Kilmainham Gaol has been called ‘The Bastille of Ireland’ due to its heightened importance in contemporary and historical Ireland. It has had long and enduring connections to political insurrection and the national question from its opening in the late 18th century until it closed in the aftermath of the civil war in 1924.
The prison opened as Dublin County Gaol in 1796 on a plan that was originally designed by the English prison reformer John Howard. The original plan of the prison contained two wings that mirrored each other (and the current West Wing) containing individual cells over three adjoining corridors on each of the three floors of the wing. The original parts of the prison that are extant are located in the existing West Wing. The original East Wing was pulled down in the early to mid 19th century and was eventually replaced by the current wing in the mid 19th century. Whilst quite different in form and structure, due to the eventual realization of the importance of light in institutional buildings, both wings are representative of the reformist ideas of their period and therefore provide an interesting comparison with how early prison reforming ideas evolved. This includes moving from individual cells in long, dark corridors to a panoptican-style wing where the prison authorities could claim to be able to view all prisoners at all times.
Whilst Kilmainham Gaol held many different types of prisoners from when it opened in 1796 until it closed in 1924, the majority being those convicted of criminal, petty offences, it is best known for its more atypical residents. This includes those unfortunates who filled the cells and corridors during the years of the Great Famine in the mid 19th century, when many committed petty crimes merely to be guaranteed meagre rations in prison. Furthermore, Kilmainham Gaol was one of the main holding centres for those transported to Australia until this ended in 1853. However, it is the role of holding prisoners connected to nationalist uprisings and insurrections – political prisoners – that are probably best known today.
From its early years Kilmainham Gaol held some of the most high profile prisoners connected to the increasing struggle for freedom of the Irish Nation. This includes those dating from the opening years of the prison – such as Theobald Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmett – through to the masses held from the ranks of the Fenians to great parliamentarian leaders such as Charles Stewart Parnell. Kilmainham Gaol closed to ordinary prisoners in 1910 and had not held women since 1881. The gaol was temporarily reopened periodically after this official closure, including to barrack and imprison British soldiers but, more famously, political prisoners including as a result of the Easter Rising in 1916. The majority of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were held over the course of hours, days and weeks before their executions, transferrals or release in the aftermath of the failed rebellion. The gaol was also in use throughout the War of Independence (1919-21) and Civil War (1922-1923) period until its final closure in early 1924.
Atypically for the period a substantial number of female combatants were incarcerated due to their involvement in nationalist politics, especially during the civil war. As female political prisoners were held in number as some of last occupants of the old West (B) Wing this precarious graffiti remnant became the focus of this study. This project aims to use this atypical source to reveal the previously under-researched experiences of female political imprisonment during this period. To read more about the roles of women during this period please see