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The Haunting History of Kilmainham Gaol

Ireland is a fiercely independent country and rightly so.  It had to fight long and hard for its independence.  One of the most infamous sites associated with Irish independence is Kilmainham Gaol.  It is where the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were executed (among many, many others).  And it is widely considered one of, if not the, most haunted places in Ireland.

Kilmainham Gaol opened in 1796 as the county jail for Dublin, Ireland.  Although it was quite a modern jail for its time, conditions were appalling.  Prisoners came from everywhere and could be anyone, including women and children.  The youngest prisoner is believed to have been only seven years old.  The prison was not segregated by age or sex, and it was common practice to hold up to five people in a cell.  Men could have an iron bed, but women and children had to sleep on straw pallets on the floor.  A cell would be given a single candle that had to last for two weeks.  And the cells did not have windows, lighting or heat.

Most prisoners were not hardened criminals.  While there might be an occasional prostitute or murderer, most prisoners were jailed for offenses like petty theft or being a debtor. And despite shipping off many of the adults to Australia, overcrowding was a constant problem.  During the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852, many people would commit crimes just so they could be jailed.  After all, if you were in jail, you at least had a roof over your head and food to eat.  During this time, the prisoner population grew so large that inmates slept in corridors.

In 1864 Kilmainham Gaol expanded.  The original gaol became the West Wing and the new area became the East Wing.  Outside the East Wing was the Stonebreaker’s Yard, which hosted public executions.  After expansion, prisoners were separated and (finally) housed in their own cells.  However, their treatment by their captors was not much improved.

But the real history of Kilmainham Gaol is tied to Ireland’s fight for independence.  There was the Irish Rebellion of 1798, led by Henry Joy McCracken, shortly after his release from Kilmainham Gaol.  Another failed rebellion in 1803 led to Robert Emmett being jailed in Kilmainham.  He was convicted of treason, hanged on Thomas Street and beheaded afterwards.  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 shortly thereafter.)  And numerous members of the Fenian Uprising of 1867 and its successor, “The Invincibles” of 1822, were jailed in Kilmainham Gaol as well.

The most infamous story, however, is tied to the Easter Rising.  The Irish Citizens Army and the Irish Volunteers, both revolutionary groups, joined forces and on Easter Monday 1916 took over a number of government buildings.  They declared themselves an independent Irish Republic, but were overwhelmed by British forces a week later.  Kilmainham Gaol, which had been closed in 1910, was reopened specifically to house the hundreds of men and women captured as part of the Rising.  Fourteen leaders of the rebellion were taken out to the Stonebreaker’s Yard to face the firing squad.  One man, James Connolly, had been so badly wounded during the fighting that he could not walk out to the yard.

So he was carried there on a stretcher, tied to a chair and executed.

After the executions, public opinion turned against Britain.  Even many British were appalled by the executions and an order was issued that no more executions would take place.

In 1921, the Irish Free State rose from the ashes of the Easter Rising.  In 1922 civil war broke out and the rebels took over Kilmainham Gaol.  They executed 77 Republicans, many of them in Stonebreaker’s Yard.  The gaol was occupied until the civil war ended in 1924, at which time all prisoners were released and the gaol was abandoned.

In 1960, the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Committee formed.  Given the gaol’s bloody history, it is no wonder that volunteers restoring the gaol encountered paranormal phenomena almost immediately. 

Governor Dan McGill lived at Kilmainham in the old warden’s quarters, overseeing restorations.  One night he looked out the window to see the old chapel lights on.  He found this odd, since he had only just turned those lights off himself.  He went to investigate and found the chapel empty.  He turned the lights off a second time and returned to his quarters.  When he looked out the window, he saw that the lights had been turned on yet again.  So he made another trip to the chapel to turn the lights off for the third time that night.  Finally, after the third time, the lights stayed off and he and his family were able to get some sleep.

Arguably the most famous ghostly visitation also took place during this period.  As part of the restoration efforts, a volunteer was painting the dungeon area.  All of a sudden, an unseen force blew him across the room and pinned him against the far wall.  It took several minutes, but the man was able to fight free and escape the dungeon.  Other volunteers found the shaken man, who flatly refused to ever set foot in the dungeon again.

And there are other restoration stories.  A man was redecorating the Echoing Corridor when he heard footsteps climbing the stone stairs and walking the passage behind him.  He kept hearing footsteps at regular intervals throughout the day.  Another man heard footsteps walking towards him.  He looked up, but could not see anyone.  The footsteps continued past him and he felt a ghostly presence pass through him as well.  Another man heard what sounded like the march of a soldiers’ brigade along one of the corridors.

Visitors and staff have reported a variety of encounters.  People see what they think are actors dressed in period clothing, only to discover that they are in fact ghosts walking around in daylight.  A number of tour guides and visitors have reported feeling an evil, frightening presence near the chapel balcony.  Many people are convinced they are being watched.  There are strange cold spots and unexplained noises, including footsteps, voices and cell doors banging shut.  Lights turn themselves on and off.  Some people have even reported being pushed by unseen hands.

And perhaps most frightening of all, Kilmainham Gaol seems to prey on children.  Many children who come to take a tour suddenly freeze at the main gate, paralyzed in sheer terror.  And the adamantly refuse to go inside.

If you are looking to be frightened by the ghosts of Kilmainham Gaol, book one of our Ireland vacations and proceed with caution.