THE RE-SLATING OF EAST WING, BANGOR BLUE SLATE
Now a national museum managed by the Office of Public Works, Kilmainham Gaol welcomes around 300k visitors annually. Although quite an austere and utilitarian piece of architecture in itself, the building has played an integral part in Irish history, making it one of the most culturally significant buildings in Ireland. It is still hard to believe that it came close to demolition on a number of occasions. The roof of the East Wing was replaced in 2015 as part of the ongoing upkeep and development of the site. 18,000 Bangor Blue Celtic 50×30 slates were supplied by LBS replacing the original Bangor Blue Welsh Slate roof.
The original prison building was designed by Sir John Trail and completed in 1796. It occupied an elevated site in the countryside on the outskirts of Dublin, replacing the older prison located around the modern day Mount Brown area. The prison was designed around a central block of cells set around two courtyards. A number of exercise yards surrounded the cells, all enclosed by a large wall. The buildings were constructed from Granite and Limestone block, and above the entrance gate, a likeness of a shackled hydra was carved in stone. The heads of the hydra were said to represent the crimes of those within, and public hangings took place here until 1865.
Kilmainham prison was considered to be a modern and progressive design. It was hoped that the cleaner more modern facilities at the Gaol would aid prisoner rehabilitation; and by previous standards it was considered comfortable. (By contemporary standards the prison was far from comfortable – for the first 50 years the building had no glass in the windows and no heating. Inmates were allowed 1 small candle for heat and men, women and children were incarcerated together in overcrowded cells.) Conditions were miserable. The prison population continued to expand beyond its intended capacity, and in 1840 an additional block of cells were added. No sooner were they complete, than the famine struck Ireland and the prison was inundated.
In 1860 the original East Wing was replaced by a 3 storey over basement design by James McCurdy a prolific architect of the era. The footprint of the prison expanded to accommodate the new wing and to include the now infamous ‘stone-breakers yard’. Although bright and clean the architecture and internal layout of East Wing was intended to enforce confinement and isolation. Even the large central skylight was a deliberate addition – it reflected the Victorian attitudes towards contemplation and reflection on ones crimes. They hoped that it would inspire prisoners to ‘look to God’.
(The refurbished East Wing block can be seen pictured right. A beautiful roof, with the central skylight and curved roof detail at the end.)
KILMAINHAMS POLITICAL INMATES
Although the prison housed common criminals and those awaiting shipment to convict colonies in Australia, the prison is best known for the political prisoners it housed through the 19th and early 20th century. The prison over its lifetime became a monument to those striving for Irish Independence and those seeking reform in Ireland. It housed many of those involved in the various rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848 and 1867.
The prison was first closed in 1910, but was opened again in 1916 to hold those involved in the Easter Rising. In May of 1916, fourteen leaders of the rising were executed in the Stone-Breakers Yard at Kilmainham Gaol. But despite the hugely significant role the gaol played as a backdrop to events, when Kilmainham closed to prisoners in 1924 the site was for the most part neglected. Successive governments tried and failed to come up with a definitive plan or use for the gaol. Only for the campaigning and commitment of the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Committee (KGRC), the building may likely have been demolished.
The KGRC worked tirelessly to ensure that basic maintenance was carried out at the site. This work was carried out exclusively through funding from public donations, free work from local tradesman and through leasing the site as a film location. In 1966 the gaol was reopened to visitors, and subsequently handed over to the state in 1986. Now operated and maintained by the Office of Public Works it is a flagship for promoting restoration and cultural heritage in Dublin.