President Higgins opens new visitor centre at Kilmainham Gaol

‘In the commemorations to follow we will be called to summon up forgiveness’

President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina examining a stone crown, originally from the Royal coat of arms, at the opening of the new Kilmainham Gaol Visitor Centre. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina examining a stone crown, originally from the Royal coat of arms, at the opening of the new Kilmainham Gaol Visitor Centre. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

 

Ireland must continue to build a nation “rooted in courage, vision and a profound spirit of generous humanity”, President Michael D Higgins has said.

Speaking at the official opening of a new visitor centre at Kilmainham Gaol and Courthouse Wednesday evening, Mr Higgins invoked the memories of the 1916 leaders executed shortly after defeat.

“They died imagining a brave new Ireland, and we must continue the work of building a Republic of which our founders would be proud,” he said.

“In the commemorations to follow in the coming decades we will be called to summon up forgiveness and achieve a healing.”

Kilmainham Gaol was built in 1796 and went on to hold numerous leading figures from Ireland’s independence struggles including Robert Emmet, Thomas Francis Meagher and Charles Stewart Parnell.

It detained many of the central protagonists of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War. In the year of its opening it claimed the first political prisoner of note in Henry Joy McCracken, a founder of the United Irishmen.

“As we gather here this evening, we meet together in a place that represented both an ending and a great new beginning for the leaders of 1916,” Mr Higgins said.

“We learn, too, of incidents that bring home the horror and pathos of those days. Brave men facing death with a calm confidence that, from their military defeat, would grow a moral victory that would lead to a greater Ireland.”

In the aftermath of the Rising approximately 80 women were held at Kilmainham and 300 during the Civil War.

It was decommissioned in 1924 and left to ruin until concerns for its condition led, in 1958, to the formation of the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Committee. It eventually reopened as a museum in 1966.

“The people of Ireland owe an enormous debt of gratitude to all those volunteers, many of whom had also fought in the Rising and the War of Independence, and who, decades later, so magnanimously gave of their time and skill in order that new generations of Irish citizens could visit this place and experience the powerful connection it provides to our history and our forbearers,” Mr Higgins said.

The new interpretation centre will tell the prison’s history through photographs, artefacts and diaries of people detained in it.

Mr Higgins noted a number of these testimonies. Patrick Gilligan, writing from Cell 16 during the Civil War, reflected: “Tis not who can inflict most, Tis who can endure most will triumph in the end”.