Following the surrender and the ending of the Easter Rising, many of the rebels were sent to Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol. Kilmainham Gaol first opened in 1796 and the notorious Dublin prison housed criminals (male, female and even children) in its dank, cold cells and behind its high prison walls.
In the past, murderers and thieves had faced long incarceration and hanging there. Some were just petty thieves, others were convicts awaiting transportation to Australia. Many Irish revolutionaries and nationalists like Robert Emmet, John Dillon, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and Charles Stewart Parnell were also imprisoned there.
Nellie Gifford was among the women from the various rebel garrisons transferred from Richmond Barracks to Kilmainham following the surrender. Countess Constance Markievicz was also imprisoned there.
Following their trial and sentencing by General Maxwell, many of the leaders of the Rising were transferred to Kilmainham to await their execution.
The executions began early in the morning just before dawn on Wednesday 3rd May with Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke, Thomas MacDonagh all shot by an army firing squad in the Stonebreakers’ Yard. Their bodies were removed afterwards to be buried in the prison cemetery of Arbour Hill military prison.
On Wednesday evening, a determined Grace Gifford arrived to the prison and was granted permission to marry her fiancé Joseph Plunkett who was due to be executed. They were married around midnight in the candle lit prison chapel but were not let talk to each other and afterwards, Joe – still in chains – was returned immediately to his prison cell. The prison chaplain organised for his bride, Grace, to stay close by and a few hours later a driver from the prison was dispatched to collect Grace to bring her back to the prison. In a crowded cell watched by soldiers she and her husband Joe said their final goodbyes.
Only a short while later on 4th May, Willie Pearse, Edward Daly, Michael O’Hanrahan and Joseph Plunkett were all led out to the Stonebreakers’ Yard where they were shot by firing squad.
Nellie Gifford, hearing of the deaths of her brothers-in-law Thomas MacDonagh and Joe Plunkett, was so overcome with tears and upset that the matron of the prison let Doctor Kathleen Lynn go to her cell to comfort her.
Major John MacBride, Maud Gonne’s former husband, who had volunteered to help command Jacob’s Biscuit Factory was executed on Friday 5th May.
On Monday 8th of May, Michael Mallin, Eamonn Ceannt, Sean Heuston and Con Colbert all bravely faced the prison’s firing squad in the early hours of the morning.
The badly wounded James Connolly was court martialled from his hospital bed in Dublin Castle on the 9th May. His wife Lily and daughter Nora were let visit him at midnight in Dublin Castle on the 11th May. An hour or more later, dressed in his pyjama,s he was transferred on a stretcher by ambulance to Kilmainham Gaol where he was blindfolded and lifted onto a chair in the Stonebreakers’ Yard as he was unable to stand. In the early hours of that May morning, James Connolly faced the same firing squad of twelve soldiers and a sergeant, that had already executed his friend Sean MacDiarmada.
Following their executions, the bodies of each of the dead rebels were transferred immediately in the early hours of the morning for burial to the cemetery in Arbour Hill Military Prison. The British did not want to give the Nationalists and those who supported the Rising the opportunity to organise large funerals for their dead leaders.
Kilmainham Gaol closed in 1924 and fell into disrepair over the following years. Nellie Gifford was among those who campaigned for the restoration of Kilmainham as a historic site of interest.
Kilmainham Gaol was restored over many years and now is open for visitors. It is one of Ireland’s most popular visitor attractions and is well worth a visit. It has a very special atmosphere and is steeped in Irish history. It is advisable to take a guided tour as you get a far better picture of the past and prison life in Kilmainham.
There is also an excellent museum there with a large 1916 display. As Kilmainham gets very busy, I would suggest you book online – if possible – or to try to go there early in the morning.