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Éire-Ireland 39.3&4 (2004) 180-201

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Enshrining Ireland's Nationalist History Inside Prison Walls:

The Restoration of Kilmainham Jail*

The overwhelming majority of history-related tourist sites in Ireland are concerned with Ireland's distant past. There are dolmens, stone circles, castles, ancient burial chambers, and ring forts, as well as monasteries with picturesque round towers and awe- inspiring high crosses. Surprisingly in view of the place of the struggle for nationhood in the Irish popular imagination, there has been little room for Ireland's more recent history among this impressive collection of sites. While it is certainly true that a growing number of tourist attractions appeared during the 1990s that address eighteenth- and nineteenth-century events—the 1798 Center at Enniscorthy and the Famine Museum at Strokestown are two major examples—the War of Independence and Civil War are almost completely ignored. In fact, of the top twenty tourist sites in Ireland, only two provide any treatment of twentieth-century Irish nationalist history—the National Museum in Kildare Street, Dublin, and Kilmainham Jail1 —and only the jail is devoted almost entirely to Ireland's nineteenth- and twentieth-century national struggle for independence. Further still, Kilmainham offers a vastly different [End Page 180] experience than, for example, Cork Gaol, where the emphasis is on ordinary prisoners and the prison experience itself—a fact that has its roots firmly in the restoration of Kilmainham.

Kilmainham Jail emerged as an important memory and tourist site during the 1960s after a voluntary organization was developed to undertake its restoration. Because volunteers restored the prison as a tourist site, the renovation itself was integrated into the constructed narrative of the jail. Kilmainham has thus been fashioned as a place of continuous national sentiment stretching from the prison's opening right through to the late twentieth century. This article explores the story of the restoration of the jail by addressing three main issues: the possible reasons why modern nationalist history has been largely ignored by tourism developers; the evolution of the restoration campaign; and the integration of the restoration into the story of Kilmainham's nationalist history.

Ignoring the Struggle

Ireland's more recent past has been neglected in tourist development for several reasons. First, when the 1930 National Monuments Act was initially drafted in 1927, it was intended that the act cover structures built before 1800 and Gaelic-language manuscripts written before 1850.2 The final legislation was less chronologically specific, but it drew attention to ancient tombs and early monastic sites rather than to more recent structures. Furthermore, the Department of Finance was given oversight of the Office of Public Works—the body entrusted with maintenance of all national monuments.3 Although the Department of Finance was generally willing to grant preservation orders when costs were low,4 they were overwhelmingly [End Page 181] conservative and tight-fisted in their approach to the allocation of money for larger projects. Most civil servants at Finance entered the department during the early 1920s and maintained an extremely cautious approach to spending until the late 1950s.5 There was little motivation to consider more expensive development or restoration projects.

Another limiting factor was that in the wake of the Irish Civil War there existed a widespread desire to thrust unpleasant divisions into the dark recesses of the unspoken past. As late as the 1950s Ireland's political leadership remained divided by bitter memories of the Civil War, and living together peacefully often required pushing this bleak chapter of the nation's history under the carpet. It was not that the past was forgotten, but rather that "silence was better than hypocrisy." To remain silent was also easier than to feel disgust at having done to fellow Irishmen what the British had done so recently to Irish revolutionaries.6 The struggle was remembered, but it was not emphasized.

Those charged with the development of tourism shared a general feeling that sites associated with Ireland's recent struggle were of little interest to tourists. There were...


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