Rare photos show Down 1961 heroes viewing Kilmainham restoration

Bimpe Archer
26 January, 2016 01:00

RARE photographs revealing the extraordinary efforts of a handful of ordinary people drawn from across Ireland to save one of the most iconic sites associated with the Easter Rising can be seen for the first time.

Unearthed in the family trove of a Belfast MLA, they detail the mammoth task of restoring the derelict Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin and capture the visit in support by the victorious Down GAA team after the1961 All-Ireland football final.

SDLP representative Claire Hanna said her uncle, Dr Breandán Ó hAnnaidh, had taken the photographs during the late summer of 1961 when he and her late uncle and godfather Ciarán Ó Catháin, then students at Queen's, answered the call to volunteer.

They and three friends were among the few people from the north to answer a call from the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society to spend the summer working on clearing the rubble and undergrowth from the ruined prison.

Now one of Dublin's most popular tourist attractions, particularly known as the site of execution of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, it was first opened in the turbulent years just before the 1798 rebellion.

It housed a roll-call of prisoners from the rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867 and 1916, including Henry Joy McCracken, Robert Emmet, Anne Devlin, William Smith Ó Brien, Jeremiah Ó Donovan Rossa, Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Davitt, Eamon De Valera and Peadar Ó Donnell.

However, the gaol had fallen into a state of bad disrepair after being decommissioned as a prison by the Irish Free State government in 1924.

In the years following independence there was little appetite for its restoration as it was associated with oppression and suffering, its links to the fight for independence not recognised by the hierarchy - especially given that the first four republican prisoners executed by the Free State government during the Irish Civil War were shot in the prison yard.

An attempt to demolish the site had only been shelved because it would have cost too much.

However, by the late 1950s a grassroots movement for the preservation of Kilmainham Gaol began to grow, amid fresh reports that the Office of Public Works was accepting tenders for the demolition of the building.

Lorcan Leonard, a young engineer from the north side of Dublin, gathered a small number of like-minded nationalists, to form the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society in 1958.

In 1960 the group produced a detailed plan for restoration, including developing the site as a tourist attraction, receiving approval from the Department of Finance, which allowed the prison keys to be handed over to a board of trustees, made up of five members nominated by the society and two by the government.

Work began with a team of 60 volunteers that May.

These photographs were taken the following year when the back-breaking work of clearing overgrown vegetation, trees, fallen masonry and bird droppings was still under way.

Ms Hanna said: "They were taken by my uncle, Dr Breandán Ó hAnnaidh, who has catalogued thousands of photograph he took over the decades. There are 33 photographs from Kilmainham."

The work included clearing the Stonebreakers' yard, where the 1916 leaders were shot.

"I consider these photographs to be historic and a tribute to young men who spent the summer of 1961 working in Kilmainham jail, some of who are still living, and to the memory of my uncle Ciarán," she said.

"This centenary year will see much discussion of the ideals of 1916 and the lessons of history for those of us alive now. I know my own imagination has been fired by my family's practical, thoughtful work to ensure that Kilmainham Gaol, a vital part of Ireland's history, was preserved."

The photographs also show the victorious Down GAA football team visiting the jail on 25 September, 1961, the day after they defeated Offaly by a point in the All-Ireland Senior Football final before an all-time record crowd for Croke Park of 90,556.

The final restoration of the site was completed in 1971 when Kilmainham Gaol chapel was reopened to the public.

If your family has any old photographs, letters or stories connected to the Easter Rising please email

26 January, 2016 01:00 News

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