The history of Kilmainham Gaol dates back to 1787, but the infamous jail that sits on the site today as a museum was opened in 1796, four years before the Act of Union abolished the Irish Parliament in Dublin (and thus making Ireland a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain). "It closed in 1924, two years after the signing of a Treaty that restored a measure of independence to the south of Ireland, a step that led ultimately to the declaration of a Republic in 1949.
Thus, the opening and closing of the Jail more or less coincided with the making and breaking of the Union between Great Britain and Ireland. During the intervening years the Jail held a mirror to the turbulent history of the troubled relations between the two countries. These years saw Rebellion, Famine, Revolution, and Civil War. At the heart of these troubles lay Irish attempts at varying degrees of self-determination which came to a terrible climax in the years 1916-23."
"The Jail is now a National Monument, and has been opened to the public as a Museum. The Museum tells the story of Ireland's troubled path to independence and of the Jail's role in that story."
Many of Ireland's most important historical figures spent time in the jail, and some of them died there by firing squad or by the hangman's noose. The leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were held and executed here.
"There can be no doubt that the response of the British government to the Rising contributed measurably to the further alienation of Irish public opinion. On 26th April 1916, it had introduced martial law and next day appointed Major-General Sir John Maxwell as Commander-in-Chief of troops, Ireland. He had full authority to restore order, put down the rebellion, and punish its participants. Maxwell never doubted that its leaders should be court-martialled and those most prominent executed... In 90 cases the court’s verdict was ‘Death by being shot’. Maxwell confirmed this judgement on 15 defendants, and these were executed between 3-12 May 1916."
There can be few places, therefore, that more intensely focus the forces that shaped modern Irish history than Kilmainham Jail.
Thanks to the following:
Kilmainham Gaol (Irish: Príosún Chill Mhaighneann)
The Executions of the Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising