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Did you help restore Kilmainham Gaol? Ireland wants to thank you

The restoration work done in the 1960s saved the building from ruins.

Image: Sean Munson via Flickr/CC

KILMAINHAM GAOL IS a popular tourist hotspot in Dublin today with about 330,000 visitors passing through the gates each year.

The fascinating tours of one of Europe’s largest unoccupied gaols, however, would not have been possible if not for a group of unpaid workers in the 1960s who dedicated time and resources to restoring the buildings.

Between 1924 and 1960, the gaol had descended into decay and disrepair. Roofs had fallen in, trees and weeds grew everywhere and it was described at the time as an “unsightly ruin and a public eyesore”.

In 1959, a small group of people formed a committee which included a librarian, architect and engineer. They drafted a scheme for the completion of renovations which would take five years – gambling on the assumption that they could attract voluntary labour, free materials and donations.

It worked.

The government approved. The builders donated. The volunteers came – and stayed. And, importantly, cheques were sent.

On 21 May 1960, with the keys handed over to the trustees, the mammoth task began. In a pamphlet about the restoration, the committee wrote:

So outstanding a reservoir of national memories is assuredly worth preserving as a historical museum.

It was the place where United Irishmen including Henry Joy McCracken and Robert Emmet were imprisoned. Anne Devlin was tortured in attempts to get her to betray Emmet and his comrades.

Men of the Young Ireland Movement of 1848 were incarcerated there, as were Fenians in 1865 and 1867.

The chapel saw the marriage of Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford in the hours before his execution.

It was in its courtyard that Padraig Pearse, Thomas Clarke and James Connolly faced the firing squad in 1916.

Kilmainham Jail, Dublin, Ireland Source: Mark Heard

“Kilmainham Jail is at once a symbol and a memorial,” the committee wrote in 1960.

A symbol of the centuries of tyranny exercised by an alien government over the Irish people: a memorial to the unconquerable spirit of patriot men and women who languished within its dungeons or who were executed beneath the shadow of its walls.

Their passionate plea inspired the volunteers who worked painstakingly over the next five years to restore the gaol.

Kilmainham Gaol was formally opened as a museum in 1966 by President Eamon de Valera on the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising.

Kilmainham Gaol (Jail) Source: larrywkoester

Now, over 50 years on, the State wants to thank those workers, of which there were 100s.

Junior minister Simon Harris is hoping to seek out each volunteer to ensure their achievements are recognised during next year’s commemoration events.

“We want as many people as possible who were involved in the restoration works to come forward,” he said. ”These people worked tirelessly for many years on an unpaid basis so that the Gaol could be saved from total decay and it is our intention that their effort will be recognised publicly during 2016.”

Chairman of the gaol’s board of visitors said that while many of the volunteers are still known, they have “lost track” of many. Others have passed away.

“We are very anxious therefore to gather a full record of all the people who took part before the memory of what they achieved fades away,” Damien Cassidy continued, adding that family members of deceased volunteers should also get in touch.

Former restoration workers, or family members of former workers should email: kilmainhamgaolworkers@opw.ie or write to:

Kilmainham Gaol Museum
(Archive Section – Voluntary Workers Project)
Inchicore Road, Kilmainham,
Dublin 8. D08 T2X5. Ireland.

More: This amazing Irish rebel wounded in the Easter Rising is finally getting some recognition

Read: Are you a child of the 1916 Rising? This musical project wants you

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