Opinion: Dark tourism is tourism closely associated with death, suffering and the macabre and it's where the Irish fascination with death comes to the fore

It has often been said that the Irish have a particular fascination with death. Certainly, Ireland has no shortage of sites associated with death or incarceration – and many of them are popular visitor attractions. In Dublin, a morning can be spent in the corridors and cells of Kilmainham Gaol, followed by an afternoon amidst the graves of Glasnevin Cemetery. In Belfast, tourists can hop in Black Taxis and tour sites associated with The Troubles, before stopping off for a trip around Crumlin Road Gaol and completing their day learning about the building and sinking of the Titanic at Titanic Belfast.

The O'Connell Tower at Glasnevin Cemetery

In Cork, you can combine a trip to Spike Island to see the prison and fortress there with a visit to Cork City Gaol. And, if that isn’t enough, around the country there are plenty of other sites that tell dark stories about Ireland’s past: the National Famine Museum in Strokestown, the Battle of the Boyne site near Drogheda and Wicklow’s Historic Gaol to name but a few.  All these sites come under the umbrella of "dark tourism’.

Dark tourism is tourism closely associated with death, suffering and the macabre. While the term itself is relatively new, the phenomenon itself is anything but. For centuries, people have been visiting sites associated with death, suffering, incarceration and execution for their entertainment. Thousands flocked to public executions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Madame Tussaud made a career out of grisly spectacles, opening her first Chamber of Horrors in London in 1802.

Taking a tour of Wicklow Gaol

In the United States, "dime museums" were a mix of educational museum and freak show and attracted customers by advertising exhibitions where the paraphernalia of torture could be seen. Just behind the Four Courts in Dublin the mummified bodies in the vaults in St Michan’s Church Dublin have been attracting visitors since the early nineteenth century. It’s said that one such visitor was Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula, and some even claim that the mummies inspired his writing.

Today, dark tourism comes in many shades. Academic Philip Stone distinguishes between "dark" and "darker" tourism: darkest are sites of death and suffering focused primarily on education and historic interpretation, while the lightest of dark tourism are sites with a greater focus on entertainment.

Prison sites are among the darkest of such attractions, yet even here there are varying shades. This partly depends on who owns and runs the sites, and on the commercial pressures associated with the sites. Some are under more pressure to turn a profit than others and among the most commercial prison sites, there is an inevitable temptation to emphasise the sensational elements of the story.

Ghoulish interest might lure many tourists to sites, but most sites make significant efforts to contextualise the history of the prison. While their websites may emphasise gruesome executions, daring escapes and famous prisoners, visitors to the sites get a much more nuanced experience in most cases. After all, there are always other stories to tell, and it is important not to forget that many of those imprisoned were guilty of the crimes they were charged with, and that those crimes had victims.

On Spike Island, the story of the prison is told alongside stories of the island’s other pasts as a monastic settlement, a military fortress, and a home to those who lived in the village. There is also the wider story of the development of Cork Harbour, one of the largest natural harbours in the world.

Inside Kilmainham Gaol

Kilmainham Gaol occupies an unique, sanctified space in the Irish imagination and identity. It’s a prison which held many Irish nationalist heroes, from key figures associated with the 1798 Rebellion to Young Irelanders and Fenians to Charles Stuart Parnell. Most significantly, as the site of execution of many of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, it cannot be seen to trivialise the hallowed ground on which their deaths took place. Other jails with less famous occupants from the dim and distant past, most of whom were forgotten criminals rather than celebrated revolutionaries, have more licence for a little irreverence.

At Kilmainham Gaol, a broad swathe of Irish history is told through a combination of the guided tour and on-site museum. Visitors learn the history of the prison (and of Ireland), from its opening in 1796 to its closure in 1924 and the campaign to restore and reopen the Gaol in the 1960s. The story of the 1916 Rising is a key story of Kilmainham Gaol, and the guided tour ends at the site of the 1916 executions. For many visitors, though, it is the accounts of children imprisoned during the famine for stealing a piece of bread or for begging on the street that have most resonance.

A RTÉ Brainstorm video based on this article

One of the major attractions of dark tourism sites such as prisons is that they possess something no purpose-built museum can offer: authenticity. A story can be told anywhere, but being able to walk the corridors where history took place, stand in the cells, glimpse the sky through the iron bars and see the towering perimeter walls is an experience that cannot truly be replicated elsewhere. Doing (a little) time in these prison museums is definitely time well spent.

Dr Gillian O'Brien is a Reader in Modern Irish History at Liverpool John Moores University. Declaration of interest: she was the historical advisor for Phase 1 of the redevelopment of Spike Island and also for the development of Kilmainham Courthouse (which is now part of the Kilmainham Gaol experience).

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