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 – 2 October 1852 – Journalist and politician William O’Brien is born in Mallow


He was argumentative, controversial, committed, exasperating, vicious, divisive, loyal and lots of other adjectives besides, some positive, some pejorative.

William O’Brien was a poacher turned gamekeeper. For the early part of his life he was a muck-raking nationalist journalist, before devoting himself almost entirely to politics. Born into a Cork Fenian family – his brother was a member of the IRB and he may well have been sworn in himself – he was a campaigning newspaperman in his youth in the late 1870s writing for the stuffy Freeman’s Journal. Although his often explosive articles got his proprietor, the MP Edmund Dwyer Gray into plenty of trouble there was a huge mutual admiration between the Dublin grandee and the Cork firebrand.

In 1881, still in his twenties, he was asked by Charles Stewart Parnell to become the first editor of the new Land League newspaper United Ireland. He took on the task with gusto – so much so that he was arrested and jailed after barely a dozen issues. Totally undeterred O’Brien continued to edit the newspaper from Kilmainham jail, using the same underground communications system that allowed his leader to continue to conduct his passionate and adulterous relationship with Katharine O’Shea.

After the Land War United Ireland became the mouthpiece of Parnellism and an equal opportunities offender. O’Brien would, on a weekly basis, attack the Liberal and Tory parties in England, the Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police, landlords, Unionists, Unionist journalists, nationalist journalists who weren’t nationalist enough, nationalist MPs who were equally unconvincing in their nationalism and anyone else who, in his eyes, was not stepping up to the mark. On finishing reading the very first issue of United Ireland in August 1881 the Chief Secretary for Ireland, William E. Forster was reported to have asked ‘Who is this new madman?’

He was a thorn in the side of the establishment, occasionally of his own party, and arguably he was even a thorn in his own side. He was utterly relentless and fearless in his journalism. That’s not to suggest that he was fair – he was anything but. However he was prepared to risk some stupendous libel suits in order to get his version of the truth out. It helped that for many years he wasn’t really worth suing, he had no personal resources, famously living out of two suitcases in the Imperial Hotel on Sackville Street – now Clery’s department store.

Although he could at times be a journalistic windbag he also had an eye for the pithy phrase or aphorism. When the Tory Prime Minister, Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury in 1887 appointed his own nephew Arthur Balfour as Irish Chief Secretary – in the process giving rise to the immortal phrase ‘Bob’s your uncle’ -O’Brien noted the languid Tory’s predilection for playing golf and dubbed him ‘Mr.Arthur Golfour’ . Balfour, however, had the last laugh, throwing O’Brien in jail many times over the next four years.

While it broke his heart he opposed Parnell after the O’Shea divorce case but played little part in the vicious hounding of the former Irish party leader which only ended with his death in October 1891. Thereafter O’Brien temporarily disappeared from active politics. He re-emerged at the end of the decade to re-assert his dedication to agrarian politics by forming the United Irish League. It was under the auspices of this grass roots organisation that the Irish party split was healed. But O’Brien had a penchant for falling out with people and he soon moved on.

His latter years as a politician and journalist saw him at the helm of a Cork-based nationalist splinter group the All For Ireland League and editing the Cork Free Press.

By the time of the 1916 Rising, like many other nationalist politicians of his generation he’s had his day. Although highly respected by many of the more extreme Republicans who came to dominate Irish post-WW1 politics there was no place for him in the new dispensation and it was time to write a number of highly readable, entertaining and utterly unreliable memoirs. He died in 1928.

William O’Brien, Irish father of the so-called ‘New Journalism’ of the late 19th century was born in Mallow, Co. Cork 163 years ago, on this day.