A terrible beauty is born

In Dublin’s fair city – Days 3 and 4 – Kilmainham Gaol and going in search of history

If you strike us down now we shall rise again and renew the fight. You cannot conquer Ireland; you cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom. If our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom then our children will win it by a better deed.”

Pádriag Pearse, one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising

History is not something easily forgotten in Ireland. It clings to hearts, stones, and beautiful bits of countryside. It echoes in the mountains, is recalled by old men in pubs, and gets spoken of with great passion by curators and the random people I met.

Digging in deeply to Ireland’s history meant hearing the stories of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the Great Famine a few times on my visit. Each time I heard it, the curator or guide spoke with such inflection and emotion that it was as if they had been a part of it. They were eager to field questions. One of the guides I met remarked, “If people stop asking questions, we’ll start to lose sight of the answers.”

One of the first places in Dublin we visited was the Kilmainham Gaol – about twenty-five minutes or so west of the Temple Bar neighborhood via a few bus lines (easily caught near the Crackbird restaurant or Trinity College). The jail played a prominent role throughout Irish history, but most notably it was the last prison and execution grounds of the key players in the 1916 Easter Rising. Whilst this history is the gaol’s main reason for many people to visit, the leaders of several Irish rebellions were imprisoned and executed there. The jail can be toured only with a guide and timed ticket – so make sure you plan your visit in advance.

The guide met us in the center grounds and took us through the cell blocks of the jail, including the small Catholic chapel where, in 1916 and at the last minute, Rebellion fighter Joseph Plunkett and his fiancee Grace were married. A few hours later, Plunkett was executed. It is a quiet space now where the guide shows a historical film about the jail and the Easter Rising. I can’t imagine being that young woman, marrying the love of her life, knowing that he was to be executed in short order. If ever there was resolve, it was the people during this uprising.

From the chapel, we ventured into the West Wing of the jail to be greeted by row on row of dingy small cells exposed to the elements through the thin window glass. On some of the metal grate floors, just outside their cells, convicted rebellion fighters made their last stand before being led off for execution. Then, we went into the familiar East Wing with the massive open, sunny space. It looks oddly cheerful, but the prisoners couldn’t see out of their cells – they could “only look to God”, as the guide put it.

Our last part of the tour was the Stonebreaker’s Yard. Originally a place for hard labor to “correct” prisoners, it was the execution spot for fourteen rebellion fighters. Two small crosses and a plaque on the wall recalled the memories of that time. The Irish flag fluttered gently on a sudden breeze. People had gone in there, but they’d never come back out.

Whilst W. B. Yeats, the great Irish poet, wrote “Easter, 1916” to talk about how many people thought the ‘revolution’ was a hot mess to start, it was the execution of the leaders that turned the tide against British control. This was over the top. It set off the events of the following years that finally won Ireland its independence. A terrible beauty had been born within that Stonebreaker’s Yard.

After the formal tour, you can peruse the informative museum which gives more background and history of the gaol and several major Irish uprisings through time – 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867, and 1916 respectively. There were artifacts from the prisoners, and primary source material such as letters and personal items. Photographs, artist renderings, and artwork from the gaol’s history were on display. It gave a sense of the never-ending fight for freedom and autonomy – that the Easter Rising of 1916 didn’t just happen out of nowhere. It came from a deep-seeded passion to be free, to finally govern itself independently of British rule – and it certainly wasn’t benevolent rule.

It was as Pádriag Pearse said, “if our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom then our children will win it by a better deed.” It was won, in some part, by 1918, but fighting continued on until 1921. It was then that the Irish Free State was declared. It had became independent after some form of British rule since the 12th century, whilst six remaining counties (Northern Ireland) remained in the U.K.

In the afternoon, I went for a jaunt on my own over the National Gallery. There was a fascinating Vermeer exhibit on – one that looked at the influences between Vermeer and his contemporary Dutch painters. The exhibit was extremely well done, and fresh off a trip to Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum back in April, I was glad to see more Dutch art.

