Kilmainham Gaol located in Dublin, Ireland was built in 1796. A prison for hardened criminals. Murderers and robbers. It was touted as one of the most modern prisons in Ireland. In 1821, two women, 19 and 21 years old, were hung for their crimes. The last public execution was in 1865. The prison closed in 1925. It is now one of the five most visited sites in Dublin. The prison is used in movie scenes and documentaries.
The East Wing (This building is often presented in movies)
Opened officially in 1861and reflected the continuous development of prison reforms. It is the form of a horseshoe so that the prisoners could be constantly observed. The main goals for running the prison effectively were: silence, observation, separation, and light. The enormous skylight in the roof allows the rays of the sun to “pour down over the prisoners souls” and spiritually cleanse them.
The Jail is divided into three sections: The middle part is the administrative section containing the largest and most comfortable rooms. The top floor is the “Governor’s” quarters. The ground floor rooms were linked and used in the daytime by women who were in prison because they could not pay off the family debt.
From 1845–1850 the prison filled with men, women, and children charged with begging and stealing. “The Great Famine” referred to by the Irish as “The Great Hunger” began to rise. The jail cells swelled to capacity. There was no segregation of prisoners. Men, women, and children were incarcerated in the same cells. There were up to five people in a cell measuring twenty-eight square meters. Everyone was given a candle. This candle was to last for two weeks. It was their only means of light and heat. Male prisoners slept on iron bed stands. Women and children slept with straw mats on the floor.
How did the famine begin? Was it the fault of the Irish? The English accused the Irish of two things: overpopulation and laziness. Irish families were big Catholic units. Many of the Irish produced children to help on their farms. The women didn’t practice birth control. The Irish are laid back. They like to have fun drinking, dancing, and singing. The English looked at this style of life as wasteful.
The English dominated the Irish. In 1801 The Act of Union brought the country of Ireland under the control of England. The English created “Penal Laws”. The Catholic Church was outlawed. Their native language, Gaelic, was banned. The English forbade any export trade. These new laws destroyed Irish commerce and industry. The Irish could pretend not to be Catholics or leave the church completely. Some of the Irish were forced to practice their religion in secrecy.
In 1600 Protestants owned 10% of Irish land. In 1778 they owned 95%. The Penal laws prevented Catholics from buying land, getting an education, entering a profession, holding political office, and living within five miles of town. They were not allowed to fish or hunt.The only employment left for the Catholics was farming. They were allowed to have small plots owned by landlords. They had to pay rent to absent landlords in England. Many of the tenant farmers had poor living standards, no money for medicine, clothes, nor adequate shelter. Homes were falling apart and landlords were not required to make improvements.
The potato was the only crop to produce a sufficient yield on limited acreage. In 1840, 50% of Ireland was dependent on the potato.
In 1835, 75% of Irish workers were without regular work and turned to begging and stealing. Irish
A jail cell would hold up to 5-6 people, women, men, and children. Food included bread, water, milk, tea, potatoes or rice, oatmeal, Indian meal, and if they were lucky a little meat. The food was not that great, but for many “bad food was better than no food”. Buckets were used as toilets and dumped out in the morning.
farmers became desperate. Not getting the help they needed, some of them decided to enter workhouses providing them with shelter and food in exchange for hard labor. Irish farmers with more than 1/4 of an acre were forced to give up their land before acceptance into a workhouse. No food or shelter would be provided to their wives and children. The only hope was to beg, steal, or runaway.
From 1845-1850 Kilmainham Jail contained the poorest of Ireland’s citizens. 1847 brought a new law: the Vagrancy Act. It was now a crime for hungry people to beg in the streets. They ended up in prison along with the thieves. The last official year of the “Great Hunger”, 1850, Kilmainham Jail Registers recorded 9,052 prisoners living in fewer than two hundred cells.
The Great Potato Famine has been debated for years. Was it the fault of the Irish or the English? Was the potato the root of the problem?
In 1846 the Prime Minister of England, Charles Trevelyan, banned all food distribution to Ireland. The English exported grain-based alcohol, wool, flax, wheat, oats, barley, butter, eggs, and beef from Ireland to England. These were products being produced in Ireland but not available to Irish citizens. Did the English create the Famine? Food was being taken out of Ireland.
The solution for many of the Irish was to get out of Ireland. With the help of some sympathetic landlords, the Irish were sent to other countries by boat. Some of them went to England. The English did not want them because they were being paid lower salaries and were undercutting theirs. They were sent to the USA and Canada. Many of them arriving with various diseases and dying before they hit land. Canada and the USA were being inundated with Irishmen. The Irish were farmers and didn’t know how to operate the equipment to work in factories. Charities helped to make them more comfortable and ease them into a new lifestyle.
There are now more Irish living in the city of Boston than in Ireland. Irish descendants can now become Irish citizens if they can obtain the birth certificate of their Irish ancestors. This will allow you to have an Irish passport and a US passport. This helps if you want to buy a house in Ireland. Only those who have Irish passports can buy land in Ireland.
I would like to conclude with my final thoughts. No one should have to go to prison for lack of food. Famine is not brought on by the people, but by governments who control the food and goods going in and out of the country. Could The Great Hunger of Ireland have been avoided? Can this happen again? I leave you with these questions.
The altar was built in 1882 by James Lalor sentenced to seven years for receiving stolen goods. He was a carpenter and in great demand in the prisons around Dublin for his work. An eleventh-hour wedding between Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett on May 1916. Plunkett was executed after the wedding. The only words they could say to each other were the recitation of their wedding vows.
There are no windows overlooking this yard. The darker areas around the yard are reminders of the huts that men were placed in. These were the men sentenced to heavy labor. Breaking stones for the construction of roads. The black cross marks the place of the execution of the leaders of 1916 Rising.
The walls of the prison are 5 1/2 feet thick at the bottom and 3 1/2 feet thick at the top and constructed from limestone and granite. . There are three iron and wood gates.The height varies from 30-50 feet. The “death bell” rang after an execution.
On the other side of this wall was the exercise yard for children who were in prison. Children were treated like little adults. Joseph Williams, six years old, traveling with his parents on the Great Southern and Western Railway without a paid fare, sentenced to prison. Children who were caught stealing to provide food for their families were sentenced to prison.
Mural of a Madonna painted by Grace Gifford Plunkett while she was held during the Civil War.
After the death of her husband, Grace Gifford threw herself into the Republican activities of Cumann na mBan – Ladies Auxiliary to the IRA – and was herself jailed in the women’s section of the same Kilmainham jail in which her husband had been executed. Like Joseph before her, she left an artistic memento on the stone wall of her dreary cell – it was a sketch of Mary, the mother of God, perhaps in remembrance of Joseph’s middle name. Admired by all the women prisoners, it was dubbed the Kilmainham Madonna.
Entrance to Kilmainham Gaol, Five Dragons in Chains above Entrance. The five dragons represent five serious felonies: murder, rape, theft, treason, and piracy. Two women Bridget Butterly 19 and Bridget Ennis 20 were hung for a burglary where a woman died.
Plaque marking the executions of the leaders of the 1916 Rising.
The West Wing
Cells are laid out in a square shape. Extra cells were added in the 1840s and again in the 1860s. The gas piping above was installed in the 1840s.
A view of the landing where the 1916 leaders were held before their execution.