Well, truth be told, I was closer to the nosebleed section in a huge auditorium with stadium seating; MWF, 8 a.m. The voluminous textbook for the freshman course served as a pillow more often than a resource throughout the semester.
It’s sad how much I don’t remember when it comes to all the evolution and revolution of mankind.
Of course, I still can’t remember what I went upstairs to get by the time I reach the top of the stairs either. But I do remember very vividly our tour through Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol. It’s one of Europe’s largest unoccupied prisons covering some of the most heroic and tragic events in Ireland’s hard-fought struggle for independence. It's been rightly dubbed, the Irish Bastille.
Dubliners had cast off their layers, and left the umbrellas at home, too; they’d taken to the streets in celebratory non-attire, i.e. semi-bare arms, legs and feet. I was suddenly no longer a freak with my year-round white legs and pale complexion. In fact, with my one-eighth Irish roots, I fit in quite nicely as I worked on some much needed color by way of my standard sunburn-itchy-peely, ever-so-lightly-tanned epidermis.
Very little chance of getting sunburned inside Kilmainham Gaol, although the East Wing, added in 1864, looked very sunny and bright. It reminded me of my son’s residence hall (college, not jail!) several years back, although his home-away-from-home didn’t have the big three-story atrium.
I imagine Kilmainham Gaol was cutting edge, too, back in 1796 when the ‘New Gaol’ replaced the ‘Old Gaol,’ a notoriously noisome dungeon undoubtedly left over from the Middle Ages. This particular cell did have its share of sunny and bright, if taken literally, although according to our tour guide, conditions during the prison’s 128-year history were as dark and deplorable as . . . well, as dark and deplorable as life at the turn of the century for most Irish Catholics.
If you want to talk land mass, Ireland is a blip on the radar screen of World History, a small island with a patchwork of kingdoms and no political power during the Middle Ages; when civilization wasn’t really all that civil. The mighty and the powerful, including King James during the early seventeenth century, went about claiming Ireland for his own coffers. Throw in a few skirmishes and rebellions and by 1651 all of Ireland was under English rule.
It was that English rule for the next two-hundred-fifty years that really caused the deplorable living conditions for the Irish Catholics. In 1695, the first of numerous Penal Laws meant Catholics were forbidden to buy or bequeath land, to own a horse, to provide their children an education in Catholicism, to buy or carry firearms.
Catholics were also barred from entering the military or from practicing law. Catholic priests were forbidden to publically or privately instruct students on Catholicism. In fact those catholic priests remaining after King James ordered them to leave Ireland were required to register and swear an oath of allegiance to the English king.
The Irish were considered colonial inferiors by the English, which is undoubtedly why the English treated the Irish so shabbily, even brutally, for over two centuries, confiscating most of their land, insuring that the Protestants (20% of the population) remained the powerful landlord class and the ruling elite of Ireland in this mostly agrarian society. From the 15th to the 18th century, the worst of those Irish insurgents imprisoned were sold as slaves, with most
shipped off to the Caribbean, mainly Barbados.
Change the Protestant and Catholic protagonists to Nazi and Jew, Serb and Muslim, Tutsi and Hutu, or Native American and white man, and the big picture comes into focus – behind the religious, political, economic or ethnic story lines lays the same theme – domination.
History reveals man can be a wicked beast. Throw in a bit of God-given pestilence, blight, and disease and you have a recipe for disaster; or a catalyst for change.
Terry Eagleton, a former professor of literature at Oxford, called the Irish Famine “the greatest social disaster of 19th century Europe – an event with something of the characteristics of a low-level nuclear attack.”
for most peasant households, rotted in the ground as a fungus took hold. As the crop failed again and again over the next two years, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery followed in the wake of malnutrition. Two million more destitute Irish emigrated to Canada, North America and Australia.
When demands on the Irish Poor Law system began making Workhouse relief opportunities worse than incarceration, Ireland’s destitute began to look to the penal system to provide food and shelter in return for petty theft or worse. The new Kilmainham Gaol fit the bill.
