James Connolly was carried into the Stonebreakers’ Yard of Kilmainham Gaol on a stretcher.
A few days earlier, he had been in command during the armed insurrection in Dublin called the Easter Rising. The revolt was launched on April 24, 1916, by Irish rebels attempting to break free of British rule. It lasted for six days.
The rebels chose the General Post Office (GPO) to serve as their headquarters due to its central location and position as the country’s telegraph center.
After occupying the GPO, Patrick Pearse, one of the movement’s leaders, stepped in front of the building and read aloud the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
Over the next few days, fighting occurred in pockets throughout the city center. However, with greater numbers and better weapons, the British suppressed the rebellion in less than a week.
The GPO was destroyed by fire, except for the granite facade. Connolly was wounded. Pearse agreed to an unconditional surrender.
The rebel leaders were arrested, quickly tried, and sentenced to death.
At the entrance to Kilmainham Gaol, a guide said, “You don’t have to wear face masks to enter, unless you choose to. We’re not in prison anymore.” Yet, a minute later, we were.
After opening in 1796, the jail held mostly petty criminals and debtors awaiting sentencing. The guide said that, upon entering, prisoners were provided with the four Bs—bed, blanket, bucket, and bible.
There was no segregation of prisoners—up to five men, women, and children shared the same cell with one candle for light and heat.
Candles had to last two weeks, so most of the time was spent in the dark. Many of the prisoners were eventually exiled to Australia.
Ten percent of Kilmainham’s prisoners were political, including women who were lobbying for the right to vote. Over the years, the jail held the majority of the leaders of the rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848, and 1867.
Following their surrender, fourteen leaders of the Easter Rising, including all seven signers of the proclamation, were executed in the Stonebreakers’ Yard. (Imagine if the signers of the United States Declaration of Independence had suffered the same fate.)
Connolly was so incapacitated by a wound to his ankle that he was unable to stand. Instead, he was lifted from a stretcher and tied to a chair facing the firing squad. He was executed while sitting. Today, a cross marks the spot of his death in the yard.
When news of the executions spread, the Irish public grew increasingly combative toward the British. A guerrilla war, the Irish War of Independence, ensued. It ended with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921.
Once out of prison, I walked up O’Connell Street. In front of the GPO where Patrick Pearse once read the proclamation, volunteers were setting up a food line to feed the homeless. The GPO’s pillars are pocked with bullet holes from the 1916 battle.
Farther up O’Connell is the Garden of Remembrance, a somber memorial to those who lost their lives during the Easter Rising. Queen Elizabeth II visited in 2011 and laid a wreath in front of the Irish flag, a symbolic gesture toward healing the historical rift between the countries.
“This is a history tour,” announced Mary, the guide. “There’s no singin’, no dancin’, and no shoppin’. If you don’t like history, God help ya.”
I joined the tour at the Shelbourne Hotel, which British snipers once used as a vantage point to pick off Irish rebels hiding in Saint Stephen’s Green.
The coach crawled out of Dublin early in the morning and headed north to the Boyne Valley. A bend in the River Boyne was our destination, where a group of over ninety prehistoric monuments, known collectively as Brú na Bóinne, are located.
Concentrated near the river are standing stones, stone circles, and tombs. Their construction began around 3200 BCE, centuries before the pyramids in Egypt were built.
Throughout the valley, the monuments provide evidence of a society with knowledge of architecture, engineering, and astronomy.
The landscape is dominated by three large passage tombs, Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth, built some five thousand years ago. (Passage tombs are burial chambers covered in earth and accessible through narrow tunnels.)
Our small tour stopped first at Knowth (rhymes with south). The larger mound at Knowth has two chambers, each with its own passage. Cremated remains were once deposited inside. Clustered around the central mound, like satellites around a planet, are eighteen smaller mounds.
Bounding the larger mound are over two hundred curbstones weighing five tons each. Somehow, these boulders were hauled from twelve miles away before being carved with elaborate geometric designs. Knowth contains more than a third of the megalithic (large stone) art in all of Europe.
Next up on the tour was Newgrange, the largest mound in the Boyne Valley, with a diameter of nearly three hundred feet.
At Newgrange, a single passage leads to a chamber with a roof made of overlapping stones twenty feet above the floor. After five thousand years, the roof of the tomb is still waterproof.
Like Knowth, Newgrange is also surrounded by decorated curbstones. The most impressive is the large entrance stone. A triple-spiral design on the stone is the poster child for Celtic art.
A park guide led a small group of us through the tight sixty-foot passage, which required stooping and squeezing sideways. Once we were in the chamber, he pointed out carvings on the rocks. He then turned off the artifical lights and demonstrated with his flashlight how sunlight enters the chamber at dawn on the winter solstice.
“Some people don’t believe the solstice story,” Mary joked. “They say the sun never shines in Ireland.”
Back on the bus we proceeded to the Hill of Tara, an ancient ceremonial and burial site with a three-hundred-and-sixty degree view of the surrounding countryside. The hilltop is scattered with numerous monuments and earthworks dating from the Stone Age to the Iron Age.
Tara is identified in legends as the inauguration site of the high kings of Ireland. Mary called it the capital of the Celts, older than Athens and Rome.
