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Local History Series – A History Of Kilmainham Jail

Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin

(Image accredited to Sean Munson – see more of his images here)

In the late 1700’s, the old Kilmainham Gaol was situated at the juncture of Brookfield Road and Old Kilmainham. Insanitary conditions, lack of proper nourishment, overcrowding and dampness meant that prisoners acquired gaol fever, which took many lives. Life in this gaol could not have been worse. All prisoners were crowded together, male and female alike and many were kept in shackles for long periods of time. The gaoler supplied bread, water and straw for bedding and extracted a fee from the prisoner for these basics. The unfortunate inmate who had no money suffered starvation and all kinds of brutality. As Kilmainham Gaol was the county gaol, it was used as a holding place for prisoners being transported abroad, thus increasing the huge problem of overcrowding.

In the 1770’s, the Sheriff of Bedford, John Howard, carried out a survey, on the state prisons of England and Ireland. He was appalled at the conditions in these places of detention and set about bringing reform. Firstly, he set about having the system of taking fees from the prisoners, abolished. Reformation was a slow process. In 1786, a bill petitioning for the widening of roads and requesting a new gaol for Dublin, was put forward. This bill was passed in March of 1786 and the building of the new gaol was to be commissioned. It was to be located on the “Common of Kilmainham” which, having no other buildings in the vicinity, was deemed suitable. The architect chosen to design the new gaol was John Traile, who lived nearby in Islandbridge.

The new gaol received its first prisoners on the 12th August 1796.It must have presented a very forbidding appearance, with its heavy steel door, over which was depicted the five demons of Kilmainham, being held back by the chains of justice. However, prisoners had their own cells and male and female prisoners were segregated. The first gaoler was a man named Robert Ware. He was a kindly person. Henry Joy McCracken of the United Irishmen, was incarcerated in Kilmainham Gaol in 1796, charged with high treason. Despite being treated fairly by Ware, his health deteriorated. However,McCracken was bailed out in January 1798. During the spring and summer of 1798, the signs of insurrection were everywhere. A rising took place on the 23rd of May 1798. The failure of this rebellion gave Kilmainham Gaol its next famous prisoner, Thomas Addis Emmet. It also filled the gaol to bursting point with state prisoners.

The Act of Union, between the England and Ireland, was passed in 1801. The Irish House of Parliament was abolished and the Irish members in the British Parliament were in the minority. The Catholic Irish population were unrepresented and suppressed. Rebellion was in the air once again! The leader of this rebellion was Robert, the younger brother of Thomas Addis Emmet, who had been banished to Scotland. Robert Emmet travelled through Europe seeking help for this insurrection and returned to Dublin in 1803. The rising was planned for the 23rd July and Dublin Castle was to be taken over. The lack of both resources and morale among his men put success in jeopardy. Informers from within revealed the plans and Robert Emmet was arrested and placed in Kilmainham Gaol. Over two hundred insurgents were divided between Kilmainham Gaol and Newgate Prison. A new era, in the history of Kilmainham Gaol, had begun.

For further information on Kilmainham Gaol please read “A history of Kilmainham Gaol – The Dismal House of Little Ease” by Freida Kelly.

Fountain News DigitalThis article was originally published in:
Fountain News Digital – May 2011 (Issue 4)

We are re-publishing all articles from our past newsletter, Fountain News Digital, and you can view all completed newsletters here. There were nine issues published in total between 2010 and 2012.

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