image1 4Last month, I visited Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, and it had quite an effect on me.

Unlike many sanitised dark tourism sites, Kilmainham remains a forbidding site.

The first thing to mention about it is the cold. Little effort has been made to bring it into the 21st century with heating, or decent lighting, or any mod cons.

Apart from the museum – which is a fascinating place, well designed and with so much information that you can spend hours there – the place is firmly set in the past.

You can imagine the lives of the prisoners who once spent their days and nights there; the men crammed in their small cells, the women and children bedding down on straw in the corridors, under open, unglazed windows – at the mercy of the Irish weather.

image2 3This was once, in the late eighteenth century, home primarily to debtors, who made up over 50 per cent of prisoners. But it was also home to petty thieves, drunks, and prostitutes. Men and women were held together, in spaces designed for far fewer.

Window glass was not brought to the site until the late 1840s – until then, how many people must have died after failing to get adequate warmth within the confines of the gaol?

The Vagrancy (Ireland) Act, passed in 1847, served to punish those who, made destitute by the Famine, tried to beg in the streets, or steal food.

The prison became home to these poor people, with up to five sharing a cell designed for one. At least, now, they had a roof over their heads and regular food and drink.

Kilmainham is, of course, mainly associated with political prisoners. The instigators of the Easter Rising of 1916 were brought here, and executed in the yard.

image3 3Today, a cross marks the spot where all but one of these men faced the firing squad (the other, James Connolly, was so ill, he had to be constrained in a chair and killed near the gate where he had been brought in, unable to walk to the traditional execution spot).

You can only visit Kilmainham as part of a guided tour, and even as part of a group, it feels dark, claustrophobic and intimidating walking its corridors and looking at the cell doors behind which so many prisoners languished.

But for that reason, it is well worth a visit. It brings to life how awful prison life was, up there on Gallows Hill, rather than attempting to be a tourism “experience” with costumed guides and garish souvenirs.

 

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