Irish Political History Intertwined with Built Heritage at the Kilmainham Gaol

New cell block.

The Kilmainham Goal was by far my favourite heritage site in Dublin.  The Goal was built in 1796 and was built in the ‘new style’ of the era, a style which moved towards a model of separation of prisoners into individual cells. In the previous local jail the inmates all mixes together in a form of chaos, the new Kilmainham Goal promoted a structured environment that allowed for the maximum number of prisoners under a minimum number of guards.

Access to the Goal is by guided tour only.  Visitors can take in the museum which chronicles the history of the Goal, Irish social movements, and Irish political history while they wait for their guided tour to leave.  The museum also includes a small section on the Goal’s restoration and community support for the restoration project. 

The walking tour of the former jail was extremely well done.  The tour began with an audio-visual


Goal chapel

presentation in the former chapel of the jail.  The presentation provided an overview of the history of the Goal and contextualized the Goal within larger social and political trends in Ireland.

Throughout the tour different cells, rooms, and former prisoners were mentioned and connected to the history of Ireland’s struggle for independence.  From the opening in 1796 until the closing in 1924 many notable Irish nationalist leaders were incarcerated in Kilmainham and a handful of them were hanged on site.  The tour highlights the role the Goal played in the Irish rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848, 1967, 1916, and the Irish War of Independence. The tour guide did an excellent job of explaining aspects of Irish history that many visitors may not be knowledgeable about.  The tour also includes the opportunity to stand inside cells, visit the dead-man’s row style room, and learn about developments in prison architecture.

At the time of my visit there was also an art exhibit installed in the new cell block (bottom right of the third photograph).  Christina Henri’sRoses from the Heart exhibit featured bonnets representing the 25,566 convict women transported to Australia from Britain and Ireland from 1788 to 1853.  Each bonnet was hand stitched with the name of a former inmate.  This installation provided the opportunity to learn and think about the women and children inmates.  According to our guide, the youngest inmate in Kilmainham was five years old and there were many children incarcerated for food related crimes.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Kilmainham Goal.  It’s a bit of a walk from the Dublin city center but is well worth the trek.  The Goal is also right near the old Kilmainham Hospital which has beautiful grounds and now houses the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

Photograph credit: Andrew MacKay

Canada’s Churches: A Struggle of Built Heritage and Social Services

It won’t be surprising to anyone to note that Christan church attendance in Canada has been declining in recent years.  The United Church of Canada, which has been seen as one of the more forward thinking and social activist churches (ordaining women ministers in the 1930s, tolerant and supportive of gay rights since the 1980s and promoting rational thought in the church since the 1990s) has had a declining membership since 1965. The once dominant Protestant churches in Canada are feeling a similar decline in membership.

In the small town of 1200 people where I live, there are five Christian churches which hold services on Sundays.  On the average non-holiday Sunday most of these churches see under 30 people in the pews.  Many congregations are struggling with financial concerns, lack of new members, and aging congregations. 

Looking at the United Churches in the North Shore region of Ontario paints a rather dismal picture.  Many of these churches are struggling to keep their doors open.  The congregations simply do not have the financial means to heat, maintain, and repair the historic buildings the churches call home.  In many cases the unwillingness to let go of these historic buildings is slowly resulting in the demise of congregations.  Ministers, secretaries, organists and other once essential staff are let go in hopes of saving money to support a building.  These decisions to discontinue with paid staff often result in further instability and additional church members leaving the church.  All for a building.

I find this instance on identifying a church with a building mind boggling.  Similar to service clubs (which are also facing declining membership), churches have long been community staples, providing community services and a sense of working for the less fortunate/the greater good.  Churches have served as gathering places and places of community spirit.

Historically, the social role of church has been just as significant as the heritage buildings the church communities have built. Many early church congregations met in community halls, private homes, and schools.  The location where these congregations gathered didn’t make them any less of a church.  The congregations still worshiped and worked together to improve their community.  The Church buildings came much later, as the congregations grew in size and prosperity.  Logically, if there has been a drastic decline in size and prosperity the church building should reflect that. 

 By no means would I want a historic building to be torn down or simply abandoned.  But, I can’t see the value in a handful of people holding onto a building after the worship and social components of a church have been lost.  The financial burden of a large church is huge. The winter heating costs alone can be crippling.  Desperately holding onto a building that you can’t afford in the long run seems like a form of denial and simply delaying the inevitable. 

There are a number of adaptive reuse possibilities for churches.  In the small town of five active churches which I spoke about earlier.  There is a sixth church building which stopped operating as a church in the 1990s.  Since that time, the building as been a public library, town offices, and an arts center.  The building still exists and many people have entered it that never would have had it stayed a church. Church buildings in larger cities have been turned into condos, office space, fitness centers and used for a whole range of other purposes. 

