Although it was originally built to house ‘common criminals’, many of whom would be deported to Australia, Kilmainham Gaol is significant as the site of the executions of the 1916 leaders and of the imprisonment of many of those involved in the major struggle for independence or reform during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, writes David Tucker.


As Éamon de Valera reflected on his fate in his cell in Kilmainham Gaol in May 1916, like many of his compatriots in the 1916 Rising, he was under sentence of death, a doomed man. There seemed little prospect that the teacher-turned-revolutionary would not be executed in the place of death that was the stonebreakers’ yard of a gaol built at a place called Gallows Hill on what was then the outskirts of Dublin, a place that had seen so much heartbreak and bloodshed and was to see a lot more,

As far as ‘Dev’ was concerned his destiny was sealed as is shown by his ‘final’ letter written in Kilmainham.
“Tomorrow I am to be shot, so pray for me, an old sport unselfishly played the game”, de Valera wrote to a friend, Michael Ryan of Cashel, Co. Tipperary. The letter was dated May 9, which is significant.

On May 10, British Prime Minister Asquith, fearing that the heavy-handed British response to the Easter Rising would result in more support for the rebels, sent an order that no further executions were to take place. Despite this, James Connolly and Sean MacDiarmada, who had been court martialled on May 9, the day after de Valera, were executed on May 12.

Asquith and the British government, in the midst of the Great War against Germany, were slow to appreciate the developing danger in Ireland. General John Maxwell, a veteran British officer who had served in India, the Boer War and most recently on the Western Front, had been appointed Military Governor of Ireland, and prosecuted the Irish nationalists at courts martial which denied them any opportunity to present a defence for their actions.

Brenda Malone, the Curator and Manager of the Military History collections at the National Museum of Ireland, says that almost as soon as the Rising had begun martial law was declared, transferring power in Ireland from the civil government to the military forces.

By the time of the surrender, Maxwell’s decision to court martial the leaders of the Rising under martial law was problematic from the first.

“These military trials were conducted away from the public view, and the rebel leaders had no legal defence or jury. The leaders were charged with ‘waging war against His Majesty the King with the intention and for the purpose of assisting the enemy,” writes Malone.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own