Kilmainham Gaol was ‘home’ to over 90 Custom House Men for almost 6 months in 1921. Some Readers will have visited the fascinating atmospheric place and done the guided tour. It is an unforgettable experience and rightly rated one of Dublin’s top tourist attractions.
Like all heritage sites in Ireland, the Gaol is currently closed during the Covid-19 restrictions.
So, as a reminder for previous visitors and an introduction for those yet to visit, or unable to get there, here is our effort at a virtual tour. Of a different sort – back in time. We can’t bring you many images. But it is possible to give some insights into what conditions for political internees – including the Custom House Men – were like during the Tan War.
The full fascinating story of the Gaol from 1796-1924; the host of famous and anonymous people incarcerated or executed there; and its incredible restoration is beyond our scope. For anyone interested in those subjects, we will not attempt to re-invent the wheel. An excellent history book is “Every Dark Hour” by Niamh O’Sullivan.
There is also a website with a brief history and gallery of images.
A visitor leaflet is here.
Instead let’s focus on its use during the 1920-1924 period. As a very brief background, the Gaol had been closed in 1910. Four years later it was commandeered for the duration of WWI as billets and detention barracks for British troops. Within that time span, it temporarily held ‘Rebel’ prisoners after the 1916 Rising and was the place of execution for fourteen of them. Kilmainham was vacated by the military in late 1918.
The Gaol remained empty until mid 1920 when it once again became a military barracks. Not long afterwards it also resumed its previous use as a detention centre for Irish political prisoners.
The Military Regime
The West Wing of Kilmainham was occupied by 2nd Battalion, The Welch Regiment on its arrival in Dublin in June 1920. When the old East Wing was re-opened for political prisoners late that year, the regiment was assigned prison duties. Lieutenant Reginald Walter May M.C. was appointed Commandant of the Gaol on 21 December 1920. Selected NCOs and private soldiers acted as warders. The regiment also supplied the armed guard and sentries, plus a complement of military police.
The Great Escape
Kilmainham was intended for “important and dangerous” IRA prisoners. Among the first were Ernie O’Malley (alias Bernard Stewart), Frank Teeling (Bloody Sunday, under sentence of death) and Paddy Moran (also Bloody Sunday, awaiting trial). They were joined by others including the ASU No 1 Section captured at Clonturk in January and on 11 February, Simon Donnelly, vice-Commandant of the 3rd Battalion.
On the night of 14th/15th Teeling, O’Malley and Donnelly famously escaped with assistance from two soldier-warders friendly to the IRA. The plan was for Paddy Moran to go but he refused. He fully believed he would be acquitted and did not want to let his alibi witnesses down. Sadly he was proved horribly wrong (The full escape story is beyond our scope, but one version is here).
The British military held an immediate inquiry into the event. Incidentally one of the four officers on the board was Major Currey, commandant of Arbour Hill mentioned in Fire Places: Intro & Part 1.
The break-out had major implications for all at Kilmainham.
Ernie O’Malley recalled that, prior to his escape, conditions in the Gaol had been easy-going. Prisoners and warders got on alright, enjoyed banter and even taught each other their respective songs. IRA men could mix freely, cell doors were left open during the day.
All that changed drastically following the escapes, termed a ‘disaster’ by the British GOC Nevil Macready. The remaining 77 prisoners in Kilmainham were moved to Mountjoy Jail. There later, five would be executed – Paddy Moran, Frank Flood (brother of Tom and Eddie who took part in the Burning), Tom Bryan, Mick Magee and Bertie Ryan. Security arrangements and discipline at Kilmainham were tightened and the warders all replaced.
For aiding and abetting the escaped prisoners, Privates Ernest E. Roper and James Holland of the Welch Regiment were court-martialled and jailed in England for 8 years. Others were disciplined for negligence. Lieut. May was replaced as commandant. In anticipation of those reactions, General Macready had written that he planned “to move the regiment to the most God-forsaken part of the country I can find“, over their role in the escape.
Consequences for future prisoners
So it is not known for certain if the 2nd Welch remained in charge of Kilmainham when the Custom House contingent arrived. However it seems safe enough to accept the regime outlined below was still in place – with stricter enforcement (Source: British inquiry into the escapes WO35/141, online at www.findmypast.ie).
Arrival of the Custom House Fire Brigade
According to ‘Every Dark Hour’ the next IRA prisoners in Kilmainham were a dozen of the men captured by the Auxiliaries at the Burning (Those not sent to Mountjoy). They were transferred from Dublin Castle and kept in solitary confinement. The larger main contingent from Arbour Hill joined them around mid-June. All were interned in the Gaol’s creepy ancient part, the cold, drafty, dank and dark West Wing. It was basically a derelict ruin and living conditions were extremely harsh.
As stated, the newer Victorian-era East Wing was then in use by the British military.
They moved out after the Truce on 11 July and the IRA prisoners and their military jailers were transferred from the West Wing. We know from accounts by the Custom House men they were were kept two to a cell.
As the year progressed, a growing number of other political prisoners arrived. The IRA contingent elected 1916 man Captain Christy Byrne of F Coy, 4th Battalion as their O/C. He liaised with the prison authorities on behalf of his men, raising grievances and looking out for his comrades. When the gate opened for the General Amnesty on 8 December 1921, a total of 225 interned men walked out to freedom from Kilmainham in batches of twenty five.
