On This Day – 11 August 1796 Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin prepares to receive its first prisoners



It’s such a huge tourist attraction today that it’s quite shocking to realise there were proposals as recently as the 1950s to demolish much of it. But Kilmainham Gaol survived intact to play a huge part in the current decade of centenaries.

It opened in 1796 and even then, it was a grim place, housing men, women, and children as young as twelve. Some were held there prior to transportation to Australia, others were lodged in the prison before their executions, some served many years there in dreadful conditions, often sharing a cell with up to four others.

Almost every self-respecting nationalist, including some far removed from revolutionary politics, spent a spell at their Majesties’ pleasure in Kilmainham.  A number did so prior to being hanged or shot. The list of guests constitutes a distinguished club, Henry Joy McCracken, Oliver Bond, Napper Tandy, Robert Emmet, Michael Dwyer, William Smith O’Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Charles Stewart Parnell, and Michael Davitt.

Attached to the Gaol was a magistrates’ court where cases would be despatched, or, if a serious crime was involved, the preliminary process leading to indictment would take place. It was here that the alleged killers of the Chief Secretary, Frederick Cavendish and his Under Secretary, Thomas Henry Burke, in Phoenix Park in 1882—the so-called Invincibles—appeared for remand hearings before being committed to Green Street court for trial. And it was here that they first realised the game was up, when one of their number, James Carey, presented himself as a prosecution witness. He had opted to turn state’s evidence to save his own skin. His first appearance at Kilmainham Magistrates’ Court was greeted with roars of rage from the dock. A reporter observed that one of the accused, Joe Brady:


Glared at him and stretched forward towards him [had he] been able to reach him, I believe he would have been torn to pieces, for Brady was a powerful young fellow, and for the moment he was for all the world like a tiger on the spring.


The prisoners were returned to their cells and a few weeks later Carey’s evidence sent five of them to the hangman, a seasoned veteran named William Marwood. His customary advice to his victims before they met their maker was, ‘Now then, hold your head back and you’ll die easy’. They were all executed in the Kilmainham Prison Yard, and their bodies were interred under the scaffold erected to hang them.

Three decades later it was the turn of the leaders of the 1916 Rising. Fourteen were executed there over a nine-day period in May. The first to die, on 3 May, were Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke and Thomas MacDonagh. They faced firing squads of twelve British soldiers, mostly drawn from the Sherwood Foresters, who had been badly cut up on Mount Street Bridge the previous week. There was little regard to sensitivities on either side. No Catholic priest was allowed to be present to minister to the prisoners, and the same firing squad—consisting mainly of young recruits—was expected to execute all three men. A number of female prisoners, including Countess Markievicz, were rudely awoken by the volleys from the stone-breakers’ yard.

After the establishment of the Irish Free State the prison continued to be used during the Civil War. Around six-hundred Republican prisoners were incarcerated there, many of them women. One of the last to be released was Eamon de Valera.

The prison was closed by the Free State government in 1929, and might well have been demolished in the 1930s, except it was deemed too expensive to do so. The work of organisations, like the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society, ensured that it was eventually taken over by the Office of Public Works, and became one of the most visited historical sites in Dublin.

It has also been a useful location for a number of films. These include the adaptation of Brendan Behan’s prison drama, The Quare Fellow, as well as the Michael Caine film The Italian Job, and Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. Collins himself was fortunate, he never actually served time there.

Kilmainham Gaol was finally completed and prepared to accept its first prisoners two hundred and twenty-one years ago, on this day.





On this day – 14 July 1792 – The Belfast Harp Festival and the 96 year old Denis Hampson




Denis Hampson would have been a rarity in 19th century Ireland if only for his longevity. He died in 1807 but he had been born in the 17th century, probably in 1695. He is, therefore, one of the few men to have lived through the 18th century in its entirety.

But Hampson has another claim to fame, he was one of the great practitioners of an ancient Irish art which was dying out as he drew his last breath in the year Napoleon first made war on Russia and the Slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire. Hampson was a harpist, a man who made his living collecting, composing and playing tunes for wealthy patrons.

What made his life even more extraordinary is that, like a number of the men who followed his trade, he had been blinded by smallpox at the age of three. Hampson was from the Magilligan area in Co.Derry and was first taught to play the harp by a woman named Bridget O’Cathain. He acquired a harp of his own at the age of 18 and spent most of his 20s travelling and playing in Ireland and Scotland. Many years later, on a return trip to Scotland, in 1745, he performed before  Bonnie Prince Charlie, the pretender Charles Stuart. The harp, which became known as the Downhill harp after his last patron, Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry, who built the Downhill estate, is on display at the Guinness hop-store in Dublin having been bought by the company in the 1960s.

Hampson was also notorious for a swelling or a ‘wen’ on the back of his head. In 1805, when he was more than a hundred years old, Hampson was visited by the Rev. George Vaughan Sampson of Magilligan who wrote that ‘the wen on the back of his head is greatly increased; it is now hanging over his neck and shoulders, nearly as large as his head.’ Towards the end of his life Hampson was actually nicknamed “the man with two heads.”

He married at the age of 86, a lady described only as ‘a woman from Inishowen’, by whom he had a daughter and several grandchildren. Hampson once said of the marriage  ‘I can’t tell if it was not the devil buckled us together, she being lame and I blind.’

In 1792 at the age of 96, Hampson was prevailed upon to attend the Belfast Harper’s Assembly, organized by, among others, United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken. It was the first such assembly for six years. A young Edward Bunting, who would go on to collect and record hundreds of traditional tunes, was engaged to notate the music played by the ten Irish and one Welsh harpers, who gathered for the festival. Hampson was described as playing with long, crooked fingernails

Hampson was not a fan of the most celebrated Irish harpist and composer of harp music, Turlough Carolan from Meath. While much of Carolan’s repertoire featured at the Belfast Festival Hampson himself resolutely refused to perform the work of his great and more famous contemporary.

Denis Hampson graced the Belfast Harper’s Assembly with his presence, at the tender age of 96. The festival concluded 221 years ago, on this day.