Kilmainham Gaol: Monument to the Rising

How nostalgia and the tourist trade have put a new sheen on the site of much history and human agony is detailed in this small confection from DUBLIN,a new book by the distinguished English critic and novelist, to be published in the fall by Harper & Row.


TO COMMEMORATE the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, Kilmainham Gaol, which had been in a state of ruin for years, was put into order and was opened as a sort of national shrine. In November, 1965, I went to see how the work was getting on. Hundreds of tourists, mainly Irish-Americans, have visited the ruined gaol every year. They scribble their names on the walls of the cells of this prison where so many Irish patriots were incarcerated, hanged, or shot since the days of the United Irishmen. Here the leaders of the Rising were executed by the British. The gaols of Ireland and especially of Dublin are old and brutal monuments. Kilmainham, in its rough granite, is the most horrible of them.

The driver who takes American tourists to visit the gaol is eloquent about the brutality of British oppression; the British visitors are treated more guardedly. My driver, an old man who had fought against the British and who said his heart had been broken and his faith lost in the civil war, was disgusted by my visit. The place, he said, was a monument to all the lies and betrayals of Irish history. He wanted the gaol to be pulled down.

Inside, it was half-ruined. The roof had collapsed at one time, the grim little cells were rotted by damp, the floors had gone; one walked down freezing, dark, wrecked corridors, groping from plank to plank. One of the workmen, an old man who was doing some repairs, took me around the cells of the leaders of the Rising. We saw the broken gibbet on which (I believe he said) the Invincibles were hanged. He told the details of what each man had done. I saw the large cell, which had two windows and which looked out on a stone wall, where Parnell had been briefly imprisoned. His bust was there, and there was an inscription cut into the sill. We went out into the exercise yard, which is enclosed between the main block of the prison and the enormously high outer granite wall, and then into the bleak yard where some of the men of the Rising were executed. In one corner was the spot where Connolly was shot. He had been badly wounded and carefully nursed in hospital — until he was well enough to sit up in a chair for execution! Nausea and hatred make the visitor wretched. The very fact that there are new granite chips in this death yard somehow appalls. It is good for those of us who have escaped political imprisonment, which since 1916 has become a commonplace in our world, to consider the scene. Pearse longed to shed his blood; the British foolishly gratified his desire. From Tone and Emmet onward, the Irish patriot has always wanted to die. There is a most curious, obsessional desire in Ireland for “the last rites,” life having only a doubtful meaning.

And then, at the most wretched moment of my visit, the absurd occurred, as it does again and again in Ireland. I was just about to leave when another visitor got into the prison. He had found the door open, and he wandered toward us, a welldressed, cheerful, vigorous-looking man in, I suppose, his early sixties; he looked like a prosperous businessman. He was English.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he said. “I was passing by. I thought I’d like to drop in on the old place. God, they’ve let it go. What a mess! What a shame! It wasn’t like this in my time; the British kept it up, spick and span and proper. It’s terrible. Oh, yes, I was here. I was a naughty boy. They put me up there—in number three or four was it? — in the top gallery.”

The old workman had been wary, but at this he woke up.

“What was it?” he said.

“Well,” said the man, “I’ve led a bit of a roving life, all over the world you might say, back and forth. I was a deserter. I was stationed in Galway.

I was only a kid, and I got into a spot of trouble down there — nothing really bad, well, we won’t go into it now, it’s a long time ago. Nowadays they’d let it pass, but those were hard times. That’s where they put me, up there.”

“Is that a fact?” The old man began to grin.

“Yes, that’s it, number three or four, top gallery. The man next door went mad, and threw himself off and killed himself. There was no net in those days. What am I saying? I’m telling a lie. I was in here twice. That was when I was in Cork — more trouble, I deserted again. I deserted twice.”

“Did you now?” said the old man, who had his hands in his pockets and was scratching his legs with delight.

“Let’s see the exercise yard,” the Englishman said. “It’s through there if I remember right.”

The old man said: “That’s right. Through this door.”

“Do you see that? He remembers it?” the old man whispered to me laughing. “Come on now, I’ll show you.”

“It’s a shame the way they’ve let it go,” said the Englishman.

“No one seemed to care about it at all,” apologized the old man.

“Oh, here it is,” said the Englishman, aglow to be in the yard.

“That’s it. I reckon I know every stone in that wall. They made you run close to it. I have run round that wall hundreds of times.”

“You’re right there,” said the elated old man.

“And the drummer — now where did he stand? Over there by the window in the corner, I think,” said the Englishman.

“In the corner it was. You see, he remembers everything,” the old man said with admiration.

“Left, right, left, right, pick ‘em up. The drum tap!” said the Englishman.

“Ah, the drum tap! The drum tap, it made you skip,” cried the old man.

“The drum tap! They knew how to beat it out fast.”

“Ah, they did that.” And to me, with delight: “He remembers it. The drum tap.”

Reluctantly the Englishman left his playground.

“Was it in the Devons or the Foresters you said you were?” asked the old man.

“The Foresters.”

“I was in the Fusiliers,” said the old man. “We were in the Curragh.”

They were charmed and they chattered. The Englishman gazed up at the cell.

“ I think it was the third cell, perhaps I’m mixing it up with the second time. Or Arbor Hill Barracks — they had me there too. That was the third time.”

“Three times. Powerful,” said the old man, giggling. And then, covering his mouth with his hand, he whispered to me: “I was in the bloody British Army too. I was a deserter myself. Ha! Ha!”

“Where were you then?” said the Englishman.

“I was in Solingen, never short of a razor blade there. And the girls cheering in the street when we got in,” said the old man.

“You’re bloody right. I was up there too!” said the Englishman.

The two friends gazed at each other.

“It’s a pity, it’s a great pity, it’s been let go,” the Englishman said. “It’s a shame. It looked decent once. To be candid, I came here because I had a bit of trouble with my daughter. I’d forgotten all about — well, the years go, you forget. But she found out and, ‘Oh, dear, our dad in prison!’ — you know? She was so upset I had to get the priest to calm her down. It’s all right now. So, I thought, next time I’m over I’ll have a look at the old place. I didn’t expect this mess.”

“Oh, we’re putting it right. We’re getting in the showcases; there’s been a delay in the cement,” apologized the old man. “But we’ve got the toilets nearly finished. We’re waiting for the pipes. It’s in the commandant’s office. I’ll show you. We’ve done a nice job here.”

We went into the toilets.

“That’s it,” said the Englishman. “They brought you in here.”

“That’s where he must have sat.”

Toilets for tourists: is that how the history of a human agony ends?