When Kilmainham Gaol opened in 1796, it was one of the most modern prisons in Ireland. It was built on Gallows Hill to replace an older prison located nearby at Mount Brown.
Kilmainham Gaol served as the county gaol for Dublin. However, convicts from many parts of Ireland were held here for long periods waiting to be transported to the colonies in Australia. During the first half of the nineteenth century, over 4,000 prisoners were transported to Australia via Kilmainham Gaol.
1821 was the last year that women were publicly executed by hanging at the Gaol. The names of the last two women were Bridget Butterly (1802-1821) and Bridget Ennis (1800-1821).
Thousands of ordinary men, women and children were held here for crimes ranging from petty offences (such as stealing food) to the more serious (such as murder). During the Irish Famine, the number of prisoners entering Kilmainham Gaol caused serious overcrowding (with up to five people in cells designed for one). Most had been charged with begging and stealing food.
Some of its most notable political prisoners include:
- United Irishman, Henry Joy McCracken entered the Gaol on the 11th of October 1796 and was hanged two years later.
- United Irishman, Robert Emmet, was held in Kilmainham while awaiting trial for treason in 1830. He was executed later that year.
- Anne Devlin was detained here at the same time as Emmet and spent two years in the Gaol.
- William Smith O'Brien and other leaders of the Young Irelander rebellion were brought to Kilmainham Gaol and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Queen Victoria commuted the sentence to transportation to Australia instead.
In 1861, the spectacular East Wing was built (based on the Victorian belief that prison architecture was crucial to the reform of inmates). Opened in 1862, this new wing provided an extra ninety-six cells.
In 1867, following the failed Fenian uprising and the need to detain so many, Kilmainham was cleared of common prisoners and security tightened.
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