When we arrived at Kilmainham Gaol Museum on the west side of Dublin, we were greeted at a big imposing door by a stout-looking Irish man with grey hair.
He looked at me and with all seriousness said, “Ah! I see you’ve brought us some long-term guests!”
My kids stared at the man and then slowly looked at me like, “He’s joking, right mom? RIGHT?!?!”
Have I mentioned that Kilmainham Gaol is a prison?
Technically, it WAS a prison.
Kilmainham Gaol opened in 1796 on a site known as Gallows Hill.
If that doesn’t set the stage for an 18th century prison, I don’t know what does.
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT
Kilmainham Gaol was at the center of a tremendous amount of Irish history during the 1800s and early 1900s.
When the gaol first opened, it housed men, women and children. Many were awaiting transport to Australia, which is what was done with criminals in the early 1800s.
Why would they lock children as young as 9 up? For begging or stealing food, of course.
Over a century later, the prison was at the center of the 1916 Easter Rising, which led to Irish independence. The leaders of that movement were arrested, imprisoned and executed at Kilmainham Gaol.
While the museum tour provides a crash course in Irish history, there is a lot of information being thrown at you. Even a little bit of reading about Irish history before you go will help you put the tour details and their importance into context.
If you’re a tourist visiting Dublin, you’re probably not driving. Never fear! The museum has detailed tips on how to get there.
We ended up walking about 20 minutes from Heuston Station to the museum, which is on the west side of Dublin. It would have been a 4 or 5-minute taxi ride from Heuston Station, but it was a nice(ish) day for a walk.
If you are visiting the Guinness Storehouse, you’re going to be close to Heuston Station and in the general vicinity of Kilmainham Gaol Museum. You could definitely visit both in the same day.
PLANNING YOUR VISIT
The museum experience is formatted with a guided tour of the prison followed by unlimited time to browse the museum exhibits.
Therefore, to guarantee there will be a spot for you on the tour, it is best to book your tickets online in advance of your visit. They do have some walk-up tickets available.
The tour starts with a short movie, followed by a prison tour. Part of the tour does take you outside the building, so be prepared for whatever the weather is doing that particular day!
WHAT YOU WILL SEE ON THE TOUR
A Chapel: The prison had a Catholic and a Protestant chapel. You will get to see the Catholic Chapel.
The West Wing: This is the oldest part of the museum and it will make you appreciate the basics – like windows!
The East Wing: The ‘new’ section of the prison is still over 150 years old. The architecture in this wing is quite striking and completely different from the West Wing. The East Wing has been featured in a few movies from the 1990s like Michael Collins with Liam Neeson and the movie In the Name of the Father with Daniel Day Lewis and Emma Thompson.
The Stonebreakers’ Yard: If you were sentenced to hard labor, this is where you went to literally break stones all day long. It was also where 14 leaders of the Easter Rising were executed.
AFTER THE TOUR – VISITOR CENTER
The magnitude of the human suffering that resulted from this prison and the political unrest in Ireland was really driven home to me when I toured the Visitor Center.
The Visitor Center is really well done and they have managed to preserve some incredibly personal artifacts, like goodbye letters written by political prisoners.
Part of this one says: “Lord Jesus give me courage in my last moments. If I had only been told of my sentence I would be well prepared before now. Oh Mother if I could only see you just again. Don’t fret Mother because I am happy. To my Mother whom I dearly love. Goodbye Goodbye Goodbye. We will meet in Heaven please God. Mother I am to die for Ireland.”
I had to wipe away tears while reading this letter. As a mother, I cannot imagine the despair this woman must have felt to receive such a letter.
VISITING WITH KIDS
Maternal despair was a great segue to visiting the museum with kids, right?!? Ha!
The shock and awe of being in an actual prison definitely made an impact on the kids in our group.
The museum recommends NOT bringing kids ages 6 and under due to the ‘nature and duration’ of the tour. They do talk about execution by hanging!
The youngest kiddo on our tour was 7 1/2 years old. He stayed pretty engaged the entire time, but the 60-minute tour was borderline too long for him.
Since it is a group tour setting and the guide is not wearing a microphone, the kids need to be able to be quiet and respectful of the other attendees. Otherwise, you’re going to get a lot of side-eye!
There are a few things kids can touch and interact with in the Visitor Center, but it isn’t specifically geared for children.
Also, strollers are not permitted on the tour, but there is an unsecured place to park them in the museum. The museum does have a cafe and there are a couple of restaurants across the street from the museum.
What impressed me most about this tour was the frankness of our tour guide. In response to one particular question at the end of the tour he said something to the effect of, “some really bad things happened in Ireland’s history. Things that a whole generation didn’t know how to deal with and so they didn’t talk about it. My own family didn’t talk about it. We’re finally just now beginning to deal with that history.”
That was an honest acknowledgment of a really complex situation that you don’t often get from a government employee.
This tour wasn’t all happiness and sunshine – it is a prison, after all! But it was incredibly eye-opening into what Ireland was like during a time period when our grandparents and great-grandparents would have been alive. It also showed me how Ireland has changed and developed as a society in the last 100 years.
I hope you get as much out of the Kilmainham Gaol Museum tour as I did!
Thinking about visiting Ireland? Read on!