This month, I finally got around to visiting London again. It being October and heading into the off-season, it was a fine time to visit the Tower of London. A place that I’ve been told is worth a visit but…the crowds.
The Tower of London (a.k.a. Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London) is a somewhat inaccurate description. It isn’t really one tower. In fact, there are 21 of them (some survive only as ruined foundations). Some of them don’t particularly look like towers but that was scant consolation to the poor sods who were imprisoned within their thick walls. It is also a place that has served as a fortress, a prison, a mint, a zoo, home to the crown jewels and the site of quite a few executions. Oh, and the moat where the guided tours start used to be an open sewer. Nice.
Turning up to the Tower early meant that there were no queues or crowds to battle. The first part of the visit was an excellent tour given by a Yeoman Warder (in this case, the wonderful Scott Kelly aka #beefy409). The introduction to the tower and its history was informative, macabre, funny and entertaining all at the same time. Definitely don’t skip this if you visit the Tower.
After that, you’re free to roam around the grounds and visit quite a few of the buildings. They’re all interesting but my favourite was The White Tower. This is the original tower that gave the entire complex its name. It was was built by William the Conqueror in 1078-79 and is four floors of interestingness. It houses “The Line of Kings” which is a 400 year old tourist attraction. It displays armour belonging to English monarchs, sitting on wooden horses. How genuine some of the armour is is open to question but it’s pretty impressive stuff all the same. As is all the weaponry on display. If all those cannons in the basement were armed and went boom, there’d be no more tower! There’s also room in there for some ye olde toilets (garderobes) and even a working chapel.
Across the yard are the Royal Crown Jewels. Personally, I didn’t find these as interesting but that’s probably more down to my personality than anything else. Save to say, I’ve never seen as much gold in my life! Some other people in the queue loved it though – there were certainly some royal family enthusiasts there. The various exhibitions in the towers were also a reminder that bad and all as things seem to be these days, they were no bed of roses years ago. While it is true that some people lost their heads in the grounds of the Tower, many more met their end on nearby Tower Hill. It tended to be nobility who got the chop in the Tower.
There is so much to read and see about the Tower of London, I’m not going to go into it here. There are lots of websites online where you can find out all you want to know about its history. It was a very enjoyable few hours and although the entrance fee is pretty steep, it’s worth it if you allow yourself the time to savour it all. Just try to go when there won’t be so many tourists around if you can.
Mizen Head is Ireland’s equivalent of Land’s End in the UK. In other words, it’s almost Ireland’s most southerly point but doesn’t quite manage that. That honour falls to the nearby Brow Head which is probably best known to people who like to point out that particular piece of trivia. Anyway, regardless of which headland you’re heading for, getting there can be a somewhat hair-raising experience. The roads are of the narrower, twistier variety and some of the locals seem to be wannabe Formula 1 drivers. So be on your guard, especially at bends.
A Fog Signal Station was built at the tip of Mizen Head in 1909. It was manned until 1993, after which it became a visitor centre. The original visitor centre was housed in the Lightkeepers’ Quarters until 2001, when the new visitor centre was built. There are still interesting exhibits in these old buildings. These include some of the old equipment used by the Lightkeepers, maps and charts. There is a stunning mural dedicated to the birds of the area in one of the buildings which is pure eye candy. Guglielmo Marconi carried out some of his earliest trans-Atlantic radio transmissions from the nearby village of Crookhaven (you can read more about it here) and there is information and equipment about his work in the radio room.
The best known feature at the Mizen Head Fog Signal Station is the beautiful suspension bridge which spans a gorge between the mainland and the tip of the headland. The original footbridge was constructed in 1909 and was one of the first bridges to use precast elements. It was the largest bridge of its kind at the time, with a span of 50m. In the early 2000s, it reached the end of its lifespan. It was decided to demolish the bridge and replace it with an almost identical replica. The new one is wider but is still built from reinforced concrete. If you want to nerd out and read all about the demolition of the old bridge and the construction of the new one, you can take a look at this
Mostly though, it’s the scenery that takes your breath away. Even though you can see that it was an overcast day when I was there, it did little to diminish the impact of the surroundings. It also made me wish I’d bothered to listen more closely in geography class because all around were spectacular real-life examples of all sorts of things we were told about. It’s largely Devonian sandstone in the area and you can really see evidence of how the landscape was formed
The walk out to the signal station itself is punctuated by various exhibits and viewing platforms. These include a sea arch (revives memories of geography class again) and a replica of a floor from the Fastnet Rock lighthouse which is 15km away, out in the Atlantic Ocean)
The Visitor’s Centre is worth a mention too. It has plenty of information, photographs and models of the area. Kudos too to the gift shop for not having cheesy new-wave Celtic mystic trip playing as you browse. And after doing all that walking and exploring, I couldn’t wait to tuck into the haddock and chips which were on the menu in the visitor centre’s cafe.
