ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

The Good Friday agreement closed a painful chapter in Irish history. But that history is alive in a former prison in Dublin. Kilmainham Jail is where many leaders of Irish rebellions were imprisoned. Some were executed there. Their deaths transformed the rebels into heroes and icons of national history. The prison was built in 1796 and abandoned 128 years later. It has since been restored as a museum.

NPR's Jacki Lyden takes us to Kilmainham Jail.

JACKI LYDEN: Foreboding is the first word that comes to mind when you look up at the massive gray stone walls of Kilmainham Jail. They soar 30 feet high and sink 17 feet below the earth. Slide back an enormous latch on the front door and cross the entryway. As former Kilmainham director Patrick Cooke explains, you are now entering a living repository of the Irish struggle for nationhood.

Mr. PATRICK COOKE (Former Director, Kilmainham Jail): If you're coming to Ireland, and you want to go to one place that crystallizes the kind of a place that Ireland is today - the kind of a place that ended up with a traumatic civil war and conflict in its politics and history over the last hundred years - you come to Kilmainham Jail and you will find here a crystallization of all of those, a dramatic space in which you can encounter history in a kind of fleshed-out form.

LYDEN: A stone bas-relief features hissing, coiled serpents arching their necks through chains. The artwork has a Dante-esque feeling. It's meant to scare the sin out of the sinner and crush the rebellious troublemaker. Kilmainham was an advanced penitentiary in its day. It had single cells and high windows, but it was a wretched place to be - as Irish rebels from 1796 to 1923 would discover. The jail also packed in 9,000 starving men, women, and children during the Irish famine. But Kilmainham will always be linked, primarily, with the Easter Rising of 1916.

Mr. NEAL O'SHEA (Actor): (Reading) Irish men and Irish women, in the name of God and the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.

LYDEN: Irish actor Neal O'Shea reads here from the proclamation of the provisional government of the Republic of Ireland. It was April the 24th, 1916. It was Easter Monday. Members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and other armed resistance groups seized the mighty General Post Office on what was then, Sackville Street. Five days of fighting ensued. The British and the Irish governments crushed them.

Many Irish condemned the rebellion. They thought the Easter Rising was ill-conceived and the rebels absolutely foolhardy. The leader of the Easter rising, Patrick Pearse, was the first rebel to be led from his cell at Kilmainham and executed in the prison's yard. Eleven more men followed Pearse soon after and were put to death. Former Kilmainham Director, Pat Cooke, leads me to the barren cells of the jails old military wing.

Mr. COOKE: We're in the older, more ruinous part of the building. As you can see, the walls are quite crumbly here. And on the landing above - you can see it on the mesh in the floor there, which is typical of jails, you know, throughout the world, really - you can see those cells up there. And it was largely in those cells, that the leaders of the 1916 rising were kept only for a matter of hours before their execution in 1916. They were brought from other locations to here. And then they would write their last letters, they would have a priest come and see them. And then as dawn arose - which at that time was 3:30 a.m. in the morning, cause we didn't have daylight saving - so the first person to be shot would shot just as light came up.

LYDEN: The executions changed everything became martyrs for Ireland. Today, Patrick Pearse's cell is something of a shrine - the one everyone wants to see. It's 16 feet high, musty, with a weak, frail light. The wind seems to whistle straight off the River Liffey. These are the moments that deliver Kilmainham's bleak spirit.

Mr. COOKE: If you stand up there on that landing outside the door, off where Patrick Pearse was kept hours before he was executed, and then you take the walk - even as a member of a tour - and you're walking along, you're almost existentially reenacting the last footsteps of a man to the very point of his execution. There's possibly, maybe 250, 300 steps involved. But in a way, it brings you right inside the whole act, the whole ritual, of having your life extinguished.

LYDEN: A line of Pearse's poetry is etched over one archway. It reads: Beware the Risen People who have Harried and Held, Ye that have Bullied and Bribed.

Mr. COOKE: These men never intended to be martyrs, but that doesn't, for instance, quite cover Pearse, who - though he never intended, perhaps, to be a martyr, was quite prepared to be one.

LYDEN: Patrick Pearse seems to have anticipated his martyrdom. You clearly sense that in a poem he wrote for his mother. She would soon lose, not only Patrick, but his brother Willie. And this poem is called "The Mother."