Some of the paintings looked oddly familiar though, but not from the Rijksmuseum. I realized, after some hard thinking, that I’d gone to an exhibit on Dutch paintings at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh the summer before. It was the cheeky drunk guy in the painting that made me remember.

After touring the exhibit, I started a walking tour of my own – out to Marion Square to see the Oscar Wilde statue. He looked quite gorgeously dapper, leaning casually on a rock. A quick jaunt around Marion Square took me past artists selling some beautiful paintings, but I didn’t have one ounce of luggage space to spare after four weeks away in Europe.

From Marion Square, I found St. Stephen’s Green. I was only going to walk the perimeter, finding the various statues hidden in its green hedges, but I got sucked in by the half-sunny afternoon, the swans in the water, and the casual saunter of people through the gravelly paths. I ended up wandering through for about an hour, taking in the various pieces of public art to be found in the park. I find it really intriguing that many gardens have a statue of Indian poet Tagore. In addition, there was a sculptural reminder of the Great Famine and statues to James Joyce and W. B. Yeats.

After wandering through St. Stephen’s Green, I roamed along the great Georgian streets where the doors were painted multiple colours – red, pink, green, light blue, dark blue, etc. – to help drunk husbands find the right door and right house. The legend goes that drunken husbands kept coming into the wrong houses – to be fair, they all looked alike anyway – so the wives painted the doors different colours to help them out. Seems reasonable enough.

After perusing the painted doors, I took a rest with a caramel slice and a cappuccino in a lovely cafe that served sweets, coffees, smoothies, and a cafeteria-style menu of vegetarian options. I gathered my strength and set out now to find the most unsettling piece of public art in Dublin – the Famine Memorial by the River Liffey. The one in St. Stephen’s Green was small and heart-rending, but I realized quickly that there was more than one monument to this event within the confines of Dublin city.

The Famine Memorial, located on the banks of the River Liffey, is near the Sean O’Casey Bridge and the Custom House Quay. I walked in a zig-zagging fashion to find it, ending up first at a street carnival where I could avail myself of the Port-a-Potties (a very lucky find). I wandered through, smelling the wonderful smells of the street fair (not the Port-a-Potties, mind you), and was happened upon by a very friendly police officer. He noticed that I looked more than a little lost – my data was very limited on my mobile and Google Maps eats through that like its candy – and asked if I needed help finding something.

“I’m trying to find my way to the Famine Memorial.”

“Ah, the Famine Memorial? You’re far from that, dear.”

Yep, I was. I explained that I’d gotten on the wrong bus and ended up further away than I was originally.

“I’m trying not to get lost again. Can you tell me which way to go?”

“You’re never lost in Ireland, love. It’s just called finding something else you didn’t know you were looking for.”

True. I liked that idea. From now on, instead of being lost (or walking in the wrong direction, as I was wont to), I would just say “I was finding something else I didn’t know I was looking for.”

He ended up giving me directions to it after asking if I was Irish-American (indeed I am not, and I must be one of the very few), and upon expressing that I could be a little bit Irish in Ireland if I wanted to be, he sent me on my way.

The policeman was perhaps one of the friendliest officers I’d ever met, but I found that, the longer I was in Ireland, the more my list of “the nicest people I’d ever met” kept growing.

The Famine Memorial stood on the opposite bank of the river from where I was. The day had grown sharply cooler as the sun had disappeared utterly, and I was left with looming dark clouds that were starting to lightly spit rain at me.

I crossed the River Liffey and wandered toward the Memorial. It was installed in 1997 near where the ship Perseverance left Dublin with bedraggled and starving passengers bound for the United States. While the Perseverance made it to the United States with all of its passengers, many of these ships did not. As the famine wore on, people were arriving at the ships with their very last scrap of clothing and food. Many of them hadn’t eaten properly in months and had been bitten by disease and malnutrition. They would not survive the journey. Eventually, these ships came to be known as coffin ships because of how many Irishmen, women, and children died during the perilous journey across the Atlantic.


