Kilmainham Gaol

Kilmainham Gaol:
Interpreting Irish nationalism and Republicanism

by Pat Cooke

Turning bondage into freedom: 1796-1924

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Kilmainham Gaol might well be either a dilapidated ruin or still a functioning prison if it were not for its extraordinary history. Through an uncanny series of coincidences, leading players in the key episodes of armed opposition to British rule in Ireland, the rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867 and 1916, were fated to spend time or die within its walls. This sequence of rebellions, culminating in the War of Independence of 1919-21 and the Civil War of 1922-24, constitute the spine of the Irish nationalist and Republican tradition, and ensure Kilmainham’s place as the ‘Bastille of Ireland', perhaps the most important Irish monument of the modern period.

Yet it was this very history that saw the Gaol consigned to closure, neglect and ruin for over thirty years. During the Civil War of 1922-24, in a yard not far from where fourteen of the leaders of the 1916 Rising had been executed, four young Republican prisoners were shot by fellow-Irishmen of the Free State army in November 1922. Both sides in the Civil War claimed legitimacy from the 1916 Rising. The close juxtaposition of these places of execution within the one building were a source of deep discomfort for the Free State government. It decided to close the Gaol down. Kilmainham’s final prisoner was to be its own history. For thirty odd years its doors remained locked, its yards and corridors abandoned to the elements and the thousands of pigeons who made their home there.

But throughout the years of dilapidation that history was carbonising in the imaginations of the revolutionary generation of 1916-24 into a crystalline symbol of the Irish nationalist struggle for independence. Despite the ‘unfinished business’ of Northern Ireland, the Southern twenty-six county Republic seemed indeed to have achieved the substance of independence (it was declared a Republic in 1949). The bitterness of the Civil War was gradually abating, allowing a perspective to emerge in which all those who had fought for independence could see Kilmainham as the place where the nationalist struggle was most dramatically and summarily represented.

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