Dublin’s past remembered

Who doesn’t love the Irish and their gaiety – but this writer gives the famous Irish stouts, ales and whiskeys a miss, and instead explores Dublin’s sombre past.

MY final destination was Galway on the western shores of the Republic of Ireland, but with no airport of its own, my first port of disembarkation had to be Dublin where I would spend the next day or two exploring the Irish capital. Here was the birthplace of stout beer and Irish whiskey, but I was more inclined to explore the city’s sober side – its architecture, the macabre and its literary treasures.

My first attraction was within a 20-minute walk from my accommodation at a bed-and-breakfast. The Kilmainham Gaol, 4km west of Dublin, was opened in 1796 as one of the most modern prisons in Ireland. Within and beyond the exhibition rooms, however, the cold stone-walled cells of the west wing were depressing.

As our multi-lingual group shuffled past closed doors and empty cells, we imagined what it must have been like in an overcrowded prison, seeing no light at all, save for the small candle assigned to each prisoner every fortnight.

The only way to view the prison wings and the execution yard was by joining an in-house tour. Since the completion of the gaol’s restoration in 1986, it had become a popular attraction, judging from the steady stream of groups going through. There really wasn’t enough time to digest the historical facts and stories that were being spewed by the guide as we moved from one section to another.

The gaol was built primarily to house ordinary men, women and children convicts, as well as prisoners destined for the convict colonies in Australia, but the reason why many people visit, including myself, was to learn about Ireland’s fallen heroes. In the next block of cells, our guide told us that, in 1916, rebel groups fought bravely for a free Irish state. Then he showed us which cell belonged to which rebel leader. One of them was a countess – Constance Markievicz. In less than two weeks, 14 leaders of the uprising were executed by firing squad. Markiewicz was spared only because she was a woman.

We ended our tour in the execution yard where black crosses and plaques were reminders of the independence fighters. The executions were a turning point in Ireland’s struggle for independence from British rule, and by 1921, four-fifths of Ireland had become a free state; by 1949, it was a republic with a capital city imbued with much history and character.

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