Volunteers who restored Kilmainham Gaol get their moment in the sun


KILMAINHAM GAOL has been witness to three centuries of Irish history. But a little-known episode – when volunteers did what the State promised but failed to do, save the building from collapse – is celebrated in an exhibition, which runs until January.

Hundreds of volunteers including veterans of the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War worked free of charge in a major programme to restore the building over a six-year period. They repaired the derelict building from the point of collapse.

Most of their work was done in time for the 50th anniversary in 1966 of the Easter Rising.

Kilmainham Calling! Images of the Restoration of Kilmainham Gaol 1960-1966tells the story, through photographs, letters, documents and other memorabilia, of the “rescue” of the prison by the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society, which managed it for 26 years until 1986.

Then the facility was returned to the care of the State and became one of the largest unoccupied prisons in Europe.

It had ceased operating as a prison in 1924 and came into the ownership of Dublin Corporation. The State bought it back for a nominal fee and promised to restore it, but it fell into disrepair.

As a result, in the 1930s, when the Ardnacrusha hydro-electric dam in Co Clare was under construction, the developers wanted to use the prison as a storage area, according to Anne-Marie Ryan of the Kilmainham Gaol Museum.

A small committee obtained a lease on the building and, with the help of hundreds of volunteers, began a massive restoration programme.

The exhibition, which is free and held in the exhibition area of the museum, marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the efforts. The pictures on display show the ruined state of the buildings in the 1960s and the work as it was carried out. It exhibition also deals with some of the colourful characters involved in the work, including 88-year-old Irish Citizen Army volunteer John Hanratty, who worked on repairs “up on the roof”, said Ms Ryan.

Most of the volunteers lived in the Dublin area and many ended up getting apprenticeships from their involvement in the repairs, some as glazers and carpenters.

The exhibition runs until January 16th, 2011.

For more information, visit www.heritageireland.ie/ en/dublin/kilmainhamgaol/