Last year I visited Dublin and, after visiting museums of George Bernard Shaw and William Butler Yeats, I went to see the Kilmainham jail. The British rulers built it at the start of the eighteenth century, to replace the filthy dungeon that acted as a prison earlier. It was an inhuman hellhole too, with five prisoners stuffed into a small room, irrespective of age or gender. Men slept on iron beds, women and children, often as young as seven, jailed for nothing more than stealing bread, on the floor, in straw. Inmates were hanged in public for general amusement; later a site was built for the purpose inside the jail. But Kilmainham is mainly known for the freedom fighters who were incarcerated and executed there.
Exactly like the Indians, the Irish had long appealed to the good sense of the British to let them have autonomy and finally realized the colonial masters had no intention to change. There were rebellions in 1798, 1803, 1848 and 1867 and then came the Easter Rising of 1916. On 24 April, 1200 armed volunteers took over key sites in capital city of Dublin, including the city hall, telegraph and telephone offices, and started setting up barricades. Unprepared, the British authorities responded with a show of strength, sending in huge reinforcements along with gunboats and artillery. In the ensuing skirmishes, 500 people died, half of them civilians. By Easter Sunday, five days later, the rebels surrendered.
The aftermath was pitiless. The British rounded up 3500 people including 80 women. In an illicit court-martial, that was secret, based on scant evidence and permitted no defense pleas, 90 people were sentenced to death. This was followed by other brutalities, such as the mass killing of 15 people and the shooting of a boy and a journalist on the mere suspicion of being rebels. If the Irish people had not fully warmed initially to the idea of an armed revolt, the British atrocities aroused them to a fiery demand for freedom.
I slowly walked through the east and west wings of the jail and finally stood in the open courtyard of the prison. It was a bright but cool autumn day and there was a gentle breeze. On one side stood a small, dark wooden cross. This is where the British army had dragged the condemned freedom fighters one by one and had them shot by a firing squad. Nineteen of them, including all the seven leaders of the rebellion.
The guide pointed to a corner, “Here fell Joseph Plunkett.” Born in a cultivated family, Joseph was a brilliant poet and journalist, who had become an Arabic scholar during his time in Algiers. In the few hours left to him, he married in the prison chapel, Grace Evelyn Gifford, who was also a poet and activist. The squad then shot him.
The guide was now pointing to the other side. “James Connelly,” he whispered. James was from a poor worker family and fought all his life for laborers’ rights. He became a rebel leader and was wounded during the Easter Rising. He could not stand for his execution. The squad tied him mercilessly to a chair and then shot him a volley.
I thanked the guide and walked out of the prison. Opposite to the Kilmainham jail, is a small café. I sat down and asked for a cup of coffee.
I needed a moment to ponder. I came from a country where too the same aliens came in ships and brutally exploited the land and its people for two centuries. Whoever protested they shot, hanged or put behind bars. The young, now free and fearless, barely remember those who suffered and rebelled, fought and died – brought them their freedom.
Kilmainham is no longer a jail. Ireland became a free republic in 1937 and the jail was turned into a museum. So that the Irish occasionally remember the people who paid the price of their freedom.
U2’s song keeps ringing in my ears:
I believe in a celebration, I believe you set me free
I believe you can lose these chains, I believe you can dance with me.