We also learn from one or two accounts that the initially strict prison regime progressively relaxed after the Truce. The IRA men were now POWs. Sports, recreation and Irish language classes were organised. The men held sing-songs, put on plays, played cards, had dance classes and generally created entertainment for themselves.
Sunday Mass was attended every week and the Rosary recited regularly by the body of prisoners. A couple of letters to the papers illustrate the relatively lax conditions. One asked for donations of spare chess sets for a tournament. Another on 21 July from a Custom House Man said:
“The prisoners here subscribed and bought a football, but unfortunately it was kicked over the wall. If you have space would you insert an advertisement in your columns and ask finder to return it to me by handing it in at the gate. George Dowdall, Cell 13, Section 11. Kilmainham Jail.”
As the walls were up to 40 feet high, the kicker must have been really pumped-up during that particular game. Maybe George himself was the guilty party?
Their Own Photo Albums
Many Readers will know the prisoners managed to smuggle in a camera. Quite a collection of photos was taken. Some have featured in past articles here. More will appear in future articles. Maybe one charming picture best illustrates how relaxed prison rules eventually became. It features a smiling Frank Carberry with his three children inside the Gaol.
On a more sober note, in quite a few cases the Gaol photos are the only images of the subjects known to us.
Several men also kept autograph books. Thankfully a few of these treasures still survive. The unique photo album kept by Cyril Daly is on display in the Gaol Museum and illustrated below.
Sadly some former prisoners did not survive for long after release from Kilmainham. A few had been freed early on medical grounds. Examples known from our prisoner list are George Gray, Jim Heery and possibly James Angleton (who may not have been an IRA man at all).
Civil War – New Occupants
So Kilmainham Gaol was empty again almost a year after its opening for IRA prisoners. But tragically it would not be long before its cells were in use for another wave of Irish political prisoners. This time anti-Treaty IRA and Cumann na mBan under the control of a National Army commandant (William Corri) and jailers during the Civil War. Corri, a pre-Truce IRA man, was generally respected for his humanity by the prisoners. Among those spending second terms in the place were Eamon de Valera, Ernie O’Malley and Simon Donnelly. There was to be no escape for the last two this time round.
As another chilling echo of the past, there were also four executions. Young anti-Treaty men Peter Cassidy, James Fisher, John Gaffney and Richard Twohig were shot by firing squad in a yard in Kilmainham on 17 November.
Hunger Strikes involving both male and female prisoners were undertaken seeking unconditional release or in protest against conditions and restrictions on very limited privileges (This was after William Corri had moved on from the role of commandant). The strikes did not result in any give by the government and were eventually called off. Although not about Kilmainham, “Every Dark Hour” has one amusing story involving an unnamed hunger striker in Mountjoy asking how long they had lasted. On being told 41 days, he supposedly exclaimed “Be cripes, we bate Christ be a day!“. Thankfully all participants survived but at a high cost to the health of some.
Five hundred female Civil War prisoners did time in Kilmainham, overseen by warders of their own sex. Incidentally one republican internee was Kitty Harpur, sister of Custom House Man Jim Harpur. He had been interned there after the Burning and had since joined the National Army. The last of the female prisoners were moved to the North Dublin Union in April 1923. They did not go easily and strongly resisted the soldiers sent to collect them. Some were injured as they were forcibly removed while clinging to railings and other fixtures, fell or were thrown down stairs or otherwise hurt in the general melee and crush. All this they suffered in silence, to avoid upsetting two women still on hunger strike.
The Last to Leave
In early 1924 the final prisoners were released (Although De Valera was kept in custody, being sent to Arbour Hill). In yet another coincidence, the first man into Kilmainham in 1920 – Ernie O’Malley – was possibly the last man out! The Gaol was de-commissioned as a prison for the second and final time.
A Lasting Monument
Any thoughts of continued use of Kilmainham as a prison were finally abandoned in 1929 and a government order made for its permanent closure. It was left to moulder away and demolition was often proposed. But thanks to the vision of Dublin engineer Lorcan Leonard, restoration ideas bore fruit. In 1958 he had written to the Association of the Old IRA:
“… What was once a monument to heroic endeavour is now the silent mocking cavern to the indifference of our times” (Makes one think of government attitudes towards the Moore Street historic site at the present).
Work by the Kilmainham Jail Restoration Society began in 1960. Over more than a decade, many unpaid and unnamed volunteers devoted their time, skills and hard work. Materials were donated and tools and equipment loaned. Through an astounding achievement by those ordinary people, from Ireland and abroad, a key historic site was saved for us to enjoy.
The rescued building was officially opened in 1966 by twice-time former inmate, President de Valera. Twenty years later the Society handed over the Gaol to the state as a national monument and museum run by the OPW. The former courthouse next door has recently been adapted as an additional element of the Kilmainham experience.
During their lifetimes many Custom House veterans of Kilmainham returned to the Gaol to meet old comrades, commemorate old heroes and recall former times. Something their relatives and descendant can thankfully still experience, along with the rest of us.
The current Covid-19 restrictions have in some ways given us a tiny flavour of what the Custom House Men and other internees went through in Kilmainham almost 100 years ago. Of course, they experienced literal lock-down with even basics like fresh air and daylight curtailed. The prospect of serious charges hung over them and the country’s future looked highly uncertain. Maybe we can take inspiration from them to get through the problems we now are facing?