Year of the French: a visiting student explores Kilmainham Gaol

An Erasmus student from France tries to understand the meaning of the famous site in Dublin 8, a major tourist attraction and part of the story of the fight for Irish independence

Located on Inchicore Road in Dublin 8, Kilmainham Gaol has been connected to the Irish struggle for independence throughout its history.

In September 2021, I moved from Paris to Dublin for my studies and it was a real experience for me. I wanted to dive into Irish culture and one of the things that amazed me the most was how the Irish take pride in their history and more specifically about Irish Independence.  

The main entrance to Killmainham Gaol, photo credit Yasimina Boumlik

This former prison symbolises the tradition of militant and constitutional nationalism from 1798’s rebellion to the 1922-1923 Irish Civil War. 

In order to inform myself more about this subject, I visited the prison (or Kilmainham Gaol as is most commonly known).

Kilmainham Gaol opened its doors in 1796 and at the time was one of the most modern prisons in Ireland. However, like most eighteenth-century prisons, Kilmainham was an overcrowded and disorderly place where men, women and even children were held together in unhealthy conditions.

In addition to the bad living conditions, the food rations per prisoner were very low, especially during the Famine Years. 

The prison reform movement led by John Howard Parnell (1727-1790), protested and encouraged single cells and facilities for hygiene and health. 

Inner courtyard of the prison: photo by Boumlik

Several prisoners incarcerated in Kilmainham Gaol fought for Ireland’s freedom, including the leaders of Easter Rising”

Mark sexton

I had the opportunity to talk to Mark Sexton, one of the guides from the jail, who has been working at the Kilmainham Gaol for five years. 

The majority of the prisoners were ‘ordinary’ Irish people. However, according to Sexton, “The prison had the reputation of keeping lots of political prisoners.”

The details of all the prisoners who were incarcerated in Kilmainham Gaol are contained in twenty-four large volumes, which are located in the National Archives of Ireland.  

They included Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of constitutional nationalism in the late 1800s; and also Patrick and Willie Pearse, James Connolly and Thomas Clarke, famous for their roles in 1916.  

“Kilmainham Gaol is highly connected to Irish Independence,” Sexton says. “Several prisoners incarcerated in Kilmainham Gaol fought for Ireland’s freedom, including the leaders of Easter Rising.” 

The Easter Rising, which began on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916 in Dublin, was an Irish republican insurrection against the British government in Ireland.  

The leaders from the Irish Republican Brotherhood, such as Clarke, planned to seize key sites in Dublin. Pádraig Pearse read the Proclamation of the Republic in front of the General Post Office (GPO) on Easter Monday. 

However, the fighting lasted for only six days, until the British Army suppressed the rebellion. Many of the leaders lost their lives in the yard of Kilmainham Gaol.

The court yard where the Easter Rising leaders were executed; photo by Boumlik

In 1924, Kilmainham Gaol was decommissioned as a prison by the Irish Free State government. Even though the jail no longer holds prisoners, the place still has a major importance in the neighborhood and beyond.  

In 2015, the adjacent courthouse, which remained in use for trials until this century, re-opened as an attached visitor’s entrance for the prison. 

Kilmainham Jail is one of the most visited places in Dublin – “pre-Covid we had 400,000 visitors per year”, says Sexton. 

For me, Kilmainham Gaol enables the duty of memory, which is the moral obligation to remember tragic historical events and their victims.  

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