People don’t like change.  But, declining membership numbers and financial reports speak for themselves, ignoring them doesn’t make them go away.  Many church congregations and communities need to take a serious look at their future and decide how to move forth in an increasingly secular society.

Additional Reading:
The Globe and Mail article on “The Collapse of the Liberal Church” from June 2012 is an interesting read for anyone looking to learn more about the place of liberal Christianity in Canada and the United States.

Day3: Aboriginal History, the Value of Archives, and Confederation

Session 1: Aboriginal Oral History and Canadian Courts. This session dealt with the ongoing debate about the validity of using oral history in court trials. Christopher Bracken’s paper The Judge and the Pharmakon: Oral History and Aboriginal Rights was particularly interesting. Bracken examined the validity of oral history from a philosophical and literary perspective. The debate between writing and the spoken word have been going on since the time of Plato. All of the presenters highlighted the importance of understanding the difference between writing and oral histories and appreciating the uniqueness of each form of communication.

Session2: The First Draft of History: Archives, Archival Selection and the Determination of History. Despite the diverse topics which the papers in this panel covered, they were linked together by their focus on the use of archives. This session drove me to question the impact which filing systems, descriptions, archival organization, archival location, and who is keeping the records have on history. Archival material is a product of a social environment and cannot be viewed in isolation. During the discussion portion of this session a question was raised about the validity of private researchers using archival sources for litigation services. Dara Price of LAC answered this question in a commendable way. She pointed out that conducting research for profit and for a specific purpose is nothing new, and that archives have often been used by private researchers. This session reinforced the importance of being critical of archival material and contextualizing sources.

Session 3: Authority, Aboriginality, and Expertise. The papers in this session were linked by their emphasis on aboriginal agency. All three presenters focused on the relationship between governments and aboriginal peoples. I found Martha Walls’ paper on Exploring Federal Culpability in Residential Schooling particularly interesting. Walls examined the relationship of day schools and residential schools in the Maritimes. She suggested that the poor state of day schools, assisted the government in coercing First Nations into the residential school system. Overall, this session highlighted the linked relationship between first nation peoples and government decisions, and the way in which First Nations have frequently adapted to changing circumstances.

Session 4: Constructing Confederation and Constructing the Nation. All three presenters examined a different aspect of confederation. These papers were a combination of traditional political, social, and cultural history. Andrew Smith’s paper suggested that technology played a substantial role in the advancement of confederation. Ruth Frost examined Immigration policy following confederation, the role which immigration played in constructing the Nation. Bradley John Miller examined Copyright and the Constitutional Order. This session examined confederation and the the nation from a variety of prospectives, all of which were well presented.

CHA Conference. Day 1: From Footnotes to Songs to Cookbooks.

This week I attended the CHA conference at Carleton University. I had originally planned to write about my experience daily, however the busy nature of the conference has resulted in this series of posts being posted a few days following the conference.

The first session I attended was entitled “Indigenous Historical Methodology: Beyond the Footnote.” The work of the three presenters focused on the issue of indigenous representation and the interpretation of indigenous history. One of the points that struck me most, in this session, was the constant struggle of maintaining academic integrity while still serving and doing justice to the community. This pull between objectivity and acting for a client is something which plagues most public historians. However using a variety of research techniques can assist in providing a more complete picture of the past.

The second session I attended was “Defining Authority and Identity in World War I.” This panel was one of my personal favorites of the entire conference. The presenters in this session looked at WWI from a variety of perspectives, all of which tied in aspects of social, political, and cultural history. In particular, Tim Cook’s paper “Oh, What a Lovely War: Canadian Soldiers Singing in the Great War” used songs and music to explore the unique solider culture which developed during the war. This paper also explore the way in which songs allowed soldiers to challenge authority and create a brotherhood of solders. Overall this panel examined the power relationships which existed during WWI in a way which was both insightful and creative.

The last panel which I attended on Monday was “Popular Culture and Social Life.” This session featured papers on a variety of topics including hockey, baseball, valentines, and cookbooks. The nature of these papers made the panel enjoyable, and I believe that any of these papers would have been easily appreciated by non academics. Additionally, Craig Greenham’s paper “Permission to Play, Sir?: The CEF’s Approach to Baseball in the Great War” would have fit nicely with the Defining Authority in WWI panel. Greenham’s paper examined the increasing presence of baseball in the military and the use of baseball as a tool for bonding, training, and distraction.

Overall, my experience on the first day of the CHA conference was filled with interesting discussion and insightful papers. All of the sessions I attended placed emphasis on the personal experience and on the social aspects of history. However this may have been due to my choice in sessions.