In May 1916 Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin was the scene of the execution of 14 Irish Republican leaders following the crushing of the Easter Rising. The Gaol has become a symbol of militant constitutional nationalism and was used in 2016 to commemorate the centenary of Easter Rising. Preparation for this event was the final trigger for the creation of the new civic place in front of the Gaol and the creation of a focal point for the local community.
The Gaol lies upstream of Dublin City centre at the junction of the old military road (wide enough to march a battalion and now the south circular) and the old road west out of the city. It lies on a low ridge between the River Liffey and a small tributary the Camac. To the north lies the War Memorial Gardens (Lutyens) and the expanse of Phoenix Park. To the east is the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) housed in the 17C Royal Hospital built in 1680 and based on Les Invalides in Paris. It has beautiful formal gardens and a grand formal avenue links the park to the Gaol.
The Gaol opened in 1796 and witnessed, like bookends, the period of Westminster rule from the Act of Union in 1800 to the Irish Free State in 1922. It saw all the waves of Irish nationalism from the rebellion of 1798 to the civil war of 1922-23 as well as the application of justice during the social upheavals of a growing industrialised city. The Gaol was closed in 1924 and largely ignored; perhaps having too many painful memories for symbolic adoption.
The local community was the catalyst for rescue; volunteers came together around 1960 with the goal of restoring the Gaol as a memorial. They formed the Kilmainham Jail Restoration Society to gradually restore the fabric. Funds were raised in numerous ways but much of the work was done by local tradesmen working pro bono in the evenings and at weekends. In 1966 part of the Gaol opened as a museum and tourist attraction. In1986 it was transferred to state care and is the responsibility of the Office of Public Works (OPW) and now is the largest preserved Victorian gaol in Europe. The Kilmainham Gaol restoration Society became the Board of Visitors and still continues an important role in the Gaol today.
The project to create a civic space was not just driven by historical significance; the Gaol as a successful tourist attraction had problems in managing visitor flow stemming from a poor entrance and reception, and there were problems associated with access for local residents and through traffic. Whilst the original 1796 classical Gaol was set back from the carriage way creating space for public assembly, (including executions), in the 19C the front area was enclosed to create secure yards. One of these, the stone-breakers’ yard, became the execution site for the rebels gaining for itself special symbolic status. The resulting narrow pavement was a significant problem for the large groups of visitors arriving at the Gaol museum entrance.
A strategy for the civic space had been developed by the OPW when the redevelopment of the chocolate factory opposite the gaol created high quality offices (currently Heineken and Amazon) and a Hilton Hotel. However, the economic downturn failed to provide the funds for the implementation of the works. The release of the adjacent Court House and the plans for the 2016 anniversary coincided to trigger the release of funds, following campaigning by local residents. The Court House, a fine classical building in its own right, became part of the museum and enabled a new access into the Gaol diverting and reducing entrance queues.
The scheme was jointly delivered by the OPW and the Dublin City Council; the OPW being responsible for the Gaol and Courthouse and the Council for the civic space. The objectives for the public realm were to make a positive contribution to local identity whilst sorting out movement through the place and creating a more people friendly area. The practical answer has been to reduce the area for vehicles (two lanes to one) and to reduce the radii of the corners. The salvaged space is given back to pedestrians and a dedicated bicycle lane. A new light-controlled crossing has been built aligned with the avenue pathway to the IMMA. This passes through a neogothic gateway relocated to the junction in the 19C. The new paved area is anchored to the Gaol through a grid pattern expressed in stone paving. The pathway to the IMMA has a different geometry and overlays the grid like a royal carpet. The new public realm includes stone bollards, street lighting, bicycle stands and a ‘Dublin-Bikes’ stand. The avenue of mature plane trees is set in new stone surrounds.
The overall impact is of a coherent space unified by systematic use of stone which compliments the limestone and granite in all the surrounding buildings. The black and white paving grid of Wicklow granite and Kilkenny limestone ties both sides of the street together (a light-coloured tarmacadam is used where stone was not possible in the road area). A raised platform area forms a crossing point opposite the original entrance to the Gaol. This almost level stone pavement at the heart of the space contains the sculpture commemorating the 14 rebellion leaders. The restrained mono-chrome colour scheme is lifted by the bronze sculpture and the green tree canopies and animated by the people milling around this busy place; people having trumped traffic.
The high degree of design coordination belies the challenges of the project; a short programme to meet the commemoration date, multiple stakeholders, a need to update standards, and landownership complications which resulted in all the functionality having to be accommodated on the Gaol side of the road. The external works were divided into two phases, an implementation phase to discover and resolve all the below ground services that needed attention including new utilities, foul and surface water drainage and new tree pits, followed by the paving, lighting and finishes. This allowed time for the detail design and material procurement and all the work was undertaken inhouse by the City Council.
Since the works were completed in 2016 the neighbouring businesses have responded positively with works of their own; the Hilton Hotel has created an external café/bar terrace and the Patriots Inn is now smartly refurbished. The tourist numbers have risen significantly, the Dublin-Bikes stand is the most popular in the city and has been extended, and the challenge is now to develop better links to the Memorial Gardens and Phoenix Park. New links will include a greenway along the Camac river just behind the gaol and a route to Richmond Barracks. An old mill on the Camac has been acquired and this will enable the industrial history of the area to be added to the townscape narrative.
There is a strong local community thread to the evolution of this space. Local artisans rescued the Gaol from dereliction and there is now the Kilmainham Inchicore Network (KIN), a Dublin City Council initiative to create “a most desirable safe district… to live, work and enjoy”. This is well supported by residents; a neighbourhood which had no obvious central place now has somewhere to put the Christmas tree (every self-respecting Irish community must have a tree) and there are now regular street markets and fairs. Apparently, there is a long history of fairs on the site and that understanding is evidence of the value of having an Historian-in-Residence; one of the benefits of the Kilmainham Inchicore Network and the support for it provided by the city.
The new Kilmainham Civic Space is clearly a success; not only an international destination, Kilmainham/Inchicore is also a residential community and the design approach has sought to reconcile differing roles and needs. Each of its component elements are successful; as a traffic calming measure, both volume and speed have been reduced and there has been a significant shift to walking and cycling, as a tourist management project, the combined Gaol and Court House provide a well organised flow of people through the space and present the history and architecture in a coherent manner. As a community space it has been warmly adopted by local residents. As a whole, it provides a greatly enhanced setting for the Gaol, which is now the most popular visitor attraction in Dublin, surpassing the Guinness Storehouse!
However, it is perhaps most successful as a location of national identity; a sensitive commemoration of the painful birth of the Republic.