The Young Ireland movement, formed in the 1830s, was initially a part of the Repeal Association of Daniel O'Connell (often referred to as Ireland's Liberator), but broke with O'Connell on the issue of the legitimacy of the use of violence. Primarily a political and cultural organization, some members of Young Ireland staged an abortive rising, the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. Its leaders were transported to Van Diemen's Land. Some of these escaped to the United States, where they linked up with other Irish exiles to form the Fenian Brotherhood.
Together with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, founded in Ireland by James Stephens and others in 1858, they made up a movement commonly known as "fenians" which was dedicated to the overthrow of British imperial rule in Ireland. They staged another rising, the Fenian Rising, in 1867, and a dynamite campaign in Great Britain in the 1880s.
Leaders of the rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867 and 1916 were all incarcerated at Kilmainham. The names of many of those leaders were posted above the individual cells where most spent their final hours before facing the firing squad.
In addition to being a teacher (well, what do you know; another visionary) and a revolutionary, Patrick Pearse was also a poet and a writer. One of his famous poems is called The Mother. It was written the night before his execution and describes his mother’s thoughts on the death of her two sons.
Pearse was the first of the rebels to be executed for treason; he died May 3, 1916 at the age of 36. His younger brother, William, was executed on May 4th. Connolly proved to be an inspirational Commander of the Republican rebels during the six-day siege of Dublin’s General Post Office. At his trial he read a brief statement in which he stated ‘the cause of Irish freedom is safe . . . as long as . . . Irishmen are ready to die endeavoring to win [that battle].’
Just after dawn on May 12th, Connolly was transported from a nearby hospital to Kilmainham Gaol, where he was executed, while seated, due to the severity of his wounds during the uprising.
No one knew the fate of the leaders until after their executions. All fourteen were buried in a mass grave, thrown into a pit without benefit of a coffin or burial service. The indignity of the rebel leaders’ treatment in death created a mood of bitterness in Ireland. As martyrs, their deaths led to a surge of support for Irish republicanism.
Walking the narrow stairs of Kilmainham Gaol, I could feel the crush of tens of thousands of lives beneath my feet where the stone had given way under the weight of so much suffering.
And yet, wherever there’s life, there’s hope, those with the courage to give us all hope. At the urging of his fiancé, Grace Gifford, Joseph Mary Plunkett, one of the original members of the IRB, married Grace in the Kilmainham chapel just hours before he was executed for his part in the six-day rebellion that began the week before Easter.
A plaque inside the stonecutter’s yard (so named for the task prisoner’s performed while in that courtyard) bears the names of four of the those men executed during Ireland’s Civil War.
In May, 1960, sixty volunteers of the Kilmainham Jail Restoration Society began cleanup efforts to preserve and restore this historic site, with the intention of reopening it to the public as a museum dedicated to the history of Irish nationalism. It opened in time for the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising and is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Dublin.
THE BOTTOM LINE ON DUBLIN’S KILMAINHAM GAOL:
Verdict: It doesn’t get much more real than Kilmainham Gaol. It was the best history lecture of my life, covering some of the most tragic and heroic events in Ireland’s struggle for independence. Not sure kids would enjoy all the history, especially given the tour lasts 60 minutes.
How to Get There: Several public transportation options will get you to the prison, Inchicore Rd, Dublin 8, Ireland located 3.5 km outside of the center of Dublin.
Bus Route(s): No. 69, 79 from Aston Quay Dublin 2; No 13& 40 from O'Connell St. Dublin 1 or College Green Dublin 2. Please see http://www.dublinbus.ie/Route-Planner/ for further information.
LUAS Tram: Red Line - Nearest stop Suir Road.
Insider Information: Get there early to purchase your tickets, then browse the small museum on site that covers the history of Irish nationalism while you wait for your guided tour. You'll need at least 20-30 minutes in there to really absorb the plethora of information provided through excellent exhibits. Groups of 10 or more must book in advance.
Nearby Food: We hopped a cab and headed off to another site we wanted to see before leaving Ireland, so we didn't eat in the area. According to Trip Advisor, there's a cute little café several blocks from Kilmainham Gaol, the Limetree Café, where the selection of sandwiches, scones, and friendly wait staff are exceptional according to most. Sounds good to me.