The Brownshill Dolmen can be found not too far outside Carlow town. What’s nice about this one is that it’s easy to get to. There’s a car park outside and a fenced-off walkway that leads from there to the dolmen itself. So although you still feel like you’re almost in someone’s field, you’re safe from marauding bulls, crops that behave like Triffids and erm…I’ll stop now.
Anyway, if you’re in search of a good dolmen, you can’t do much better than the Brownshill Dolmen. There are approximately 190 of them in Ireland, though they can also be found in other European countries and in Asia. This one has never been excavated, possibly because its capstone is estimated to weigh 150 tons. How the people who built it roughly 5,000 years ago managed it is sadly lost in the mist of times. It is believed that this one is the largest in Europe.
Dolmens usually consist of 2-3 stones, topped by a large capstone. It is believed that they would have originally been topped by mounds of stones. These have long since vanished, leaving behind a “skeleton”. Although they’re generally described as being tombs, there isn’t any concrete evidence one way or the other to say for sure that they were.
The current home for the tourist office in Kilkenny is an old building with an interesting history. It was built in 1581/2 by Sir Richard Shee, a wealthy local man. Depending on what source you read, he either made a profit from speculating on church property during the Reformation or he bought up a lot of it to keep it out of the hands of reformers. Regardless, he seems to have started to worry about burning in hell (as you do) and established this almshouse to help the poor.
It was built to house 12 people. “6 honest, poor, unmarried men” and “6 widows of 50 years of age or more”. Each resident had their own room (which must have been tiny, judging by the size of the building) but there were some strict regulations they had to abide by. For starters, everyone had to attend 2 hours of prayer every day and would face instant eviction if they got drunk, indulged in hanky panky or refused to attend weekly religious services.
To ensure the men and women in the almshouse didn’t get up to any funny business, the building had two floors which were not connected internally. The ground floor was for women only – this is the more prominent entrance to the building these days because it faces out onto Rose Inn Street. The men lived on the first floor and the entrance to there is on a laneway to the rear of the building. These days there is a staircase which connects the two floors.
The almshouse continued to house the poor until 1830 or so. By that stage it was no longer in the hands of the Shee family – it had been sold in 1752 by Edmund Shee. It then fell into ruin and was renovated in the 1870s by Sir Nicholas Power O’Shee who was a descendant of Richard Shee. As well as being an almshouse, it was used as a Catholic chapel, a hospital and even a shop. In 1978, it was obtained by Kilkenny Corporation who restored it and opened it as the tourist office.
In the early 1990s I was a student in Maynooth University, eventually graduating with oodles of soon-to-be-forgotten information in my head and a horror of getting out of bed before 10am. Happy times 😉 Then, as now, the campus was split between two campuses. The shiny shiny North Campus which has changed almost beyond recognition. Then there’s the South Campus which is shared with the Catholic Seminary established back in 1795. It has scarcely changed since my student days and there’s something I love about that. It’s a nice place to walk around, though I’m not sure many people do. My guess is that even fewer people know that there’s a rather good science museum a few minutes walk from the entrance gates.
The museum has been in existence since 1934. Indeed, it was there when I was a student but somehow I never got around to popping in for a look. Then, as now, it had restricted visiting hours. It only opens on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons during the summer months and by appointment at other times. When it was first set up, the museum housed just ecclesiastical items. There is still a section in there dedicated to that but I’m afraid priests’ vestments, holy pictures, chalices, rosary beads etc. don’t really float my boat. Perhaps bridging the gap between religion and er…the grisly, Daniel O’Connell’s death mask is on display. Far more interesting to me is the science section which was later added.
