Mrs. Shifflett Went to Gaol

But they let me out again.

Sorry for missing yesterday’s update! The internet here was a bit dodgy, as they say here, so I just packed up the laptop and decided to head out for our adventures. This post is all about what we did on Wednesday, June 13 – which was a lot!

We started the day with a long trek out to Kilmainham Gaol, a former prison turned historical museum commemorating Dublin’s rebellions and civil wars, the men who fought and were imprisoned or executed in those conflicts, and the horrors of prison life during dark days. It was grim, but it was a fantastic exhibit. There’s a little bit of information about the gaol here and here, but the tour we went on was excellent and really helped put history in context for us. Basically, as we walked around, we learned about a few main events:

1. The skyrocketing number of prisoners during the Irish Potato Famine, where Ireland’s potato crops were destroyed and many peasants and farmers, whose main dietary staple was potato, starved to death or emigrated. If your choice was between taking a “coffin ship” to another country (so called because so many people died en route, the ships arrived at port loaded with coffins), starving to death, or going to prison where you got two square meals a day, you’d choose prison too, right? A prison built for about 200 inmates saw 9,000 incoming prisoners throughout a single year during this famine.

The center of Kilmainham Gaol

2. Many famous Irish rebels were held here during the series of conflicts against England for independence. The leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were held and executed here – in this yard, in fact.

The Stonebreakers’ Yard, site of the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising

Interestingly, while the Rising was initially unpopular with the general public, the people turned and supported the rebels after hearing about their sad stories – the brothers who were executed without being able to say goodbye, the man who was too ill with gangrene from a wound and was tied to a chair to be shot, the couple who were married in the prison chapel mere hours before the husband’s execution. Kilmainham actually played a huge role in garnering popular support for resistance and rebellion.

3. My favorite part of the trip was in the condemned man’s room, where men awaited execution, and here’s why: Robert Emmet, who led a failed rebellion against the English in 1803, awaited death there for treason against the crown. At his sentencing, he gave a famous speech that has been quoted again and again, eloquently conveying his passionate belief in his country’s freedom:

“When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written.”

An elderly priest, white-haired, leaning on a cane, was on the tour with us. He hadn’t said a word; he’d struggled up and down the crumbling stairs. He had to sit in this room, as he was too tired to stand any longer; he even closed his eyes. But as our tour guide quoted Emmet’s final words, the priest proudly said them along with her. He knew the words by heart. The passion for history and pride in the Irish who have sacrificed themselves for freedom is so strong here; it’s the lifeblood of the country, and it’s humbling to see.

The Irish Flag: green for the Nationalist Catholics, orange for the Unionist Protestants, and white for the peace for which they still strive.

We did a few other things this day, but this was the most profound and most striking experience. What a day.

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