Kilmainham Jail - History and Facts | History Hit

Kilmainham Jail

Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland

Kilmainham Jail housed some of Ireland's most famous political prisoners.

Image Credit: graphicfootage / Shutterstock

About Kilmainham Jail

Kilmainham Jail, also spelt ‘Kilmainham Gaol’, in Dublin was a notoriously fearsome prison housing a mixture of common criminals and high profile political prisoners.

History of Kilmainham

Originally built outside the city to replace the overcrowded previous prison, Kilmainham opened in 1796. Over 4000 of its early prisoners were transported to Australia. During the Great Famine (1845-52), the prison became increasingly squalid and overcrowded – prisoners were fed at least once a day, whilst many peasants would have been left to starve. Ironically, many of those imprisoned were women and children, precisely because they had been begging or stealing food.

Kilmainham has long been associated with political prisoners, particularly those who rebelled against British rule, including the Young Irelanders, Fenians, and many of the leaders of the Easter Rising (1916).

In 1861, a new East Wing was built in line with Victorian theories linking reform to prison architecture, and in 1881, the prison became all-male. In 1910, Kilmainham was handed over to the British for use as a military detention centre, and eventually also a site for political prisoners.

By the time it was closed in 1924, Kilmainham Jail had held and been the site of the execution of some of the most famous figures in Irish history, particularly those imprisoned in the fight for Irish independence. For example, after leading the ultimately unsuccessful uprising against the English in 1803, Irish nationalist Robert Emmet was held at Kilmainham Jail together with 200 of his followers. He was later executed. 14 of the leaders of the Easter Rising were also executed in one of the prison’s exercise yards.

Today, Kilmainham Jail stands as Europe’s largest unoccupied prison. It fell into disrepair following its closure, and a volunteer programme helped look after and eventually restore the prison. It was opened as a museum on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising (1966) by the then President, Eamon de Valera. In 1986, the OPW took over the running of the prison, and in the early 2000s, Kilmainham Courthouse was also restored.

Kilmainham today

The site is one of the most visited attractions in Dublin (and Ireland) – it’s well worth booking advanced tickets as the slots get snapped up quickly. Fortunately the museum is open long hours year round: it’s a relatively sleek set up, run by the OPW. Access is by guided tour only, which brings certain aspects of the site to life but also means there’s limited chance to explore on your own. The guides are very knowledgeable so be sure to pepper them with any questions you might have!

The East Wing at Kilmainham is particularly iconic: based on Victorian prison theories, it’s been used as inspiration for multiple representations of prisons on the big and small screen, and it’s fascinating to wander round and understand how and why it was built in this way.

Getting to Kilmainham

Kilmainham is west of Dublin’s city centre: the nearest Luas stop is Suir Road (Red line), about a 10 minute walk away, and various buses from the city centre (including the 13, 40, 68, 79 and 123) stop at Kilmainham. Otherwise, it’s a 45 minute walk from College Green, or a short taxi ride from anywhere in the city centre.

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