Kilmainham Gaol

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.

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Part of the older wing of the prison. Grim, I think they call it.

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.

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The old wing of the prison. Not warm!

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.

The black cap judges used to don when sentencing defendants to death
The black cap judges used to don when sentencing defendants to death

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.

Stonebreaker's yard in Kilmainham Gaol with both crosses
Stonebreaker’s yard with both its crosses in view

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.

Gallery: Click on a Thumbnail to view

The Dead Zoo

During my last trip to London, I only had time to make a brief visit to the Natural History Museum. To say it’s huge is an understatement and I would love to go back when I’ve more time to spare. It did get me thinking about our Irish equivalent, which is about as different to the one in London as you can imagine.

The museum as it is today, with the newer entrance
The museum as it is today, with the newer entrance

The Natural History Museum in Dublin was built in just under 18 months by the Royal Dublin Society. The foundation stone was laid in March 1856 and it opened to the public in August 1857. Unlike its London equivalent which is beautiful, huge, very striking and difficult to miss, this museum is almost unobtrusive. Tucked into a quiet leafy corner of Merrion Square, between Government buildings and the parliament, it’s easy to miss. It was originally built as an extension to Leinster House behind it (for the uninitiated, Leinster House is where the Irish Parliament sits) but that was changed in 1909. A new entrance was fitted to the opposite side of the building. Because it was so tricky to turn some of the exhibits around, some of the larger ones still face the original entrance.

The original 19th-century-exterior of the Natural History Museum, Dublin
The building before the new entrance was added

On its opening in 1857, the museum was treated to a lecture by the explorer David Livingstone (of “Dr. Livingstone I presume” fame) who gave a talk about his African adventures. If Mr Livingstone was to be brought back from the dead now, he would perhaps find that little has changed since then. Part of the charm of this museum is that it seems to be in a Victorian-era time warp. The glass cases are full of vintage specimens dating back to that era. There are also fossils of creatures which don’t live in Ireland any more – lemmings, lynxes, hyenas and even a brown bear. It is also very hard to miss the two 11,000 year old giant deer which face the entrance.

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One of the giant deer

Sadly, the upper floors of the museum are no longer accessible. In 2010 the stairs collapsed and although they have been repaired, these upper floors are no longer open to the public. That means, annoyingly, that people can no longer look at the skeleton of a Dodo or the even rarer Solitaire. They can be viewed online through the virtual tours museum’s own website which is better than nothing, I suppose. But it’s still frustrating that so many things are in the building but cannot be seen. Worse still, because of budget cuts, many exhibits which were to be put on display have instead ended up in storage. Before the collapse of the Irish economy in the late 2000s, there were plans to build a museum in Collins Barracks which would have put some really interesting items on display for the first time. Sadly, the lack of money put paid to that and many items ended up in a warehouse instead. Hopefully, at some stage in the future this will change and we can get to see the sabre-toothed cat skeleton they’ve had in a box since 1910. Not to mention documents hand-written by Charles Darwin, moon rock, a dinosaur and a sea monster. Hopefully this will change in the future – as of February 2018 it was starting to look more hopeful

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Take me to church

The former St Mary’s Church of Ireland, reborn as a pub

No, it’s not the song by Hozier but an interesting former church in the centre of Dublin. St. Mary’s Church of Ireland was built in the early 18th century to serve the local Anglican community.  During its lifetime as a working church, it certainly clocked up some history. Arthur Guinness (founder of a certain well-known brewery) married here. Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) attended services in the church. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church preached in it. In the run-up to the première of The Messiah, Handel practised on the church organ in there. Other people connected with the church, perhaps less known outside of Ireland were playwright Sean O’Casey, revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone and the judge who condemned Robert Emmett to death.

Despite its history and its urban location, the same fate befell St. Mary’s as it that of many rural Anglican churches. Falling attendances at service. The church finally closed in the 1960s and lay derelict for three decades. I think I may have been in it in the early 1990s when it was a shop selling bags. Eventually, it was renovated, at great expense, and converted into a bar and restaurant.

The first time I stood in the building was for a birthday party and I remember there being a small nightclub in the vaults! Anyway, while you wait for your food and drink to arrive there’s plenty to look at. It is worth a visit, just to see what a disused old church can be re-purposed as. The 19th century Ordnance Survey 25″ map notes that the graveyard outside is disused. The graveyard has since vanished and the leftover headstones left against a nearby wall.

The toilets are located in the basement of the building and a trip to them is a convenient way to see a bit more of this interesting place. Hopefully, my hastily taken mobile phone snaps will give some idea of what the place is like.

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A little piece of Nelson

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Its destruction is one of the more notorious episodes in the history of the Irish state. But first, let’s scroll back a bit.

