I’m going to visit my friend Emma, who married an Irish guy a few years ago and is now living in London while he goes on TV to talk about his father and the corruption that took place in Dublin not long ago. I know Emma pretty well, and she’s more passionate about Irish independence than anyone I’ve ever met. So in preparation for my visit with her, I took the bus down to Kilmainham Gaol, and toured the facility where the 1916 executions of political prisoners took place. Those executions turned the tide of opinion for Irish independence, particularly the last one, James Connolly, who had severe gangrene and had been given a day or two to live. Not to be denied their execution, the jailers had him delivered from the hospital, carried in on a stretcher, propped up and shot by firing squad.
The jail housed a number of other political prisoners, among them Grace Plunkett, who married her fiancé Joseph Plunkett in the jail’s chapel a few hours before his own execution. Grace was imprisoned during the civil war of 1923 in the same jail, and, being a talented artist and cartoonist, smuggled in paints that she used to decorate the walls of her cell.
The jail operated over a period of over a hundred years, beginning in the late 1700s, and a number of the prisoners were thieves who stole food during the Great Hunger. Women and children were brought in by the thousands then, and had to sleep crowded together in the damp limestone hallways. They were allotted food in jail, however, so they did not starve, although some of them did die from the filthy conditions.
The jail’s museum contained a number of notable items, among them an executioner’s business card. This particular executioner was apparently quite proud of his ability to calculate the proper drop in a hanging, and would pass his card out to the press at the public hangings.
One of the political prisoners of 1916 who was condemned to the firing squad, and subsequently pardoned after public opinion met James Connolly’s death with such horror, went on to become the prime minister of Ireland. The last to leave the jail at its closing, Eamon de Valera was the first to tour it when it was re-opened to the public in 1966, 50 years after the 1916 uprising.