The city center of Dublin is a jumble of narrow streets clogged with traffic. It is gritty and grimy, but buzzing with Trinity College students and tourists. Art and music are flourishing; restaurants and pubs thriving.
Ukrainian flags hang on the city lampposts. Near the Molly Malone statue, Norwegians in costume celebrated their Constitution Day (May 17) in the rain. The buxom statue of the fishmonger is known locally as the Tart with the Cart, Dish with the Fish, Dolly with the Trolley, and, my favorite, Trollop with the Scallop.
“A good puzzle would be to cross Dublin without passing a pub.” So thought Leopold Bloom, the main character in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. In 2011, eighty-nine years after the book was published, a program developer solved the puzzle with a computer algorithm.
Some have suggested a simpler solution—don’t pass the pub, go inside.
I walked through rowdy Temple Bar, formerly and perhaps occasionally still, the stomping grounds of U2. The band recorded much of the album Achtung Baby at a studio (now Claddagh Records) on Cecilia Street. Members and relatives of the band have owned hotels and restaurants in the neighborhood. U2 played many of their first gigs at the Project Arts Theatre.
Not everyone is a fan, of course. Mary, the Brú na Bóinne guide, asked her daughter, “Did you hear that Bono performed in a Kyiv subway station?”
Her daughter responded, “Haven’t the Ukrainians suffered enough?”
As happens in many urban neighborhoods, Temple Bar experienced a period of decline. In the late 1980s the crime-ridden district was scheduled for demolition. However, citizens’ groups organized to save the buildings.
The results of gentrification are mixed. Today, Temple Bar is a popular entertainment and arts district. It is also party central for tourists willing to settle for prefabricated Irish pubs.
Dublin’s oldest pub is The Brazen Head. The site has supposedly housed a tavern since 1198, although there is no evidence to support the claim. The current owners don’t care—the pub is usually packed. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, was once a patron.
By the book
In 2014 I visited Scotland’s Isle of Iona, where Saint Columba founded a monastery in 563 CE. (See post here.) Iona’s monks were exquisite designers. They created the iconic Celtic cross, featuring the ring around the intersection at the center of the cross.
Around 800 CE they began transcribing the gospels in Latin, using elaborate calligraphy and fanciful illustrations. The resulting six-hundred-and-eighty-page, illuminated manuscript is a masterpiece of artistic design and craftsmanship.
The Book of Kells may have been started and possibly completed on Iona, or perhaps it was produced at the Abbey of Kells, Ireland, also founded by Saint Columba. Both abbeys were regularly raided by Vikings, who had a tendency to disrupt the monks’ work.
During Oliver Cromwell’s rampage through Ireland in the mid-1600s, the book was moved from Kells to Dublin for safekeeping and ended up at Trinity College.
The book sits in a darkened room, posed in a sterile high-tech display case that controls temperature, humidity, light—everything but time. Only one spread of the open book can be seen.
The more interesting display is in the adjoining museum, which provides details of the illuminated manuscript’s production, including colorful enlargements of the calligraphy and illustrations.
Upstairs is the Long Room in the college’s Old Library, one of the favorite rooms of my daughter, the librarian. It contains over two hundred thousand leather-clad books, stacked to the ceiling, many reachable only via flimsy wooden ladders. Marble busts of philosophers and writers line the hall.
On display is one of the few remaining copies of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
Also on display is an Irish harp, dating to the 1400s. Its iconic shape is the symbol for Guinness stout. Oh, and also the country of Ireland’s coat of arms. Guinness’s harp faces right; Ireland’s left.
Readers at the library have included Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and Bram Stoker. In the late 1800s, Dublin produced five of the greatest writers the English language has ever known—Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, and James Joyce. All were born in Dublin within a few years of each other.
I visited nearby Merrion Square and found the former townhomes of Yeats and Wilde. In the park is a statue of Wilde, lounging on a rock and smiling drolly.
Shaw and Yeats both won the Nobel Prize in Literature, as did Samuel Beckett (also of Dublin) in 1969 and Seamus Heaney in 1995.
Joyce said, “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world.
“In the particular is contained the universal.”
Bags of bones
The National Museum of Archaeology displays Irish treasures from the Stone Age to the Viking Age. Some of its stone tools are nine thousand years old.
One exhibit feels like a funeral home. Lying in silent, darkened chapels are the remains of five Iron-Agers. Their bodies were preserved (somewhat) in Irish bogs. The remains are no more than bone fragments and leathery skin. Some still have hair, jewelry, and shreds of clothing.
The collection includes Cashel Man, who may be the oldest bog body found in Europe. He lived around 2000 BCE—over four thousand years ago.
Younger remains include those of Gallagh Man (470-120 BCE), Clonycavan Man (392 to 201 BCE), Old Croghan Man (362 to 175 BCE), and Baronstown West Man (242 to 388 BCE).
All show evidence of violent deaths. One archaeologist theorizes that the victims were tribal kings ritually sacrificed by their communities for failing to keep their campaign promises—favorable weather and a bountiful harvest. Hmm . . .
The museum’s entrance was under reconstruction, so visitors entered through the gift shop. As I was leaving, a man asked the attendant, “Is this the way out?”
“There’s one way in and one way out,” she said. “Just like life.”