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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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