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Nelson’s Pillar was originally built in 1808-09 to commemorate Admiral Nelson. It was a granite column which stood almost 40m tall, including a 4m tall statue of Nelson on the top. Arguably, it was the presence of the good Admiral that led to the pillar’s demise. The pillar was a monument that divided opinion from when it was first built. On the one hand, it was a popular visitor attraction. For a small fee, visitors could climb the 166 steps to the top of the pillar and enjoy the views of the city centre. It also became a popular meeting place on the street. On the other hand, having Admiral Nelson on the top of the pillar didn’t go down well with everyone. Especially seeing as he was such a prominent icon of British imperialism, plonked right in the middle of the main street of Ireland’s capital city. The debate about this rumbled on, especially after Ireland gained independence. Occasionally there were debates about what, if anything, to do with the pillar. It was suggested that Nelson should be taken down from the pillar and replaced with someone or something more fitting. Executed 1916 patriots such as Pádraig Pearse and Jim Larkin were suggested, as was the Blessed Virgin Mary and John F. Kennedy. Nobody could quite agree on what to do with the pillar.

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The stump of Nelson’s Pillar, prior to its removal.

In the end, the decision was taken out of everyone’s hands. At 1:32 a.m. on 8th March 1966, the pillar was badly damaged by a bomb. The bomb was planted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. The explosion destroyed the top third of the pillar. It was decided that the damage to the pillar had made it unsafe. 6 days later, the rest of the pillar was blown up by the army and that was the end of that. The head from Nelson’s statue enjoyed an eventful afterlife. It was “liberated” from storage by a group of university students who proceeded to lease it out to the highest bidder. So the head spent some time in the window of an antique dealer’s shop in Soho, London.  It made an appearance on stage at a live Dubliner’s concert and even featured in a commercial for ladies stockings. Sadly, its wandering days are over – it’s now to be found in the reading room of the Dublin City Library and Archive on Pearse Street

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Is it Herman Munster?

Many urban myths sprang up about the pillar and some have survived to this day.

Contrary to the rumours, it wasn’t the IRA who blew the pillar up. They had form when it came to blowing up imperial monuments in Dublin but they’d not blown any up for several decades. In fact, when Nelson’s Pillar was blown up, they distanced themselves from the bombing. It’s now believed that the late Liam Sutcliffe (he died in 2017) and two others who had broken away from the IRA did the deed.

Legend has it that when the army blew up the rest of the pillar, that the explosion shattered every window on O’Connell Street. In truth, this did not happen. There was what was described as a “dull thud” and some windows were broken. Mostly though, the street continued as normal.

What’s less well known is what happened to the rest of the pillar. It’s not so widely known that some of the remnants from the plinth have been sitting in the gardens of an old house turned hotel in Kilkenny since the late 1960s.

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In 1969 Kilkenny Corporation (as it was known then) asked for some of the stones from the rubble be sent to Kilkenny. They weren’t of any particular value to anyone and were headed for landfill somewhere. There was a debate at the time as to where they should be left in the city. Originally it was thought that they could be placed on The Parade – the street that leads up to Kilkenny Castle. However, it still being a politically charged time, it was decided that this wasn’t the brightest of ideas. Instead, they were placed in the grounds of Butler House. At that time it was a house in private ownership and the owner, a Dr. Harry Roche, was happy to have them sit around his pond.

Rumour has it that the 16 blocks of granite spell out some sort of code but sadly this isn’t true. Still, if you look hard enough….

 

Starlight and glass houses

The National Botanic Gardens has been on my “to visit” list for a while. What finally pushed me into going to have a look wasn’t a sudden urge to look at ferns but an exhibition of photographs from outer space that was being held in the visitor’s centre at the gardens.

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The Curvilinear Range Glasshouses

For the uninitiated – and I count myself amongst these – a botanic garden is “an establishment where plants are grown for scientific study and display to the public”. The Botanic Gardens in Dublin have been here since 1795, on a site 5km from the city centre.

Admittedly, a drizzly Thursday in early February isn’t the time of the year to see the gardens at their best. Still, it wasn’t a journey wasted. One of the most striking things about the grounds are the large 19th-century glasshouses. These are known as the Great Palm House and the Curvilinear Range. The latter is actually a series of connected glasshouses. They were designed by an Irish ironmonger called Richard Turner who was something of an innovator when it came to working with wrought iron. The glasshouses in Dublin aren’t the only examples of his work – he also worked on glasshouses in Belfast and in Kew Gardens/Regent Park in London. Even to modern eyes, the glasshouses are impressive. They’re large, they’re high, they’re warm and it’s obvious that they provide an environment in which plants thrive. What isn’t there to like? 🙂

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The Great Palm House

The glasshouses fell into disrepair over the years due to a number of issues. Wrought iron, it turns out, isn’t the most forgiving of materials for glasshouses. The iron corroded and at its worst, there were sheets of glass falling and breaking on a regular basis. Both the Great Palm House and the Curvilinear Range underwent painstaking, extensive renovation during the early part of this century. Indeed, the restoration of the Curvilinear Range won the Europa Nostra award for excellence in conservation architecture.

