It has been said that tourists – and mostly American tourists – are the only reason that Kilmainham Gaol is still open because most Irish couldn’t be bothered with it these days. My new friend who is now happily married here in the U.S. agrees with the travel books that say things like that because he and his generation seem to be sick to death of the glorious dead mentality and couldn’t care less about the history and the Troubles that have haunted the country since even before the Rising of 1916. In fact, he was shocked that we were still asked questions about our religion and last names on our travels to Ireland at the end of last year, both in the Republic and the North because he thought those kinds of things were finished.
However, when I did tour Kilmainham Gaol, I was in a group mostly made up of Irish people and all seemed just as profoundly affected by it as I was. Perhaps it was because of the off season which meant my group was thankfully smaller when we went through the infamous prison, or perhaps it was an anomaly altogether but I was glad for it. It made for a decidedly more intimate and more personal experience.
I write for a few places – one of my longtime favorites is the Atlas Obscura which is a combination of an obscure travel guide and a historical Atlas. Their Irish section was woefully sparse before I filled it out (which I am still doing) and sometimes I like to share the entries.
The deserted village of Slievemore was one of the first I knew I had to add when I went to Ireland. We were there in the early hours of the morning and it was pouring down rain but we explored it anyway.
Interesting fact: When you’re deep into the Gaeltacht island of Achill in December, it is important to note that there are no off season accommodations. In fact the Annexe Pub was the only place we could find anyone and the amazing bartender had to call a friend who owns the summer hostel to turn on the heat and give us a room for the night. It was a much appreciated and really lovely thing for him to do for the crazy tourists who were traveling without an itinerary. If you make it out that way, have a pint – the Guinness was perfect – and give him some love from the crazy American ladies that he saved from a freezing storm.
When I visited Kilmainham Gaol in December, it was a bit like a pilgrimage for me. I knew that I would be walking through the notorious place I had been reading about for 20 years and that my Irish history knowledge would only be improved by going…but I didn’t really want to. I knew it’d be hard for me as I am a sensitive girl and I left my traveling companions elsewhere in order to do it alone. I was highly emotional, particularly when I visited “Last Words“, the exhibit on the top floor of the prison.
As I left the gaol, I really needed to collect myself. My makeup was runny from tears I had barely held back in the exhibit and my head was full of things I wanted to remember and write down. Most of all, I wanted a cigarette. I crossed the street to have one and to not fall apart in front of a major tourist attraction and found myself surrounded by humanoid, creepy bronze statues whose chests were full of bullet holes. In the split second it took me to put two and two together, I realized 2 things. These were the creepiest statues I had ever seen and I had come to the wrong place to collect myself, as it made me even more emotional and teary.
I don’t know if I like Rowan Gillespie or not. On one hand I believe he’s a genius. On the other, his work hits me in a visceral way that makes me uncomfortable. This is Proclamation, another place I had to add to the Atlas Obscura. It’s getting quite full of Irish places these days….