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