The Easter Rising Part Eleven – Kilmainham Gaol

A change of tack for a couple of posts, as we return to the struggles taking place in Ireland in 1916 as, across the Channel, the Great War entered its twenty second month and the Battle of the Somme loomed on the horizon.  This is Part Eleven in our series of Easter Rising posts (Part One can be found here should you want to read, or even re-read, the whole account, particularly as many of the posts have been updated with additional photographs and text since first published), and in many ways the story of the Easter Rising ends here, at Kilmainham Gaol, where fourteen of the rebel leaders were executed by firing squad in May 1916.

So here we are back in Dublin, and a third of a mile due west of the Royal Hospital, the old Court House on the corner of the street opposite the Richmond Tower…

…now serves as the entrance to the gaol for prison tourists like me.

But before entering let’s take a short walk along these imposing walls…

…to the prison’s north west corner, where these massive doors open onto the Stonebreaker’s Yard inside.  Remember these doors for much later in the post.

Retracing our footsteps…

…we pass the original entrance…

…which requires a closer inspection.  Look carefully at the centre window, and you will see two small square granite inserts flush with the wall just above the architrave.  These were once recesses where the gallows were attached for public executions, the last of which took place in 1865 when a certain Patrick Kilkenny was hanged for the murder of Margaret Waugh.

The prison’s foundation stone was laid in 1787,…

…but it would be another nine years before it would finally open to the public.

A grand(ish) entrance,…

…and a foreboding door to slam shut behind you.

Anyway, nearly tour time – you have to join a tour to see round the prison – so it’s back down the road (the Richmond Tower in the centre background)…

…to the Court House,…

…from where we make our way inside the prison itself, immediately encountering the East Wing, the newer of the two wings that make up the prison.

The East Wing, or Panopticon, was built in 1862 to ease the horribly overcrowded conditions that by then existed.

We shall take a look inside a bit later.

The modern glass structure houses the museum, which I will show you around in a separate post.  Very interesting it is too, and not too big.

Prisons.  Not that I’ve ever been anything but a visitor (honest Guv),…

…but you do seem to spend most of your time…

…looking up at the sky.

Anyway, here’s the interior of the Panopticon.

See.  Doing it again.

Many of the cells are just that, empty gaol cells, with nothing to distinguish one from the next.

But some are identified as those of prominent internees, including Eamon de Valera in 1916 on the left, and Edward Daly, one of the fourteen Easter Rising leaders executed here in May 1916, on the right,…

…and this cell, in which Joseph Plunkett’s wife, Grace Gifford, was interned for three months in 1923 during the Civil War.  They had married in the prison chapel the night before his execution in May 1916*; more on this when we visit the museum.

*Joe Plunkett, Patrick Pearse, William Pearse, the Thomases Clarke & McDonagh, & Michael Mallin, all of whom would be executed, were among those (others included Countess Constance Markievicz) held in what is referred to as the ‘1916 Corridor’, a part of the older West Wing, that we were not shown on our tour.

Through the peephole in Grace’s door.  This is actually a facsimile in oil recreated over the original; in the decades following the closure of the gaol in 1924 much of the graffiti, including Grace’s original crayon drawing, had suffered considerable degradation.

‘Hickeys No. 52’ it says over the door.  Care to step inside?

Hm.  Nice outlook.

Not too bad with the door open, I suppose,…

…but not so good now.  Not so good at all.  Note that I left the door slightly ajar.  Just in case.

And on leaving the cell, once again, I promise you, you automatically look up, towards the sky, towards freedom.  Hang on a minute.  Getting carried away a bit here.

Condemned men, 1916.  The cells of Michael O’Hanrahan…

…and John McBride.

Many of the cells have inscriptions scraped above the door (hence the earlier Hickey’s No. 52, in case you hadn’t noticed), some of which are self-explanatory, and some not so.  I.R.P. Hut I suspect means Irish Republican Prisoners Hut.

The Manse.  All I can tell you, as if you didn’t know, is that a manse (archaically, a dwelling place) became the name used for a house provided for, in particular, ministers of the Scottish Presbyterian Church.

I. Caban?  East Mayo.

Dunmore.  Dunmore is a village in County Galway.

Burn [and] Loot.

Windy (illegible) Derry.

Skeog Patrol.  Skeoge is also in Derry.

Carndonagh Hotel – Carndonagh is a town in County Donegal.

No Surrender.

Above the door: No Signing of Treaty.  Up the 3rd West (illegible).  The graffiti on the door frame is impossible to decipher properly: Lough and [illegible] Digs(?) R.I.P.

It’s a pretty grim place,…

…even with the sun shining.

Oh, the irony!

But this is grimmer.  Above & following: The limewashed walls of the old, dank, West Wing of the prison.

In the early days of the gaol, before the construction of the Panopticon, both cells and corridor, open to the elements to the right, would once have been packed with offenders, so overcrowded was the gaol becoming.

Don’t imagine for a second that these windows had glass in them when the prison was in use.  Absolutely no chance.

Once outside,…

…we make our way slowly…

…towards the Stonebreaker’s Yard.  Before we go in, however, a small plaque near the entrance (on the right) remembers four men executed by Free State firing squads during the Civil War.  What it doesn’t tell you is why these men were condemned to death, and that these were the first executions to take place during the Irish Civil War, and the final executions to take place at Kilmainham.  The Civil War began in June 1922 and the Free State Government soon passed the Emergency Powers Act, which included, as a capital crime, possession of an unlicenced firearm.

