Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin receives its first prisoners on August 12, 1796. When it is first built in 1796, Kilmainham Gaol is called the “New Gaol” to distinguish it from the old prison it is intended to replace. It is officially called the County of Dublin Gaol, and is originally run by the Grand Jury for County Dublin.
Originally, public hangings take place at the front of the prison. However, from the 1820s onward very few hangings, public or private, take place at Kilmainham. A small hanging cell, located on the first floor between the west wing and the east wing, is built in the prison in 1891.
There is no segregation of prisoners as men, women, and children are incarcerated up to five in each cell, with light and heat provided by a single candle which has to last for two weeks. The cells are roughly 28 square metres in area.
At Kilmainham the poor conditions in which women prisoners are kept provide the spur for the next stage of development. Remarkably, for an age that prides itself on a protective attitude for the “weaker sex,” the conditions for women prisoners are persistently worse than for men. Male prisoners are supplied with iron bedsteads while females lay on straw on the floor. Half a century later, however, there is little improvement.
Many Irish revolutionaries, including the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, are imprisoned and executed in the prison by the British.
Kilmainham Gaol is decommissioned as a prison by the Irish Free State government in 1924. Seen principally as a site of oppression and suffering at the time, there is no declared interest in its preservation as a monument to the struggle for national independence. The jail’s potential function as a location of national memory is also undercut and complicated by the fact that the first four republican prisoners executed by the Free State government during the Irish Civil War are shot in the prison yard.
The Irish Prison Board contemplates reopening it as a prison during the 1920s but the plans are abandoned in 1929. In 1936 the government considers the demolition of the prison but the price of this undertaking is seen as prohibitive.
In February 1960 detailed plans submitted by the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society for the restoration of Kilmainham, which notably also envisions the site’s development as a tourist attraction, receive the approval of the notoriously parsimonious Department of Finance. Restoration work begins in May of the same year. The final restoration of the site is completed in 1971 when Kilmainham Gaol chapel is re-opened to the public.
Kilmainham Gaol now houses a museum on the history of Irish nationalism and offers guided tours of the building. An art gallery on the top floor exhibits paintings, sculptures, and jewelry of prisoners incarcerated in prisons all over contemporary Ireland. It is run by the Office of Public Works, an agency of the Government of Ireland.