each cell, the gaslights flicker above and all around you like fireflies in hell. The fast encroaching walls of thick limestone seem to grow thicker with every step, robbing you of oxygen. Smells of vomit, rotting flesh and feces drift past from each cell, punctuated by muffled sobs and cries of despair. Each cell holds 5-6 people. They have no toilet, no sink, no electricity, with only a small window, high off the ground with bars. Each heavy metal door is recessed into the dark yellow or green wall, which is painted grey around the door like a picture frame. There are 2 holes in each door: one about the height of a man. Guards often would watch prisoners in solitary confinement through a hole shaped like a human eye. The constant surveillance by the enemy drove them mad . A long metal hinge covers the door horizontally; at the edge hangs a heavy padlock like the tongue of a dragon.
Many of the women were kept in cells off the Victorian Room which is large and spacious to accommodate exercise.The kitchen is below the floor and the heat flows up through large metal gridded manholes, similar to road man holes here in America. In one cell, a painting by Grace Gifford/ Plunkett can be seen from the eye hole in the door. Grace was the bride of Joseph Plunkett, one of the Easter Rising Rebels of 1916. They were married in Kilmainham Gaol just hours before he was executed. Joseph was already dying of tuberculosis but was shot by firing squad just the same, thus making him a martyr to the Irish people, something the British didn’t count on.
Before the British decided firing squads were much easier, hanging was the preferred execution and the gallows was right behind the altar of the chapel. How convenient eh?
Patrick Pearce was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916. He was a teacher and a poet. He believed a blood sacrifice needed to be made by his generation in order to free Ireland from British Rule. He was right. Before and during the Easter Rising, there was little support from the local Irish. In fact it was actually supposed to happen on Easter Sunday with a load of munitions coming from Germany. The ship sunk and the Rising was canceled but not everyone was in agreement and the Rising of 1916 happened on Easter Monday.
There was not much support of the Rising at first. Shawlies, (ladies in black shawls) demonstrated outside the GPO. They were convinced they were being deprived of their support checks coming from sons and husbands fighting in WWI and they were furious! When it was all over, people jeered and threw vegetables at the Rebels as they were marched through the streets on their way to Kilmainham Gaol. But the Irish bitter taste for their countrymen didn’t last long. With the executions of the Irish Rebels, the Irish were completely stunned.especially when several of the men were already dying. James Connolly had suffered gangrene in his leg during the fighting and had to be strapped into a chair to be shot! Public opinion drastically changed, siding with the demand to end British rule and enforce an Irish Republic.
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