Exploring the Kilminham Gaol was the first thing on the lists of things to do today, Gaol is Jail for those of you who can’t hear it spoken out-loud. The Kliminham Gaol is arguably one of the most important historical buildings in the Republic of Ireland. Initially constructed in 1796 it contained just a few rooms. Men, women, and children were all thrown into these rooms together. This meant that rapists, murderers, burglars, and really anyone the government didn’t like would get thrown in this mash. Of course in an environment like this, everyone would have to do whatever it would take to stay alive, and this only increased their criminal tool sets. Eventually the British figured that they could start having solitaire rooms and the killing, raping, and spread of disease would slow down a little bit.
Of course they only were able to have about 12o rooms in the jail and far more than 120 prisoners. Not only was the increase of Irish rebellions leading to an increase in prisoners but Ireland was frequently used as a prisoner stop point on the way to deposit criminals in Australia. Often this would lead to there being up to 8 prisoners in a single person cell. As you can see these cells had hardly any room for a few people standing let alone 8 people trying to sleep and live in these cells for up to twenty hours a day.
The jail was closed down 1913 and used as a barracks for English troops. After the 1916 Easter Rising it was used as a holding area for the main leaders of the rebellion. The commander at the time was General John Maxwell. He has been described as an 19th century style leader. He looked to take revenge on the Irish usurpers. He planned to use fear to put down this rebellion as he felt he was losing control. He set up a court-martial in which the choices were to declare those captured as guilty innocent, free or to be executed. 12 men were sentenced to death. As each man was executed the population grew more and more sympathetic. Initially they deemed those in the rebellion as traitors and threw stones and spit upon them. As the days went by, the people or Ireland realized that those being executed were like them, just people. They recognized those who were being executed as community leaders and friends, people from down the street, people with families and lovers.
One story that leaked out of the jail was that of Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford. Plunkett was one of those shot who was actually involved in the Easter Rising. He was one of the most important instigators of the rising, and his ideas were those that were largely followed for the execution of the rising. The day before it started he had an operation on his throat and had to pull himself out of his bed still bandaged, to be able to take his part in the rising. After the surrender he wrote this letter to his girlfriend Grace.
It reads “Dear Grace, You will marry me and nobody else. I have been a dammed fool and a blind imbecile but thank God I see I love you and you only and will never love anyone else. Your love, Joe.” They were married in the prison chapel that day. They were allowed 10 minutes together in his cell to say there good by’s while a guard stood next to them counting the seconds going by out loud. He was executed less than an hour later by firing squad. Hearing this story, and seeing this final letter, really moved me. As I have talked about in the few previous posts I have begun to actually connect and understand the people a little bit better. No matter how much you learn, you need to connect with the people to truly have any context or empathy. This was one of the few things we have touched upon thus far that truly has had a personal emotional stir.
These executions continued until that of James Connolly. He had been thrice wounded during the battle, the last one shattering his shin bone. They refused to operate on him figuring he would be condemned to death and what was the point on operating upon a dead man. Unable to even stand they strapped him to a chair in the corner of the yard and shot him. This was the breaking point for the Irish people. This action shocked supporters of all sides and really raised a global awareness of the atrocities being committed against the Irish people. Fellow officers of General Maxwell urged him to stop these executions, and even the King wrote to him demanding that these executions be stopped. It has been said that Maxwell was the one who lost Ireland for England, for after these final atrocities Ireland was truly set on the course for independence.