The Memorial was absolutely striking. From far away, it looked like a ragtag group of people, thin and emaciated, making their way toward the ship. Up close, the details and likeness of people became excruciatingly real. I examined the man with the boy in his back. The boy looked like he was dead or close to it. The woman’s face was drawn down in pain. The man’s face was gaunt and had the appearance of total exhaustion. Behind the people was a thin, ragged dog. This was all they carried – all they had.

As I photographed the finer details of the memorial – the man’s bony hands, his old hat, the child’s face – I was overwhelmed by emotion. The sheer suffering inherent in this art work was undeniable. My heart rent for them. They looked barely alive.

One guide characterized the Great Famine as a genocide against the Irish, but this is a much-debated idea on both sides of the coin. There are points for each argument on this, but it was clear where he stood really quickly.

The potato was the staple crop for the rural poor, pure and simple. When it got the blight, the monoculture of the potato crop allowed it to spread and spread unchecked across the country. As the years went on, and the crop never got rid of the blight, people began to starve. Families who had been renting their land from absentee English landlords (through local middlemen) lost their homes – no work, no food, no way to pay the rent. Sometimes, homes were burned down to keep people from returning.

The nail on the coffin – the thing that really gets at you – is that Ireland had plenty of food during the famine. It wasn’t affordable to the impoverished people eeking a living off the land, and most of the food produced in Ireland was exported – and exported a great deal to England.

Some Parliamentarians turned a blind eye to the suffering people – or, if it wasn’t a blind eye, it was enacting bad policies that really wouldn’t help much. It wasn’t really in their interest to act to help the Irish. One Parliamentarian just tossed it off as a way of population control of a group of people obviously inferior to the English. The Irish were left to starve in the hedgerows.

The Native Americans, who knew this scenario all too well (particularly when considering the Cherokee Trail of Tears), tried to help the struggling Irish. Initially, the British Parliament tried to import corn as well. The problem with corn was that it wasn’t as adaptable as potatoes, and equipment was required to grind it properly for food. Many people didn’t have the tools or means to prepare it. It also had to be cooked quite thoroughly in order for it to be digestible. Or, the corn didn’t show up at all.

Those who could afford it left for America on the coffin ships – and these usually weren’t entire families. Younger people went, hoping to work and send money home so that others could eventually join them. The Irish emigrants hoped to build a new life there. Many did – cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia have strong Irish populations today. Other Irish went to Scotland and some to England, Canada, and Australia to try and find work. Anything but the starvation and death that abounded in Ireland.

Some of guides I met couldn’t disguise the emotion in their voices when they speak of it as if they themselves were there. Today, Ireland is the most food secure nation in the world – recently taking the top spot from the U.S. When my students told me this, they said their science teacher told them to ask me why, knowing that I’d just been to Ireland in the summer.

I supposed I knew why. I told them the story of the Great Famine in Ireland. They asked if this still happened – the idea that one country could wield power over another that it could end up lacking basic human necessities such as food and shelter.

I never like having to tell them “yes,” but the truth is, if I don’t say “yes,” then nothing can be done about it. Instead, “yes” is both a horrible thing to have to say but also a way to spur them on to doing something. Famine is very real. We talked about Yemen and Somalia and how the Rohingya are now facing a lack of food and basic living conditions. We talked about famine in other countries and throughout history, how control of food sources could mean control of a people.

It was as the guide said: if we stop asking questions, we stop learning the answers. We stop wondering what we could do and remain with what we have done instead.

To say I was affected by the sculpture is an understatement. I still look at the pictures and feel like this didn’t need to happen. That it still doesn’t need to happen.

A terrible beauty has been born in so many ways.

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