You Can Kil(mainham) The Man, But Not The Idea
Cities / Towns Visited: 72
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 21,590
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,450,757
We had a full day planned, thus we were up and out the door while our host still snored away in the next room, that being said it wasn’t particularly early as such, he may have just had a big night. We had a tour booked in the late afternoon, but we were determined to tick a few other things off of our list before then, thus off we scurried until we reached our mornings destination; Trinity College. Hooking into the first guided tour for the day it wasn’t long before our robe clad student guide was gathering us together and leading us around the picturesque campus grounds. This, Ireland’s oldest university, was built in 1592, by order of Queen Elizabeth I. Our guide happily informed us that he had just finished his studies of law here and after his graduation ceremony would be entering the real world, thus we would be one of his last tours. His humour and upbeat attitude made for an amusing hour as he pointed out the numerous buildings, and regaled us with funny stories about its construction rather than just boring facts and figures. Stories like how an architect put forth his design in for the grand building which is now used as the examination hall, but no one would pay any attention to it, but he was so confident in his work that he took out a full spread in the paper, publishing the design with all of its measurements. Yes that is as stupid as it sounds, as they university simply took the design from there and he wasn’t paid a single cent for his work. They then used the exact same design to build an identical building across from it, which is now the chapel. Again he received no payment. On the upside, he went on to become very well known and wealthy in his other endeavours, so I guess karma helped him out in the end.
There’s also the story of the dining hall, which was designed by Richard Castle, a German architect, in the 1700’s, and collapsed from the weight of its own roof in less than a year due to poor design, and no engineering into placing said design on boggy ground. The replacement was almost the exact same design, and it too collapsed shortly after its completion. Sensibly they hired a different architect after that, and it’s stayed up ever since. There’s also the Rubriks (the historic red brick building) which now houses some of the tenured faculty members, but is a heritage listed building so they cannot install air conditioning or get any decent WiFi inside. There are also no showers installed in the building as they can’t alter the plumbing, and thus the teachers who live there must walk out and round to an entirely separate building to wash. The last amusing structure is the museum building, which was put forth by two architects in a competition to find a design. They got somewhat screwed over by your standard bickering of board members, but they got their own back as the relief carvings they organised for the facade are supposed to all be Irish native animals and plants but there is a few random animals like a flamingo, which no one noticed until after they’d been paid.
Our guides last funny historical story was in regards to what we were about to go an see after the tour; the Book of Kells. This 9th century gospel book is separated into four volumes. It has been fought over, hidden, found, and survived centuries of religious fighting unscathed, then when Queen Victoria came to visit in the 1800’s she picked up a pen and signed the damn thing. Oh the things you can get away with as a royal. With that said our tour came to an end and we joined the incredibly long line stretching all the way round the perimeter of one of the quadrangles, as we waited to enter the library building which houses the aforementioned historical text.
After an unsurprisingly lengthy wait we finally made our way in, and shuffled through the displays about the creation of the book and the finer points of old school book writing and binding by the monks of centuries past. Eventually we made it to the end room where part of the book is on display with a few other old religious books. They sit in a glass case in the centre of a room, but with seemingly no discernible system everyone just crowds round them, shouldering their way in with no tact or manners. On top of this, no one seems to understand if they all shuffled along together they could make it the whole way round and see them all before peeling off. Instead everyone just stays still in some bizarre Mexican stand-off and gets angry at each other while making snide comments and sighing. Luckily we’re tall and after craning our necks and playing the shuffle game we gave up and continued on. The guard assured one lady that they had tried many other systems and this is the one that works best, but the look on her face, and our general experience, find that very hard to believe.
