While Alcatraz may be America’s most notorious former prison, Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin is Ireland’s most evocative and meaningful former prison. We recently toured it on our way out of Dublin to the Ireland countryside, and it was easily the most impactful historical site that we saw during our whole trip.
The gaol, or jail, is best known as the prison that housed the Irish revolutionaries who participated in the Easter Rising of 1916. This rising was the start of the ultimately successful revolution to make (most of) Ireland free from British rule. We learned about the Easter Rising during our tour of the General Post Office (GPO) in Dublin (review coming soon!) and my sons were fascinated with the stories from the battles.
Kilmainham Gaol is where the revolutionaries were taken after the six-day fight. They had been court-martialed, and the jail now served as a military prison where they awaited their fate. Most of the leaders were sentenced to death by firing squad, and this was carried out at the jail.
Even with this bloody history, older children will be fascinated with the ambiance of the jail tour. The tickets for the tour are one of the most sought after in Dublin so be sure to buy your tickets well in advance of your trip.
The jail is on the outskirts of Dublin but is an easy 15 minute car ride away from the heart of the city. It is beautiful from the outside and the preservation efforts have been tremendous.
Be sure to arrive at least 15 minutes before your tour begins. Once you enter, you will wait for your tour in the courtroom of the old courthouse that now part of the jail complex.
It is full of character, and sitting in those seats, you feel like you have stepped back in time.
Once the tour begins, your guide will lead you through the courtyard to the entrance to the cell house.
The first stop is the Catholic chapel where the guide will play a 15-minute slideshow and describe what took place here in 1916.
There are some heart-breaking stories of a wedding held right before an execution and others of families seeing their loved ones for the last time. While emotional, none of the stories are scary and shouldn’t be too much for children ages 10 and up to hear.
After the chapel, you will make your way into the smaller cell block in the west wing, where many of the political prisoners and revolutionaries were held.
You will see the final cells of Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, and Joseph Plunkett, among others. This area is very moving, with the cells preserved and left feeling like it did back in 1916.
Your children will be fascinated with the stories from this troubled time and will love peeking in the doors to see the actual cells. You will also walk down hallways where prisoners were held during the Irish Famine, when many committed crimes on purpose to be jailed. I guess being in jail with some food was better than being free but starving. Your guide will share some very moving stories about children as young as 6 being held here for stealing bread.
After leaving this section, you will enter the east wing of the jail with the beautiful Victorian-style ceiling.
It is here that you are allowed to wander around and take your time looking in the cells and thinking about all that happened here. Be sure to look in the cell where Grace Gifford, who married Plunkett in the chapel hours before his execution, was held. Her cell is decorated with a beautiful painting that she did while in captivity.
This part of the jail has been used in several movies and is very moving.
The final stop on the tour is the stonebreakers yard where inmates literally broke stone for hours. You can see a picture in the museum afterwards that shows the little stone breaking huts that were once in this yard. This yard is best known for serving as the execution spot for the revolutionaries in 1916. It is a solemn yet peaceful spot. There are two crosses in the yard, showing the locations of the execution spots.
Be sure to learn about why Connolly’s execution differed from all of the others. The guide does an excellent job explaining what happened here and how this impacted the Irish independence movement.
After leaving the yard, be sure to spend some time in the museum, learning more about the jail, its history, and Ireland’s history. There are some great photos and artifacts to help you and your children with understanding what is a difficult subject.
Before leaving the jail, go upstairs in the courthouse to see a room that contains the original graffiti from the time that this was an active courthouse.
Don’t miss the great gift shop on the lower level of the courthouse. It has lots of kids’ books and toys, including a replica of the 1916 Easter proclamation made by the revolutionaries at the GPO.
While in Ireland, it is necessary to take your children places that help them have an understanding about its difficult and painful history. The Kilmainham Gaol does this in a beautiful and meaningful way. I know my children will never forget the stories they heard here. Standing in the very spot where this momentous history actually happened really made the Irish struggle for independence come alive.
- Cost: 8EUR/adult; 4EUR youth; free/children under 12; free for Heritage Pass holders; tickets can be purchased up to 60 days in advance
- Recommended: ages 10 and up (no strollers allowed)
- Tour of jail is 1 hour; allow 30 minutes for museum
- Gift shop and cafe located on site
- Transportation: Street parking available. Parking also available at the nearby Irish Museum of Modern Art/Royal Hospital Kilmainham (5 minute walk). From Dublin, several buses available.
- Dining options nearby: Cafe is on site. Other nearby restaurants include an Italian pizza place (La Dolce Vita) and Limetree Cafe.
- Nearby hotels: The Hilton Dublin Kilmainham is across the street.
- Nearby attractions include: Irish Museum of Modern Art and gardens, Irish National War Memorial Gardens, and Phoenix Park
Books to Read:
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- 6 and up:
Have you visited Kilmainham Gaol?