Along the Nile River, the scenery is ever-changing. The calm, lazy water is a dark grayish green, often brightened by a passing felucca with its large white sails billowing in the breeze; or even a Nubian boy, paddling a tiny wooden rowboat by hand while singing a cheerful sailing song in surprisingly good English.
On one side of the river is the Sahara, stark and desolate, its pale golden sands burning in the sun. On the other, lush green palm trees and farmers’ fields, where people use cattle to plow, and move crops in carts pulled by donkeys.
The farmland gives way to unfinished brick cities, full of tall, roofless buildings topped by the massive satellite dishes that went out of fashion 20 years ago in the US. The old dishes often keep company with animals, such as goats, chickens, or geese in rusted cages. Some of the buildings have been plastered and painted, creating a bright spot of eggshell blue or cherry red among the sun-bleached cement and brick.
At dusk, the hazy gray sky burns yellow and orange as the sun sinks into the glistening silver river. Away from the city lights, the palm trees and desert sand dissolve into the eerie blackness of 4000 years ago. All is still and silent, but only for a few moments, until the deck lights chase away the specters of Isis and Osiris, and it’s happy hour for the rest of the night.
I visited Ireland in September of 2012. I never would have imagined that touring a creepy old jail would be a highlight of my trip to such a beautiful country, but it was a fascinating experience. The history of the Gaol is tightly entwined with the overall history of Ireland.
On my last full day in Ireland, I joined a few other people in my Contiki group for an afternoon tour of this historic site. We had to wait about an hour for the next available tour, and spent the time looking through the museum, which features many artifacts related to the Easter Rising of 1916.
Our tour guide was excellent, and shared many interesting facts and anecdotes about the jail. The tour began in the chapel, where we watched a video featuring pictures of some of the prison records. Many people were imprisoned for very minor offenses—the most troubling picture in the video was of the record for a young child who was jailed for stealing four loaves of bread during the Irish Famine.
Our guide also shared the story of Joseph Plunkett, a leader of the 1916 uprising. The night before he was to be executed, he was allowed to marry his fiancée, Grace Gifford, there in the chapel. “Can you imagine getting married, knowing that you won’t see each other again afterward?” she asked.
Next, the tour moved through the oldest part of the building. Here, the guide explained that the Gaol was meant to be an example of prison reform, but conditions quickly became overcrowded, particularly during the famine. Men, women, and children were all crowded together into the same space; petty criminals were locked up with murderers. For many of the adult prisoners, the Gaol served as a “waiting room” until they were transported to Australia.
As we stood in the corridor, she told us that conditions became so overcrowded that people would have to sleep right on the floor where we were standing because there was no room in the cells. Most prisoners were given only a thin blanket and a Bible, and served meals that were usually just gruel. Still, she suggested that conditions in the Gaol might have been an improvement considering the poverty that so many people were subject to, because at least in prison they had meals and a roof over their heads.
The guide then led us through the area where leaders of the Easter Rising had been jailed. Their names were listed on plaques about the cells they had occupied. She pointed out Joseph Plunkett’s cell, telling us that after he married Grace, she had been called back to the Gaol and they had been given ten minutes to say their goodbyes in that cell, with guards present.
The next stop on the tour was in the most recent section of the Gaol, which was built in the Panopticon style. This area was designed so that light would come in from the high ceiling. The tour guide said it was meant to make the prisoners look up and think of God’s forgiveness so they would want to repent of the sins that had landed them in the jail. This section of the Gaol has also been featured in several movies.
Grace Plunkett (nee Gifford) was imprisoned in this section of the Gaol for several months in 1923. A talented artist, she painted a mural of the Madonna and Child on the wall of her cell, where it still remains.
Last, the guide led us to the outdoor area where the leaders of the Easter Rising were executed. However, by this time it was pouring rain so we could only take a quick look at the space before heading back inside. The guide told us that one of the men executed that day was so badly injured that he could not stand and had to be strapped to a chair for his execution.
The Gaol was closed in 1924, and the building fell into ruin. Some members of the Irish government wanted to tear the building down, but in the 1960’s there was a movement to restore the Gaol and keep it as a historical monument. On the third floor of the museum area, there is a film playing where people are being interviewed about the Gaol and why they think it should be preserved. Most of the people said something about it being a reminder of the nation’s history, and learning from past mistakes.
All in all, the tour was a haunting, but fascinating experience. I highly recommend it for anyone who has any interest in history.
Several months after my visit to Ireland, we began discussing the concept of shared linking objects in the rhetorical theory course I was taking. Vamik Volkan writes that, “Large groups mourn after their members share a massive trauma and experience losses.” This mourning can be manifest through “monuments related to the massive trauma or to their ancestors’ massive trauma at the hands of others.” It seems to me that Kilmainham Gaol is one such monument. There were many traumatic incidents in Irish history during the years the Gaol was open (1796-1924), and it is very closely linked with those traumatic incidents, particularly the Easter Rising.
Volkan writes that, “When a monument evolves into a shared linking object, the functions that are attached to it will vary, depending on the nature of the shared mourning that the group is experiencing… A monument as a shared linking object is associated with the wish to complete a group’s mourning and help its members accept the reality of their losses. On the other hand, it is also associated with the wish to keep mourning active in the hope of recovering what was lost; this latter wish fuels feelings of revenge. Both wishes can co-exist: one wish can be dominant in relation to one monument, while the other is dominant in relation to another monument. Sometimes a monument as a linking object absorbs unfinished elements of incomplete mourning and helps the group to adjust to its current situation without re-experiencing the impact of the past trauma and its disturbing emotions.”
In a way, I think Kilmainham Gaol functions as a shared linking object, particularly since people preferred to have it preserved rather than torn down. When I shared this in the class discussion, my friend Erin asked whether I think the Gaol keeps the grief and resentment alive, or if I think it serves as a monument to the fact that that horrible time is over. I replied that I think the Gaol serves as a monument to the Irish people’s survival of that awful time, and a reminder not to let those sorts of events be repeated. I doubt whether the mourning for those tragic events can ever truly be “completed,” but I do think the Gaol “absorbs unfinished elements of incomplete mourning and helps the group to adjust to its current situation without re-experiencing the impact of the past trauma and its disturbing emotions,” as Volkan stated in his paper.
Kilmainham Gaol is located on Inchicore Road, Kilmainham, Dublin 8. The adult admission fee is €6.00.