The four men named on the plaque (clockwise from top left: Peter Cassidy, James Fisher, Richard Twohig & John Gaffney) were all arrested, at different times, for ‘possession, without authority, of a revolver’.  They were tried by military court on 9th November, Army Headquarters issuing a statement a week later, on the evening of 17th:

‘Peter Cassidy, of 7 Usher’s Quay, was, at a Military Court held on the 9th of November, 1922, charged with having possession without proper authority of a revolver, upon the 27th October, 1922. He was found guilty of the charge and was sentenced to death. The finding and sentence of the Court were confirmed. The sentence was duly carried out this morning at 7 o’clock.

James Fisher, a civilian, of Echlin Street, Dublin, was charged, at a Military Court, held upon the 8th day of November, 1922, with having, on October 23rd, possession without proper authority, of a revolver. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. The finding and sentence of the Court were confirmed. The sentence was duly carried out this morning at 7 o’clock.

Richard Twohig, 1 Connor’s Buildings (off James’ Street Harbour), was, at a Military Court, held upon the 8th day of November, 1922, charged with having possession, without proper authority, of a revolver upon the 23rd of October, 1922. He was found guilty of the charge and sentenced to death. The finding and sentence of the Court were confirmed. The sentence was duly carried out this morning at 7 o’clock.

John Gaffney, of 3 Usher’s Quay, was, at a Military Court, held upon the 9th of November, 1922, charged with having possession, without proper authority, of a revolver upon the 27th of October, 1922. He was found guilty of the charge and sentenced to death. The finding and sentence of the Court were confirmed. The sentence was duly carried out this morning at 7 o’clock.’

All four men now lie in the Republican Plot at Glasnevin Cemetery.  A further seventy three executions, although none here at Kilmainham, would be carried out under the Emergency Powers Act before the end of the Civil War.

The Stonebreaker’s Yard.  Looking to the left (west) on entering,…

…and to the right (east).

It was here that the executions of the leaders of the Rising were carried out,…

…a plaque on the wall listing their names and the dates on which they died.

The crosses at either end of the yard mark the spot where the men were executed, thirteen here on the east side, the drainage channel (how horrible) suggesting, as was the case, that this was the ‘official’ execution end of the yard,…

…and we are now standing exactly where the firing squad would have stood one hundred and two years ago.  The firing squad was made up from men of the Notts & Derby Regiment (Sherwood Foresters), who had suffered so badly at Northumberland Road and Mount Street Bridge during the week of the Rising, as some sort of bizarre reward for their bravery and losses.  Doubtless they were truly appreciative.

Looking back across the yard,…

…the cross at the eastern end marks the place of execution of just one man.

Why was only one man executed at this end of the yard?  James Connolly was Commandant-General of the Dublin Division fighting in the GPO during the Rising, and had been wounded before the remains of the GPO garrison tunnelled their way through the neighbouring houses to their final destination in Moore Street, taking Connolly with them.  Along with the other leaders, he was subsequently sentenced to death at a Military Court.

The simple fact of the matter was that Connolly’s leg injuries were so bad, indeed I have read that he may not have lived much longer anyway, that he had been kept in a room in a section of Dublin Castle which had been converted into a hospital for troops wounded in Flanders or France, and was brought to Kilmainham by road on the day of his execution.  Unable to stand, the huge doors you can see (and which I told you to remember a long time ago) were opened and Connolly was brought straight from the vehicle outside to this end of the yard, strapped to a chair, and shot.

One final look behind us as we take our leave.  It’s a wretched place, the Stonebreaker’s Yard and, with great irony, unmissable if you find yourself in Dublin.  And it was the executions, rather than anything the Rising itself achieved, that turned the tide of public opinion, both at home and abroad (and in particular in America) against the British government, causing Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to order the executions to cease, although the case of Roger Casement, who was to be tried in England for treason, was allowed to continue to its inevitable conclusion.

Judge’s black cap and wig.  We shall take a look around the prison museum next.

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8 Responses to The Easter Rising Part Eleven – Kilmainham Gaol

  1. Nigel Shuttleworth says:

    Another great post, Magicfingers, the last para being absolutely on the money. Indeed, most historians today hold that public opinion was very largely right behind the Irish regiments fighting on the Western Front alongside the rest of the British Army, until the advent of General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell, GCB, KCMG, CVO, DSO, PC (11 July 1859 – 21 February 1929) who ordered the hangings and single handedly turned the Catholic population 180 degrees and provided the best recruiting campaign for the IRA for the next 50 years or more. Maxwell was another donkey, just like the rest of the British High Command of that era . . .

  2. Nick kilner says:

    Truly fascinating and horrifying at the same time. A really great post M.

  3. Sid from Down Under says:

    Many thanks for your insightful post, MJS. My Irish heritage aside, how gruesome is this place! Somewhat like our old Fremantle Prison and I daresay others in old Empire

    100 years later we still have overcrowding albeit at $100,000 pa per prisoner inmates are treated quite differently. So good that certain of our community are known to prefer jail to outside freedom!

  4. Morag Sutherland says:

    Another first class post. Depressing reading and viewing but essential for our understanding. Thank you as always

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