Ireland is a fiercely independent country—it fought long and hard for its freedom. Kilmainham Gaol is an infamous site and strongly associated with Irish independence. In 1916, the leaders of the Easter Rising (Éirí Amach na Cásca) were executed here, along with many followers. It is one of the most haunted places in Ireland, and worth touring on an Ireland vacation.
Kilmainham Gaol opened in 1796 as Dublin’s new county jail. It was modern for its time, but conditions were appalling. Prisoners included women and children. Men could have an iron bed, but women and children slept on straw pallets. A candle had to last two weeks, and there were no windows or heat.
Most prisoners were jailed for minor offenses such as petty theft or unpaid debt. Despite shipping many off to Australia, overcrowding was a constant problem. (During the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852, people would commit crimes in order to be jailed—at least it was a roof over their heads.)
Kilmainham and Irish Independence
The Irish Rebellion of 1798 was led by Henry Joy McCracken, shortly after his release from Kilmainham. A failed rebellion in 1803 caused Robert Emmett’s incarceration. He was convicted of treason, hanged on Thomas Street, and beheaded. In 1848, William Smith O’Brien and Thomas Francis Meagher of the Young Irelanders were jailed in Kilmainham following another failed rebellion. (They were sent to Tasmania.) And many members of the Fenian Uprising of 1867 and its 1822 successor, “The Invincibles,” were jailed in Kilmainham.
The Irish Citizens Army and the Irish Volunteers, both revolutionary groups, joined forces. On Easter Monday in 1916 they took over government buildings. They declared themselves an independent Irish Republic, but one week later they were overwhelmed by British Forces. Gaol had been closed in 1910, and it was reopened to house the hundreds of men and women captured. Fourteen leaders of the rebellion faced the firing squad. One injured man, James Connolly, was carried on a stretcher, tied to a chair, and executed.
Many British citizens were horrified by the executions. The gaol was occupied until the civil war ended in 1924, at which time all prisoners were released and Kilmainham was abandoned.
The Restoration and the Ghosts
In 1960, the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Committee was formed, and workers immediately encountered paranormal phenomena.
Governor Dan McGill lived at Kilmainham in the old warden’s quarters, overseeing the restorations. One night he looked out the window and saw the old chapel lights on—he had just turned them off. When he investigated, the chapel was empty. He turned the lights off again and went back to his rooms. When he looked out the window, the lights were on. He went back and forth with the lights and finally gave up.
The most famous ghostly visitation took place around the same time. A volunteer was painting the dungeon area. Suddenly, an unseen force blew him across the room and pinned him against the far wall. The man had to fight to free himself and escape the dungeon. He refused to go back.
Other restoration stories include a man who was renewing the Echoing Corridor. He heard footsteps climbing the stone stairs and walking the hall behind him. The footsteps would stop, and then start again, throughout the day. Another worker heard footsteps approaching. He looked up, didn’t see anyone, but felt an icy chill. Footsteps trudging along the corridor, echoing with the sound of a soldier’s brigade, were also common.
Visitors and staff continue to have spooky encounters. People see, what they believe to be, actors dressed in period clothing—they discover they’re apparitions. A number of tour guides and visitors report feeling a frightening presence near the chapel balcony. Some people are convinced they’re being watched. Eerie cold spots, unexplained noises, footsteps, voices, and cell doors banging shut are heard. Lights turn on and off. A few people feel they are pushed by unseen hands.