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Unfortunately, time and the weather stopped me from investigating the grounds much further. There was enough there to make me want to hop on the bus and take another trip out to Glasnevin when summer comes along. Admission is free and there is a visitor centre with information leaflets/helpful staff. What’s also worth investigating are the audio tours which are available from the Botanic Garden’s own website or as smartphone apps. I found them to be entertaining company as I made my way around the grounds.

The Google Streetview People made a trip to the gardens on a nicer day – that can be seen here

P1020062-001_SnapseedThe Images of Starlight Exhibition was an interesting insight into what amateur astronomers can see with modern day equipment. Each photograph gave details of what equipment and software was used to produce the end result. In some ways, seeing what people did to get their final photos was as enlightening as the subject matters themselves.

RTÉ News had a short feature on the exhibition and interviewed some of the people involved.

Poolbeg Lighthouse & the Great South Wall

The Poolbeg Lighthouse is a familiar site to anyone who has ever come in or out of Dublin on a ferry. Indeed, that’s how I first caught sight of the Poolbeg Lighthouse and the Great South Wall in the early 1990s. By that stage I had been travelling for 7 hours so I was more interested in getting off that boat than paying any particular attention to the long seawall and the dinky little red lighthouse at its end. Which is a pity really.

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Getting closer

The wall and lighthouse are located at the mouth of the River Liffey which flows into Dublin Bay. There had always been a problem with the area silting up with sand, causing problems for ships and boats which needed to travel into Dublin. Initially, in 1715-1716, thick wooden piles bound together with wattle were driven into the seabed. These became known as The Piles. Full marks for originality there. The Piles proved to be rather useless at keeping the sand at bay so it was decided that something more substantial would be needed. In the mid-1740s, work began on a sea wall, built parallel to The Piles. The wall was built from granite blocks which were cleverly interlocked, without the need for any bonding material. The wall was finally finished in 1795.

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Map

It was hoped that this new, improved wall would both stop the encroachment of the sand into the bay and deepen the river channel. Neither happened so in 1800 a survey of Dublin Bay was carried out by Captain William Bligh of “Mutiny on the Bounty” fame. His recommendations had a better outcome than his misadventures on that fateful trip. On his advice, a second sea wall (now known as the North Bull Wall) was built on the other side of the bay. Its construction led to a naturally occurring scouring action which took away the sand and deepened the river channel.

original poolbeg lighthouse
The original Poolbeg Lighthouse

The Poolbeg Lighthouse itself began life as a lightship, before being replaced by a tower in 1768. At first, its light was candle powered – it’s believed that it was the first lighthouse in the world to do so. It was converted to oil 18 years later. It was reconstructed in the 19th century and that is the tower which remains there to this day. The Ordnance Survey originally used the low water mark on the lighthouse (Springtide of 8th April 1837) as the standard height for its mapping. These days, the Malin Head datum is used.

Depending on the weather, the walk out to the lighthouse makes for a pleasant/bracing/vaguely suicidal trip. The route to the wall takes in views of Dublin’s docklands, the iconic chimneys from the former Poolbeg electricity generating station and the Shellybanks nature reserve. Also, if the wind’s blowing the wrong way, you can enjoy the savoury aroma of the nearby water treatment plant 😀 Also visible on the walk are the two other lighthouses which work in tandem with the Poolbeg Lighthouse. The Poolbeg lighthouse is painted red to indicate to ships that it’s Port side. The North Bull Lighthouse which is on the opposite side is painted Green to indicate Starboard. To the north, Howth peninsula is clearly visible while to the south, Killiney Head and Dun Laoghaire are visible.

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North Bull Lighthouse

Depending on how fast you walk, you can get out to the lighthouse and back in an hour to eighty minutes. It’s not a walk to undertake when it’s getting dark. The wall isn’t lit up and the surrounding area doesn’t look like it’d be the nicest place to be at night. During daylight hours it’s perfectly fine – it’s a popular walk for Dubliners.

Screen Captures

The wall has featured in two music videos that I know of. It can be seen at the end of Phil Lynott’s Old Town and features heavily in The Script’s Breakeven. The less said about the latter, the better 😀