At first, many of the early scientific artefacts added to the collection were connected with Maynooth’s most famous scientist. The Reverend Professor Nicholas Callan, a man who should probably be better known than he is. In 1975, Chemistry Professor Fr. Michael Casey became curator of the museum and he remained in that position until 1998. Under his watch, the collection was expanded greatly. Staff went through the cupboards in the various science departments in the college and unearthed items they felt would be worth putting on display. As it turned out, these cupboards turned out to be a something of an Aladdin’s cave. The museum now has Ireland’s largest collection of scientific instruments on public display. The display cabinets in the place are full of everything from microscopes to telescopes to an early GPS unit. The sheer quantity of items on display is astonishing, seeing as it’s in an obscure little museum.
The Reverend Professor Nicholas Callan (1799-1864) invented the Induction Coil. For a number of reasons, including him being attached to a seminary rather than a scientific institution, his work was overlooked. He wasn’t given credit for its invention during his lifetime (its invention was attributed to Heinrich Ruhmkorff) but that has since changed. He also invented what became known as the “Maynooth Battery” which improved greatly on previous batteries that already existed. It was commercially successful and has been described as the Duracell of its time. Some of his batteries are on display, as is his induction coil and many other pieces of scientific equipment he created or worked with.
Perhaps now is the time for me to mention my favourite anecdote about the Reverend Callan. He liked to experiment with his batteries and once connected 577 of them together. There weren’t any ways at the time to measure how strong the batteries were so he used to experiment in different ways. One of them was to administer electric shocks to his students. One shock was so severe, it knocked out the future Archbishop of Dublin. After that, he switched (or was ordered to switch) over to turkeys instead.
The museum is well worth a visit if you have an interest in the history of electricity and in old scientific instruments. From what I can gather, very few people know it even exists. Perhaps it is a victim of its restricted opening hours and its location. It’s well worth the effort though. Entry is free but you can pay a voluntary donation.
How to find the museum
Walk in through the college gates which are close to Maynooth Castle. Then immediately turn left and follow the path for 250m or so. You will start to see signs for the museum.
I’ve been in or around the seaside town of Duncannon many times but until this year had never got around to visiting its star-shaped fort. I’ve seen it from a distance, I’ve looked up at it from the beach that lies underneath it and I’ve even walked past the entrance gates. The fort, which has long since ceased to be an active facility, is open to the public during the summer months. And as I discovered when I finally did get around to visiting and took the excellent guided tour, it’s a fascinating work in progress.
A Brief History
The fort is built at the tip of a peninsula, overlooking the entrance into Waterford Harbour. As strategic locations go, it’s one of the better ones. The width of the bay and the layout/depth of the channel means that one fort is enough for keeping an eye on anything coming and going by sea. More bang for your buck when it comes to forts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fort which stands here now isn’t the first one to have been built on the site. The present fort dates from the 16th century but it was had previously been home to a Norman fort of some sort in the 12th century. There is also evidence that suggests there was a wooden fort here going further back into history. Old maps from the 16th/17th century show a ruined church, a castle and some defensive structures on the site. These are long gone but the stone from them has no doubt been reincorporated into what’s here now.
Fearing an invasion by the Spanish Armada, the present fort was built by Queen Elizabeth I in 1587-88. They never arrived but that didn’t mean that it didn’t get to see some action. In 1645 it was captured by Irish Catholic Confederation forces and remained under their control until 1650. Oliver Cromwell, arguably the least popular Englishman to ever tread on Irish soil, tried but failed to recapture it a year earlier. His son-in-law Henry Ireton got his hands on it a year later. It is believed that both monarchs who fought in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 stayed in Duncannon Fort before leaving the country. King James II left for France on 3rd July 1690 whilst the victorious William of Orange stayed there in September of the same year.
During the 1798 Rebellion, the fort remained under British control. Indeed, it became a prison for captured Irish rebels and a place where some of them were executed. Depending on which version of the Irish rebel song “The Croppy Boy” you listen to, the title character meets his end in Duncannon. Or Dungannon which is at the other end of the country..
In Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) the fort is described as “..adapted for mounting 42 pieces of cannon, and, including ” the bombproof” erected in 1815, contains barracks for 10 officers and 160 men, residences for the chaplain, fort-major, storekeeper, and other officers, and a chapel for the garrison; the whole is surrounded by a dry moat crossed by a drawbridge, and the only entrance is defended by a portcullis.”
