Porridge mixed with politics

The Kilmainham Jail in Dublin sheds light on a dark age. By Alan Murdoch

Dublin's Kilmainham Jail Museum brings a searing reality to the lives of its sometimes anonymous, sometimes famous inmates. It was, after all, the place where a Who's Who of Irish nationalist leaders, from Robert Emmet to Parnell to de Valera, heard the thud of metal doors clanging behind them.

In the past year, the once gloomy prison museum's permanent exhibition has been brought to life with theatrical flair and pounds 1m of public funds to explain how famine, civil disorder and war came to land so many inside. Its balance of dignified treatment of the tragedy of Irish leaders' executions here and the opportunities to engage younger visitors through video-age techniques has recently been recognised with a Large Museum of the Year award from the Gulbenkian Foundation.

Kilmainham was the world's first jail used exclusively for political prisoners, yet its grey stone passages also provide the ideal cautionary trip back into stern Victorian times for harassed parents of adolescents.

The early prison "reformers" Jeremy Bentham and John Howard, zealots for extracting repentance and for the "fabrication of virtue", saw their vision given full rein here. They favoured harsh, hygienic and "fair" punishment as an alternative to the squalor of 18th-century prisons, in which more prisoners were killed by disease than by the ever-busy gallows.

In the new display, "humane" refinements of hanging - largely through the longer-drop, quicker-farewell technique developed by Professor Samuel Haughton of Trinity College, Dublin - are explained in neck-tingling detail.

Young people are encouraged to take part in the age-old debate about hanging by casting a vote in a computer poll; they can then see, in graphic form on screen, the latest balance of visitors' opinions for and against, presented by age group in graphic form on screen.

In 1796 Kilmainham was rearranged on the principles of one prisoner, one cell - and soon became overcrowded. Convict numbers soared during the famine in the late 1840s when the starving were imprisoned in their thousands for possession of stolen bread-and-butter, and theft of apples or even turnips. The prison's grim regime is clearly illustrated by the authorities' attitude towards rations. On discovering that prisoners got four ounces of bread more than workhouse inmates, an enraged inspector, Phillip Priestly, demanded: "this alarming gap must be closed".

Even the mildest Victorian punishment aimed to exert maximum control over the inmate - and to ensure that the prisoner knew it. One exhibit is a cell-door eye-slot, revealing a miniature video of a confined woman's unnerved reaction to the warder's watching eye. And in an adjacent closed- circuit television room, visitors become warder-monitors of the jail and, eerily, of themselves.

As for political prisoners, after 1798, French-influenced United Irishmen were held here, as was Robert Emmet before his 1803 public execution; in 1848 Young Ireland rebels followed; then, in 1867, Fenians were incarcerated, betrayed by informers. After this, criminals were moved out, turning Kilmainham into a jail exclusively for political detainees.

In 1881, these included the nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell and his Land Leaguers, who defended Irish tenant farmers from evictions and rejected Westminster's Land Acts.

His release followed the 1882 Kilmainham Treaty, securing Parnell's co- operation with the British Prime Minister William Gladstone's Liberal government.

Kilmainham's climactic moment came in the 20th century, when 14 Easter Rising leaders were shot here between 3 and 12 May, 1916. In a darkened passageway their family photographs, letters, pens and spectacles are laid out in individual spotlit alcoves, like shrines to the executed.

While the curator, Pat Cooke, acknowledges the value of a recent reassessment of 1916 by Irish historians, the museum avoids a didactic narrative. "We present the nationalist `physical force' tradition in its own terms and allow people to react in their own way," he says.

This means admitting to the complex, mixed backgrounds of the 1916 leaders. Some even had English parentage, a fact that contradicts the nationalist stereotype. Paradoxes continued when the jail changed hands.

British withdrawal left the prison controlled by pro-Treaty forces under Michael Collins, who appointed an IRA friend as governor over former comrades during the bloody 1922-1924 civil war. By November 1922, after Collins's death, Free State (pro-Treaty) forces were holding their own executions here.

Between April and September 1923, 300 anti-Treaty hardliners of the IRA women's division were imprisoned in Kilmainham and nearby Grangegorman (the main setting for Neil Jordan's film Michael Collins).

In time-honoured tradition, the women began tunnelling their way out, using metal spoons, but had got only a few feet before being discovered. After the women's release, Eamon de Valera, Sinn Fein leader (and opponent of Michael Collins during the civil war), later Taoiseach and President, became Kilmainham's final prisoner. He lived to see the building renovated by admiring volunteers in the Sixties. Today its dramatic associations continue. Key scenes from In the Name of the Father, featuring Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four, were filmed here in 1993.

The Kilmainham Jail Museum, Dublin (003531 4535984), is at the junction of Inchicore Road and the South Circular Road, Dublin 8 (opposite the Irish Museum of Modern Art at Royal Hospital, Kilmainham).

Opening times: Monday to Friday 9.30am-5pm (last tour 75 minutes before closing.) Guided tours only. Saturdays: closed in winter. Open Saturdays from 3 May; Sundays 10am-6pm (last tour 4.45pm.)

Admission: adults pounds 2; senior citizen pounds 1.50; children or students pounds 1; family pounds 5.

Bus routes: Nos 51, 51B, 78A, 79 from city centre.

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