Prisoners of History

Article excerpt

QUESTION In an episode of Primeval, a scene is shot in an empty prison. Which jail is it? THE prison featured in Primeval is Kilmainham Gaol.

It was inaugurated in 1796, when it was called the County of Dublin Gaol, and was originally run by the Grand Jury for County Dublin.

Over the next 128 years it was to house a who's who of Irish Republicans including several members of the 1916 Easter Rising such as Padraig Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, Michael O'Hanrahan and Thomas Clarke, who were executed by firing squad there.

James Connolly too was executed. He was tied to a chair in the prison yard because gangrene had set into his leg after he had taken a bullet in the uprising.

Conditions were poor -- children as young as seven were held for theft and inmates were stacked five to a cell, often with only a single candle for light and heat.

The treatment of women was terrible, as they were forced to share cells with men and sexual molestation was routine.

Men received preferential treatment.

A 1909 report from the inspector of prisons noted that male prisoners were supplied with iron bedsteads while females 'lay on straw on the flags in the cells and common halls'.

Women were eventually segregated into the west wing of the gaol, but their conditions remained dirty and overcrowded.

Up until the 1820s public hangings took place at the front of the building.

Later, a small hanging cell was built in 1891.

For many of the inmates the gaol was a holding cell, keeping prisoners before their transportation to the colonies.

Kilmainham Gaol was closed as a prison in 1924 by the government of the new Irish Free State. Following lengthy renovation, it now hosts a museum on the history of Irish nationalism and offers guided tours of the building.

The prison has been used as a set in several movies including The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), The Italian Job (1969), The Mackintosh Man (1973), The Whistle Blower (1987), In The Name Of The Father (1993), Michael Collins (1996, though he was one of a few notable nationalists not to have been imprisoned here) and The Escapist (2008).

Richard Lehmann, Cardiff.

QUESTION As a child in the Seventies, I heard much about a Cobalt Bomb. My father said it could destroy the planet. Was it real or fictional? THE idea of the cobalt bomb originated with the Hungarian-American physicist Leo Szilard in 1950. It was never a serious proposal for a weapon, but to raise awareness of the possibility of creating a Doomsday device to wipe out all human life on the planet.

This theorised the creation of a 'salted' nuclear bomb. Rather than killing by explosive power, such a device would produce large amounts of radioactive fallout that would render Earth uninhabitable.

The term 'salted' is derived both from the expression 'to salt the earth', meaning to render a place uninhabitable, and also from their process of manufacture -- i.e. additional elements are added to the standard atomic weapon.

In theory, to make such a bomb, the core of the weapon must be surrounded with material containing an element that can be converted to a highly radioactive isotope by neutron bombardment.

When the bomb explodes, the element absorbs neutrons released by the nuclear reaction, converting it to its radioactive form.

The explosion scatters the resulting radioactive material over a wide area, rendering it uninhabitable.

The radioactive isotope must be dispersed worldwide before it decays.

Such dispersal takes many months to a few years, so Cobalt-60 with a half-life of 5.26 years is ideal.

Zinc has been proposed as an alternate candidate for the 'doomsday role'. The advantage of Zn-64 is that its faster decay leads to greater initial intensity. To date, no salted bomb has ever been atmospherically tested and, as far as is publicly known, none have ever been built. …