The buildings in the fort were built at different times but look more uniform these days because of changes made to the site in the run-up to World War I. They were covered with roughcast and Tarmacadam was poured on the ground. This covered over the cobblestones which had been there. At least one archway was knocked so that tanks could be driven into the fort. Despite the alterations, there are still many older features remaining intact. The dry moat and sloping walls, circular lunette fortifications, tunnels and gun batteries being some of these.
The fort was handed over to the Irish Army in 1922 when British rule ended here. It was largely burnt down during the civil war the following year. With the onset of World War II (a.k.a. “The Emergency” because we didn’t do wars here) the fort was partially rebuilt and a military presence reinstated. The old Governor’s house now has 1943 (the year it was rebuilt) and the logo of the Irish army on the front of it.
A caretaker’s house (locally known as Burke’s house, after the family who lived in it) was built in 1939 as part of the refortification. Unlike the other buildings here, its front door isn’t level with the ground but has steps up to its front door. This is because when they began to excavate the foundations, they found some human remains. It’s thought this is where a graveyard had been. It’s known that at one stage there was a church close by.
The fort was used as a camp for the Reserve Defence Forces for many years, before finally being handed over to Wexford County Council in 1993. As of 2018, there are still parts of the fort which are too dangerous for members of the public to access. Happily, there are still many places which are safe and will give the visitor a good overall view of what life was like in a place like this.
The fort is also visible from the beach below. As the tour guide remarked, the window which overlooks the beach now has iron bars on it to ward off a newer type of invader.
Duncannon Fort is only open during the summer months. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day. The official website for opening dates/times is https://duncannonfort.ie/ Admission is by guided tour only but it’s well worth it.
Kilmainham Gaol has been on my “to visit” list for a while. Finally, I got around to visiting it in March 2018. And boy, was it worth it. And yes, they let me out when the tour was over 🙂
A Little Bit of History
Kilmainham Gaol opened in 1796, built on top of the cheerily named Gallows Hill. There had been an older prison nearby before this and, as the hill’s name suggests, a history of executions in the area. To really add to the general misery of the place, the prison itself was built from a local limestone known as calp. A stone that was good at being damp and poor at retaining heat. And if that wasn’t bad enough, there was no glass in the little windows running along the corridors. Ah yes, they don’t make prisons like they used to do.
In the first half of the 19th century, deporting convicts to prison colonies in Australia was still a common occurrence. The prison became the holding place for over 4,000 convicts before they were sent on their long, one-way trip Down Under. Life was scarcely better for the people they’d left behind. Overcrowding had been a problem in the prison anyway but once the Great Famine began in the mid-1840s, it escalated. In those times, one could be jailed for misdemeanours as trivial as begging and stealing food. Needless to say, the prison became very overcrowded during those years. Often people deliberately got themselves arrested so they could go to prison. It might have been miserable in there but at least they’d be fed. The cells which were designed to house just one person became home to four or five people. Women and children slept on the chilly corridors outside. The food wasn’t all that great either and as time went on, the miserly rations were reduced to deter people from going to prison in order to to be fed. Still, it was still a hell of a lot better than what they would have received outside.
In Ireland, the prison is most associated with its role in the struggle for Irish independence. Or perhaps more accurately, for the number of “big names” from Irish nationalism who were imprisoned there. Indeed, there are death masks for Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmett in the prison’s museum. The prison mostly closed in 1910 but found itself unexpectedly brought back into use in 1916 in the aftermath of the Easter Rising.
Hundreds of participants from the Easter Rising were imprisoned here. And in a move which was to change Irish history forever, 14 of the leaders of the Rising were hastily tried and sentenced to death. Over the course of a few days, they were executed by firing squad in the Stonebreaker’s Yard. The executions helped turn public opinion firmly against the British and triggered a series of events which led to Irish independence.
The prison finally closed in 1924 and over the years, fell into disrepair. With the unhappy role it had played in Irish history, it’s understandable why it was left to rot. Thankfully, that all changed in 1960 when volunteers began to restore the prison. It was reopened in 1966 (the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising). Ironically, the opening ceremony was performed by Eamonn DeValera. In 1924 he had been the final prisoner to be released from the prison; 42 years later he was President of Ireland. It was finally handed over to the Irish state 1986 and is now run by the Office of Public Works.
