Lazy Weekend Adventuring at Kilmainham Gaol

Sometimes, you just need to take a breather. That’s pretty much how I’m feeling this weekend. After two consecutive weekends of travel and classes in between, I’m feeling a little bit drained. My introverted soul needs some me-time, and that’s okay. But I still didn’t want to sit in my apartment all weekend — yes, I need a break, but I also don’t want to waste any of the precious time I have during this abroad experience.

Luckily, my roommates were on the same page, so we decided to start our weekend off strong with a visit to Kilmainham Gaol. Abbie and I have been learning a lot about Kilmainham’s historical significance to the city in our history class. We actually just watched a documentary on the aftermath of the 1916 Rising in which the jail was significantly featured.

Jails are cool in a creepy sort of way.
Jails are cool in a creepy sort of way.

For those of you not familiar with the Easter Rising of 1916, let me give you a brief history. Keep in mind that I am just a lowly American writing student enrolled in a Modern Irish Social History course, and am by no means an expert on the period. But our professor, Anthony, is by far my favorite professor here, and he definitely knows his stuff. So if I learned it from him, it’s probably true.

Ireland actually only became a free nation in fairly recent history. Prior to that, the entire island was a part of the British Empire. (Colonialism, anyone?) A lot of people were pretty tolerant of this, though there were small rebellions throughout history. Eventually, a bunch of Irish people decided they wanted this thing called Home Rule, which essentially meant they’d still be a part of the United Kingdom, but they’d have a lot more governing power over themselves. In 1914, an Irish Home Rule bill was actually passed in London, but before they could actually get around to closing the deal, that pesky little thing called World War I broke out. So the British were like, “Home Rule? Yeah, yeah, we’ll get to it. But first, let’s deal with this war.” Fair enough, Britain.

"Beware if the Risen People"
“Beware if the Risen People”

A few years pass, and eventually a few Irish Nationalists start getting a bit antsy. To be fair, Ireland had been waiting for freedom from Britain for 800 years or so, so it was a bit overdue. And thus a plan for the Easter Rising is born. Britain was busy fighting on the continent, so why not strike while they’re preoccupied?

The rising was supposed to take place around the country, but unfortunately some signals got crossed and the rebels had a serious communication breakdown, so the rising ended up being mostly confined to Dublin, the capital city. They proclaimed an independent Ireland and fought for 5 days on Easter week before the British forces overcame them, forcing the rebels to surrender.

A cell where one of the 1916 leaders was held prior to his execution.
A cell where one of the 1916 leaders was held prior to his execution.

Honestly, the rising really wasn’t all too popular with the average Irish citizen. A lot of them had sons and brothers on the front in Europe, and they were in no mood to deal with a rebellion against the British when their own friends and family members were out there fighting on Britain’s behalf. It was what happened after the rising — at Kilmainham Gaol — that made the difference.

After the rising, British forces felt betrayed — as though they had been stabbed in the back when they were looking the other way. To put it mildly, they were peeved. So they decided to make an example of the rebel leaders, sentencing almost all of them to death by firing squad. Throughout the month of May 1916, the leaders were systematically brought into the stone yard at Kilmainham Gaol, where most of them were being held, and shot. Even James Connolly, who had been shot in the leg during the rising and was being held in the hospital, was carted in, strapped to a chair, and executed.

A cross to memorialize those executed at Kilmainham. This one was for James Connolly.
A cross to memorialize those executed at Kilmainham. This one was for James Connolly.

You could say it was brutal. And the Irish public thought so too. As they heard news of the executions, public opinion began to shift against the British. Despite being a military failure, the Easter Rising was a political success, mainly in the sense that the executed leaders became martyrs for the people. If that hadn’t happened, who knows what the history of Ireland would have become.

The neat thing is that I get to be here in Dublin in 2016, for the centenary celebration of the actual rising. 1916 is being remembered all around the city, and it makes everything I’m learning feel much more real and powerful. And standing in the jail today brought even more significance to all that I’ve learned. I walk past places effected by the rising everyday, and it’s difficult to imagine these modern day streets and buildings as a war zone — but that’s basically what they were.

Can you imagine being stared at through that little hole in the door?
Can you imagine being stared at through that little hole in the door?

Sure, it was a bit of a depressing morning touring the place where so many died (and not just in 1916), but it was also fascinating, and I really am grateful for the opportunity to experience history in this way. Plus, it was an exclusively 29er adventure, and we haven’t had one of those in a few weeks. It’s nice to be able to explore the city at our own pace, surrounded by good friends.

On the way home we popped by the Irish Museum of Modern Art, which I’ll admit was  a bit of a disappointment. Maybe I’m just not cultured enough. Either way, I didn’t really get it. Plus the exhibition was fairly small for such a big museum.

By then it was 2pm, so we stopped by Lidl on our way home to buy some 39¢ potatoes and then retired peacefully back in apartment 29. I sat down with a latte and a scone (also purchased for 39¢ at Lidl — I’m a big spender), and just relaxed. I did a few productive things throughout the day, but mostly just collected my thoughts. Tomorrow we might try to check out a library. Either way, I’m really looking forward to this weekend. I needed this balance. Thank goodness my roomies get me.

Being abroad is great, but don’t forget to take care of yourself. It’s okay to stop and breathe sometimes.

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