Mr. O'SHEA: (Reading) I do not grudge my two strong sons that I have seen go out to break their strength and die, they and a few, in bloody protest for a glorious thing. They shall be spoken of among their people. The generations shall remember them, and call them blessed. But I will speak their names to my own heart in the long nights. The little names that were familiar once round my dead hearth. Lord, thou art hard on mothers. We suffer in their coming and their going. And tho' I grudge them not, I weary. Weary of the long sorrow. And yet I have my joy; my sons were faithful, and they fought.

LYDEN: One of the most effecting stories of Kilmainham Jail and the 1916 Rising would have to be that of Joseph Mary Plunkett. Hardly a typical romantic hero, he was bespectacled and gaunt, well-educated, and a follower of both Catholic mysticism and Irish nationalism.

Plunkett joined the siege while in ill-health. He was engaged to a young woman called Grace Gifford. After Neil O'Shea reads from the letter Joseph Plunkett sent to her on the last day of the fighting.

Mr. O'SHEA: (Reading) My darling, Grace. This is just a little note to say, I love you, and to tell you that I did everything I could to arrange for us to meet and get married, but that it was impossible. Except for that, I have no regrets. We will meet soon. My other actions have been, as right as I could see and make them, and I cannot wish them undone. You, at any rate, will not misjudge them. Give my love to my people and friends. Darling, darling child, I wish we were together. Loving always as I love you. For the rest all you do will please me. I told a few people that I wish you to have everything that belongs to me. This is my last wish, so please, do see to it. Love, Joe.

LYDEN: Plunkett was allowed to marry Grace in a Kilmainham Jail chapel, amidst flickering candlelight surrounded by soldiers. The next morning, he was taken out and shot. Patrick Cooke shows us the execution yard.

Mr. COOKE: This yard is marked by two simple black crosses. On the one on my left here, that marks the spot where 11 of the 12 men executed here were shot, and the one on the right marks the spot where on the 12th of May, James Connolly, who had been severely wounded in 1916, was taken in here by ambulance, put sitting on a chair, and executed on that spot, the last man from 1916 - or last of the leaders to be executed here.

There's a pole here, I should have mentioned, with the tricolor on it. And here, is a simple plaque on the wall saying, here, after Easter week, 1916, the following leaders were executed: Pearse, Thomas Clarke, Thomas MacDonagh on the 3rd of May; Joseph Plunkett, Edward Daly, Michael O'Hanrahan, and Willie Pearse on the 4th of May; John MacBride--

LYDEN: These men became the heroes of the Irish Republican cause. But Patrick Cooke says that Kilmainham Prison and the Pearse Museum do not propagandize especially in light of years of conflict and bloodshed in Northern Ireland. As director, he wanted to leave a gap in the story that a visitor could fill in. Individuals who might not, as he puts it, sign(oh) off to this particular view of history.

Mr. COOKE: You know, the origin here was we never try to anticipate what the visitor goes away with. The visitor goes away with their conclusions, and that belongs to them. So, that if you wanted to conclude, for instance, that nationalism or republicanism as a result of Kilmainham Jail, you know, was a historical madness. Well, you know, I'll leave that to you. If you wanted to go out of here and inspired that these were great and noble people who did something very patriotically, well, you know, that is also your conclusion, your valid conclusion.

LYDEN: Cooke, leads me away from the stone cells and quarters of Kilmainham's 1916 wing to the Pearce Museum on the main floor of the present complex. There are Joseph Mary Plunkett's tiny gold-rimmed glasses. He gave them to the priest before he was blindfolded for execution. And there, too, is a box of chocolates. They belong to an Irish prisoner from 1921, Thomas Whelan, who sent the chocolates on prison along with a message to a little girl named Alicia Mann(ph).

Mr. COOKE: Look, he said, it's looking like I may be executed, but I may get a reprieve. I'll tell you what, if I'm reprieved, we'll eat them together. But If I'm executed, go ahead and eat them yourself. He was executed. Hanged. But Alicia Mann never, ever opened the box of chocolates. And the extraordinary thing about it - even though we're looking at it in a visual, you know, if you peeked off that box and you shake it, you can actually feel those chocolates inside it. And that's the uncanny moment. To think that something real happened when you realized an extraordinary moving thing, but you can't actually fully put into words.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: And of these small mementos and the gray stone is Kilmainham Jail legacy of Irish rebellion told again this Easter Sunday.

I'm Jacki Lyden.

SEABROOK: More stories from Kilmainham Jail and pictures at our Web site, npr.org.

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