Since 2016, Kilmainham Courthouse which is right beside the prison has been part of the complex. As well as being a good place for visitors to wait for their guided tour to begin, it is an interesting place in its own right. I found the courtroom, with its maze of seats and partitions, to be a sobering enough place in its own right. And that was before I spotted a replica of a judge’s black cap in a glass case next door. What a terrifying spectacle that must have been for the condemned man/woman to see.
The tour of the prison is by guided tour only. Anyone I know who has done these guided tours has had nothing but good things to say about the tour guides. I can’t disagree – the man who took our tour group around was excellent and managed to make the tour both informative and entertaining.
Even though nobody has been held in Kilmainham Gaol for almost a century, it’s still not much of a reach to imagine what life must have been like in there. Although the prison building itself is more comfortable than it was back in the day, it’s still from 5-star accommodation. It was striking how chilly the corridors in the oldest part of the prison were, even though it has since been somewhat insulated. I for one was thankful that I was wearing warm, modern day clothing and didn’t have to sleep on a stone floor with little more than straw bedding. At least it was only the cold that was a tangible reminder of yesteryear – the stench from the overcrowded cells won’t be for sale as an air freshener in the prison shop any time soon.
Surprisingly, not all the rooms in the old part of the prison were stinking, overcrowded, chilly hellholes. We were brought into a reasonably large room which had once been occupied by the Irish MP Charles Stuart Parnell. He may not have enjoyed his stay in prison but it was definitely made more comfortable by the coal fire burning in the grate (coal paid for by him), the library across the hallway and being served the same food as the prison governor.
The best-known part of the prison is the East Wing. Completed in 1862, it was designed so that prison wardens would be able to keep an eye on a large number of prison cells at the same time. Not that it mattered because nobody ever escaped from Kilmainham Gaol without help from others. This part of the prison is stunning and it’s possible to walk into quite a few of the cells here. Film fans might recognise it from the likes of The Italian Job, Michael Collins, In the Name of the Father and er…Paddington 2.
After that, we were taken outside to the exercise yard which of course hadn’t just been an enclosed area for prisoners to stretch their legs. A plaque on the wall marks the place at which four volunteers were harshly executed in 1922 by the Free State Army. One of them was a 19-year old called James Fisher who was arrested for having some guns. He wrote a letter to his mother on the eve of his execution and it’s a desperately sad read. It’s in the prison’s museum.
Onwards we went to the Stonebreaker’s Yard, where 14 of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were shot. There’s a cross marking the spot where 13 of them stood and faced the firing squad. A second cross is located just inside the entrance gate. This is where the gravely ill James Connolly was taken from his hospital bed, strapped to a kitchen chair and shot on the spot. I’d heard that story numerous times down the years but when you see it all for yourself it really brings it home. And regardless of your politics, there is something sobering about standing in that relatively small yard, knowing that you’re following in the final footsteps of some iconic figures from Irish history.
Finally, we were brought out to the front of the prison and the site where public hangings had once taken place. This served as a reminder that it wasn’t just Irish nationalists who never made it out of the prison alive. Lots of ordinary people were executed in this place too. And even though there’s now a Hilton Hotel across the road and the area has been gentrified, it’s not difficult to imagine what these people saw in their final moments.
The prison museum was surprisingly good too. Somehow, seeing the possessions belonging to people whose names I knew from history class made them more real. Very mundane items such as glasses, a shoe, a scratched pocket watch, even a lock of hair. The arts and crafts created by bored prisoners banged up in prison are worth a look too. There’s something amusingly jarring about prisoners of war making pretty macramé bags or crucifixes from bullets. The Victorian era marked the start of the mugshot and there some of those original photos to be seen here.
What startled me the most were the photos of the prison before it was restored by the volunteers. Knowing how many buildings were lost in Dublin in the last few decades (don’t get me started!), it’s a minor miracle there’s anything there to visit now. Kilmainham Gaol might not be one of the happier places connected with Irish history but it is an important and very moving one. In short, it’s well worth visiting.
Tickets can be booked online from here. The visits are by guided tour only and places are limited on each tour. I strongly advise you to book in advance.