This day is a day that I look forward to, with some amount of somber anticipation – this jail figures largely in the Irish psyche and as many times as I’ve been to this place, the effect of a collective sorrow never lessens. I am keen to see how students will contextualize this place and it’s brutal history, after learning more about the 1916 Easter Rising, yesterday – at The National Museum of Ireland in the Collins Barracks, The Easter Rising: Understanding 1916 exhibit.
When the Easter Rising failed, the rebel leaders were incarcerated in Kilmainham Gaol, joining a long list of Nationalists also imprisoned there – from Charles Stewart Parnell (nationalist political leader, land reform agitator, and the founder and leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party) to Robert Emmet (Irish nationalist and Republican, orator and rebel leader, who led an abortive rebellion against British rule in 1803 and was captured, tried and executed for high treason). More than a dozen men were executed, including James Connolly, notably strapped to his chair in the yard when he was too infirm to stand. Connolly was instrumental in persuading the leaders of the Irish Volunteers to go ahead with the Easter Rising. On their surrender, he told his men “Don’t worry. Those of us that signed the proclamation will be shot. But the rest of you will be set free.” Badly wounded, he was held in the ‘Connolly Room’ at Dublin Castle and transferred to the Royal Hospital Kilmainham before his execution. These circumstances and events made Kilmainham Gaol hallowed ground to the Republic of Ireland.
The jail, built in 1789, has incarcerated many generations of criminals – heroes of the Irish resistance against British rule, political prisoners, women and starving children caught stealing bread. Robert Emmet spent his last days here and the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising faced the firing squad in the yard. The last prisoner was Éamon de Valera (former President of Ireland) – after his release Kilmainham Gaol was restored in 1960s, and is now a museum and memorial. There are many gruesome, heart-wrenching stories – a particular sad one is the story that Joseph Plunkett (an Irish nationalist, poet, journalist, and a leader of the 1916 Easter Rising) was married here, just hours before he was executed.
Students are in step with the rest of the visitors – appalled and horrified. One student blogs later that she wept, reading the letter of a young man written to his mother before facing execution.
“… who takes the view that the rebels were martyrs, the blood sacrifices… were equally necessary to awaken the minds of ninety percent of the Irish people… and that the Rising was not necessarily intended to be a success militarily. The key thing was to fight, to strike a blow, to maintain a tradition, to carry on the succession of rebellions effectively showing that the rebels were simply making a political stand more than anything else. The Rising resulted in the “awakening or rebirth of the Irish nation” according to historian Richard English (historian and Methodist preacher from Northern Ireland) who supports the view that although the Rising was a failure in military terms, it was a strategic victory.”
On one of my previous visits to the Gaol, I bought two small books – one on the grim general history of the gaol and another on the brutal history of the children, the youngest aged 5, incarcerated there during the famine for stealing bread.
Students are beginning to understand how complex these issues of Irish identity, freedom, and the notion of home really are.