No matter, we were finally at the main reason I had wanted to come here in the first place; the old library. Walking into the room is truly awe inspiring. This double story space, with barrel vaulted dark wooden ceiling, and matching wooden bookshelves soaring up to reach it, looks almost fake in its insane beauty. My bibliophile heart sung with joy as I swanned around, drinking in the smell of knowledge and admiring the stone busts of some of the greatest and most noteworthy minds in recorded history, from Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates; to William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton. In a glass case to one side also sits one of Ireland’s most important artifacts, Brian Boru’s harp. The medieval Gaelic harp is thought to be the oldest surviving harp in existence and is used in many Irish symbols including the Irish coat of arms, and the logo of Guinness. To be honest my partner had to peel me away or I probably would have spent all day perusing all of the titles within eyeshot. If heaven has a library, I imagine it looks like that.
The time had come for us to continue our day, but first; lunch. Being back in this part of the world I had a hankering for fish and chips, and thus we stopped at the most famous place in town that makes them; a place that’s been open for 105 years; Leo Burdock’s. With the speedy and smooth service that only comes from doing the same thing well for generations, we were soon in possession of our cod and chips, and sat down on the lawn of Christ Church Cathedral just round the corner to eat it; along with seemingly every other person who had bought food from there.
With our hunger satiated we scurried off to try and fit in one last attraction before we had to go to our tour. On recommendation from our host we soon found ourselves as Collin’s Barracks. This old military fort is quite imposing, and was the longest continuously occupied barracks in the world, but now simply holds the National Museum of Ireland, and it was this that we had come to see. The museum holds an extensive exhibition on the 1916 Easter Rising, the bloody rebellion in the name of independence, which failed, but did become the catalyst which sparked a later successful push for freedom from imperial rule by Britain.
The exhibition itself is a bit scattered and hard to navigate in order, as is has no discernible flow pattern, but it is heartbreaking and educational none the less. Those brave souls who stood up for what they believed in were doomed from the start, and they knew as much, being seriously out-manned (by more than tenfold) and out-armed by the British military reinforcements sent to quash them. Despite the ongoing war on mainland Europe, the British made sure to send enough fire-power to stamp out the rebellion and force them to surrender, which they did when it became clear that too many civilians were being killed in the crossfire. In the end more civilians were killed than rebels and British soldier combined. Many Irish citizens were against the fighting, believing that diplomacy would be able to reach the same result, and thus public opinion of the rebels was negative for the most part. That being said there was many supporters of the the movement, and men and women fought in the battles not only in Dublin but in a number of other counties across the country. Some families were even split on the issue, with the story of a brother on either side being displayed in the exhibition. It’s pretty heartbreaking to read the stories of love and loss, but I can not do it justice to try and retell it all here, so I beseech you to take some time to learn about the fight, both during the Easter Rising, and before and after, which led to the successful independence of this fiercely proud nation. The resulting split in Ireland, with the North remaining British territory, ended up causing great friction due to differing religious beliefs and loyalty to the British empire, and eventually led to much of The Troubles in later decades; but that’s another story for another time.
The museum holds many important artifacts from the battle, including different new Irish flags, including the one now used as the symbol for the nation. There are also uniforms, shrapnel damaged pieces, and weapons. The end of the exhibition houses a display of all of the leaders who were arrested and executed, including all of the men who signed the Proclamation of the Republic; the document written by the leaders demanding a free Ireland; a copy of which is also on display. This part of the exhibit also houses a few of their personal effects, and a number of final letters written to their families, including the letter from Joseph Plunkett to his wife Grace, whom he married in jail just hours before his execution.
It was a solemn but important education, but with the time of our tour nearing, we scurried off to visit out last stop for the day, and finish our crash course in the Easter Rising, with out visit to Kilmainham Gaol. Once we arrived we hooked into said tour and were shown through this old Victorian style gaol by our guide. It was opened in 1796 and functioned as a prison until the 1924, being the sight of public hangings until the 1820’s when they were moved inside to be private, and were eventually phased out all together. This prison historically held men, women, and children, some even as young as seven years old, as well as holding many prisoners who would later be transported to Australia. During the great famine, when theft of food was high, these cells were completely overcrowded resulting in much disease.
