Terry Prone: Kilmainham echoes with centuries of cruelty but remains relevant

1st Apr 2024
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Originally published in the Irish Examiner.

You might not think of visiting a prison as a cool trip for a bank holiday weekend, but it can be. Kilmainham Gaol alone attracts almost half a million visitors every year, even though much of the tour is remarkably grim, culminating in the yard where 1916 prisoners were executed. Coming up to this weekend, the place was crowded.

Some of the factors leading to incarceration are familiar, including violence driven by alcohol and although not in the 18th and 19th century, drugs. Vandalism. And homelessness, which led to savvy use of the Vagrancy Act, which was “designed for the Punishment of idle and Disorderly Persons, and Rogues and Vagabonds”.

Once the Famine struck, the numbers of “idle” and homeless people inevitably increased. They could go to the workhouse, from which they might never exit, and where conditions were horrific, or they could go to a prison like the one in Kilmainham, where the food was markedly better and the exit route was easier, because the sentences for vagrancy (as homelessness was called then), tended to be short. The food was a consequence of prison reformers believing you could not reform a person who was starving, and reformation was the name of the game, for the most part.

It was fascinating to hear from one of the tour guides that the practice of isolating and separating prisoners — which did them enormous damage — came about with the best of intentions. Separating prisoners obviated “moral contagion”, which may be assumed to include the kind of sexual exploitation associated with America’s prisons today, while also preventing or at least seeking to prevent prisons from becoming perverse training establishments, where old lags effectively apprenticed newcomers, training them in skills like pickpocketing and robbery.

You imagine how important the noises of wardens arriving — the loud connection between boots and floors — although the guide then mentions an elaboration dreamed up by reformers who wanted isolation and separation to have maximum impact on each prisoner.

They ensured that the employees walking the stone corridors of the gaol wore felted overshoes, so they could creep along without making a sound, thus ensuring they could surprise prisoners who had the imagination to be doing something they shouldn’t be doing (i.e. anything) and remove them from the isolated the comfort of aural connection with the world directly outside their cell door. Nothing like the concentrated cruelty of the virtuous well-intentioned

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