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Sunday 22 October 2017

Inside the cells where the 1916 leaders spent their last tragic days

Heritage

The stonebreakers' yard at Kilmainham Gaol
The stonebreakers' yard at Kilmainham Gaol
A re-enactment of the marriage of Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford, filmed on location at Kilmainham Gaol for the 1966 RTE drama Insurrection
Willie Pearse

It's just after 9am on a cold Sunday morning and already the queue at Kilmainham's Gaol's main entrance is growing.

A variety of tourists are present: American, Belgian, Brazilian and Spanish (or rather Basque, as I'm quickly told) and the odd local.

All have arrived early and are keen to do the opposite to most of Kilmainham's previous inhabitants - get into the prison.

Given that it's 100 years since the Rising, and in light of the plethora of TV dramas and documentaries, newspaper supplements, civic events and remembrance services, it seemed a pretty apt time to make my first visit to a site which can rightly claim to be a cornerstone of Irish independence.

A working prison for over two centuries, Kilmainham Gaol was decommissioned in 1924 and is now a museum.

There is a tour every 15 minutes and on the day I visit Anne Nolan is our guide. The Raheny native provides a brilliant tour and her work is a credit to her colleagues and the Office of Public Works.

In just over an hour, she gives us a whistle stop but detailed account of the 220-year history of the prison.

Kilmainham has been referred to as the 'The Bastille of Ireland' because of its continuous links to political insurrection, and because it's housed some of the country's best known rebels.

The main attraction for most is to learn of links to the Rising's mleaders, but there is much more to Kilmainham, a history which stretches well back beyond 1916.

Young children in our group are stunned to learn the youngest inhabitant was a five-year-old boy, Matthew Rossiter, who stole a chain to sell for food during the Famine. Rough justice indeed.

Confined

The construction of the prison is explained in detail, including why the doorways were made low and narrow - to slow down any sporadic movement from those confined within its walls.

The sparse cells are grim and when the door closes behind, visitors are left wondering how inmates, locked up on their own, remained physically and mentally alert with just a small candle to suffice for two weeks before another was provided.

Many of those that did leave the prison in this era did so only to be put on a boat for deportation to Australia.

And watch out for peering eyes on your visit.

A spy hole in Robert Emmet's cell was used by the hangman to measure the length and weight of all those condemned for execution, on their last night alive.

The east wing is the Victorian section - probably the most recognisable part of the Gaol. It has been made famous in films such as In the Name of the Father (1993), The Italian Job (1969) and Michael Collins (1996) - the latter despite the fact that the Cork man was never locked up there.

When I visit I'm wrapped up in layers of winter jackets and can still feel the cold. God only knows how previous occupants of the prison managed.

Meanwhile, graffiti from rebel soldiers and anti-Treaty prisoners remains proudly above cell doors with carvings from all corners of the island - 'Carndonagh Hotel', 'No Surrender'.

But it is 1916 and its connection to the Gaol that strike a chord with all.

In the chapel visitors sit quietly in the pews and look at the altar where Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford were wed.

Soldiers were present throughout and the newly-weds were allowed the courtesy of just ten minutes in a cell, with a soldier looking on counting down the time, before Plunkett was taken outside to meet his fate.

Execution

Standing outside the cell doors of brothers Padraig and Willie Pearse, it is incredibly poignant to realise that this is where the pair spent their final nights facing execution squads.

In their final hours neither was aware or informed that his brother was just feet away in the cell alongside.

The final section of the tour is the most poignant part - featuring the yards where the 1916 leaders were executed and where four anti-Treaty fighters met the same fate six years later.

Two crosses mark the ground where 14 leaders, including the seven signatories to the Proclamation of Independence, were executed in the days from May 3-12, 1916.

A century later, the Stonebreakers' Yard remains poignant and revered.

All on the tour stand in silence, some shedding a tear, as they are told a tale that every Irish schoolchild learns at a young age - how Joseph Connolly, too wounded to stand, was brought in on a stretcher, tied to a chair and shot.

The 13 other men were executed at the other end of the yard.

A tricolour is now flown between the two crosses.

Even in death, the ghosts of Kilmainham still speak.

The letter of 18-year-old James Fisher - executed by Free State soldiers in 1922 - to his mother on display in the museum tells of his frame of mind, as he expresses his last wishes to see her.

After the tour is complete, visitors are free to visit the Gaol's museum which provides more stories, artefacts and history of the prison.

You will encounter much rhetoric, debate and pageantry on the Rising in the coming weeks.

But if you do just one thing to mark this centenary, make it a visit to this landmark 1916 site.

See www.heritageireland.ie/en/kilmainhamgaol

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