We were shown through the sight, from the court rooms where prisoners had their sentences passed, through the halls of dark and dingy old cells which were designed for one person but at times held up to five, which I can only imagine were impossibly cold when all the prisoners had for light and warmth was one candle per cell which had to last a month. After this we were led to the extension added in the 1800’s, which is a huge open plan, three story space with metal lattice stairs, typical of the Victorian era, which required less guards to supervise more space as there was better sightlines.
It is most famous, however, for being the place of incarceration and execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Some of the cells even have name plaques above so you can see where they were held; the two Pearse brothers were held right near each other, although Patrick was unaware his little brother, Willie, was there, and was led to believe, by his family, that he was safe, so that he could go to his execution without the guilt of his brothers own execution the very next day on his head. There is also the cell of Joseph Plunkett, and the small chapel in which he married his betrothed the night before his death.
From the cells we were lead out to the execution yard, where all fifteen of the accused leaders were killed by firing squad. A black cross sits at one end, in memorial of the spot where fourteen of these freedom fighters lost their lives. At the other end sits another cross where the last was shot. You see, James Connoly, one of the leaders, had his ankle shattered in the fighting, and was kept in a first aid station set up at Dublin Castle, not the prison. His wound became gangrenous, and despite the doctor stating he only had two or three days left to live, the prosecutors insisted on his execution, and so he was wheeled in, strapped to a chair, and shot at the other end. All of them were buried in a mass, unmarked grave on Arbour Hill. The executions were not taken well by the public, and spurred on the future push for independence; thus despite the Rising being condemned, the men who gave their lives for the fight, did not die in vain.
One of the prominent members of the rising, Eamon de Valeria, even managed to escape execution, and went on to be the president of the Republic of Ireland later in life. And you remember Joseph Plunkett’s wife, Grace; she was arrested later while fighting for Ireland’s independence in the Civil War, and was held in the very same gaol where she married her beloved. There is even a painting of the Virgin Mary she did on the wall of her former cell.
With the tour at an end, we spent another hour wandering the small museum they have in another part of the gaol, looking at artifacts from the Rising, like a letter from a 19 year old to his mother, before his execution for his actions as part of the Irish Volunteers during the fighting. It’s heart felt words, and the innocence of a young man writing to his mother in fear, is truly heart wrenching. There is also a section about the women who fought in the Rising, including many who were incarcerated here; as well as a whole exhibition on Nelson Mandela, and his fight for freedom from the apartheid, which resulted in his long jail sentence.
By the time we left, it’s fair to say we were somewhat emotionally drained. Our minds were racing with all we had learnt, and it’s fair to say mine was still racing by the time I lay down in bed to sleep. As I reflected it was hard not to be drawn back to the execution of these men who simply wanted independence for their country, and it’s right to self rule. In the museum there had been an electronic poll where you could vote yes or no to capital punishment; and as I pressed no and the figures popped up it saddened me to see that, although no was the majority it was only by a small margin. It made me even sadder that the two older American ladies behind me scoffed at my selection. No part of me sees the justice in killing another, judicially or not. Even in the case of murder, a life for a life seems ill-founded. How can you show the world that killing someone is wrong by then going on to kill them in return; you are simply stooping to their level. There is no humanity in capital punishment, there is no morality; in doing so you lose the higher ground, and on top of this you teach the perpetrators nothing. As Mahatma Ghandi said ‘An eye for an eye will turn the whole world blind’, and I believe there is much truth in that. These rebellious leaders instigated a fight which lead to hundreds of deaths, this is true, but although the result is horrific, their actions were not out of the blue, they were not unfounded, and they surely could not have been surprising to the British government considering the years of civil protesting that had occurred in the many years beforehand. They were men who called out for independence and were ignored, thus they chose to push their point with violence, as many have don’t before, and will after. If we do not listen to the words, it’s only a matter of time before they stop asking, and start demanding with their actions. The voting rights of women were obtained in much the same way by the Suffragettes. These men were originally seen as dangerous rebels, but in the wake of their deaths they were admired as heroes for the cause. After all, there is also much truth in the phrase ‘one man’s terrorist, is another man’s freedom fighter’, it just depends on your perspective.