Years ago when I was a fresh-faced grad student at Boston College , I’d commute via T from my ant-infested basement apartment in Malden, Massachusetts to tony Chestnut Hill, where I couldn’t afford to live near campus. On that long commute, if I was lucky enough to find a seat on the crowded trolley, I’d read whatever work of social or literary criticism had been assigned in my New Historicism class, a course that literally re-taught me how to read literary texts by calling into question the familiar old New Criticism I’d learned as an even fresher-faced undergrad in Toledo, Ohio.

The most memorable book I read in that New Historicism class was Michel Foucault‘s history of the prison system. It was a challenging text, as all of Foucault’s works are. And just as puzzling as Foucault’s examination of the prison as a hegemonic tool of power were the odd looks I’d get from other T passengers, usually male, who would smile and smirk with suggestive, knowing glances whenever I looked up from my reading. What was so noteworthy, I wondered, about a fresh-faced 20-something reading a book about prisons? Naive youngster that I was, it took a while for me to realize it was the cover of Foucault’s book that was causing all the fuss, proclaiming in big, bold letters the title of his study: DISCIPLINE & PUNISH.

Subtitled “The Birth of the Prison,” Foucault’s history of the Western penal system isn’t as tawdry as its title would suggest…but it nevertheless was one of the most memorable books I read during my days as a Boston College Masters student. It was Foucault who introduced me to the idea of the panopticon: an architectural model that allowed prison guards to monitor their charges without being seen. It is this philosophy of the panopticon–the idea that miscreants can be rehabilitated through constant moral surveillance–that made me put Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol near the top of my list of Irish must-sees. When or where else would I have the chance to examine the inside of a Foucaultian panopticon?

Kilmainham wasn’t the first time I’d been to jail: years ago, I briefly co-led a meditation group at the state prison in Concord, NH. That experience taught me that prison inmates, at least the ones curious enough to attend a Zen meditation group, aren’t very different from the folks you encounter outside prison walls, asking the same or similar questions of a fresh-faced 30-something Dharma teacher. Teaching that meditation group taught me that prisons are constructed by design to intimidate. Although I never saw any of the cells where inmates lived, the process of going through security, passing through several locked doors, and then following a winding, always-escorted path up stairs and through corridors to the bland room that passed for a prison chapel underscored the fact that this was a hidden place that most law-abiding folks would never be allowed (or find the courage) to visit.

It seems to be a rule of prison life that folks on the outside are not allowed to see what goes on inside. For that reason, I found it interesting that our tour guide at Kilmainham Gaol insisted quite clearly that we were allowed and even encouraged to take photos any- and everywhere inside its walls. Having released its last prisoner in 1924, Kilmainham was restored and transformed into a museum in the 1960s. Designed to be a place where the hegemonic powers-that-be disciplined and punished petty criminals and revolutionaries alike, Kilmainham was reborn as a place that bears witness to the power of oppression. The forward-thinking folks who transformed Kilmainham from a prison to a museum knew that future generations needed to see the site were so many of their history-making ancestors were punished for their so-called crimes. Like the now-hallowed sites of Nazi concentration camps, Kilmainham still stands as a reminder of a history that must not be allowed to repeat itself.

Like any American tourist, I knew next to nothing about Irish history when I set foot inside Kilmainham. As I’d heard from various Dubliners, though, the tour inside was excellent, giving visitors like me an encompassing overview of the prison’s role in Irish history. Built in 1789, Kilmainham’s oldest wing held petty criminals incarcerated for crimes such as theft, public drunkenness, or swearing. Many of these so-called criminals were children, and prisoners were incarcerated together in cells where abuse and cruelty must have flourished: if children weren’t delinquents when they entered Kilmainham, surely they were scarred and traumatized when they left.

As an American of remote Irish descent, I learned at Kilmainham that Irish history is indeed my history. At one point in our tour of Kilmainham’s old wing, our guide explained how the Gaol played a pivotal role in the 19th century Famine. Since an offense such as stealing bread merited prison time, many famine-stricken farmers ended up in Kilmainham merely because they’d tried to feed their families by any means at hand. And because prisoners were assured an admittedly meager portion of daily food, many victims of the 19th century Famine purposefully committed petty crimes in order to enjoy the minimal comfort offered within Kilmainham’s walls.

When you realize the famine was so bad, even life inside prison looked better by comparison, you understand why countless Irish peasants (a couple of my maternal great-grandparents included) boarded coffin-ships en route to America: surely the uncertainty of life in a New World was better than the known misery you’d suffer at home. Pinched by perpetual hunger, people will do whatever it takes to survive, and Kilmainham Gaol points to that truism of human nature. One of the most poignant moments of our tour came at the very beginning, where filmed footage showed modern children reciting the ages, crimes, and sentences of 19th century captives, meticulous records of whom survive in Kilmainham’s prison logs. Hearing children read the absurdly severe sentences meted out for petty crimes, you realize the Famine was as much a matter of social injustice as it was a natural disaster. Blight might have caused the potato crop to fail, but it was institutional ineptitude and neglect that caused the pervasive and disastrous aftermath. Might historians someday say something similar about the U.S. government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, a more-than-natural disaster?

Kilmainham’s most famous and revered occupants, though, are the Irish revolutionaries who were incarcerated and then executed there. Within the walls of Kilmainham, the spirit of the 1916 Easter Uprising lives on, the words of its heroes written on the walls.

By opening its doors to tourists, Kilmainham turns Irish history inside out, opening to public scrutiny the hidden places where men like Patrick Pearse and Robert Emmet were incarcerated and executed. The oft-told stories of Joseph Plunkett’s prison-chapel marriage to Grace Gifford hours before his execution or the fact that James Connolly was too injured to stand before his firing squad and was thus strapped to a chair before his execution seem imbedded in Irish consciousness, and Kilmainham bears visual witness to that history: here is where it happened.

My own Foucaultian eye, though, was most interested in Kilmainhaim’s Victorian wing, a portion of the prison that our tour guide repeatedly referred to as being more optimistic than the dark, crowded cells where 18th and 19th century prisoners were held. This Victorian wing, featuring as it does a semi-circular arrangement where guards can easily spy upon a honeycomb of individual cells, is designed after the panopticon ideal: a place where an all-seeing eye can perpetually surveil its unknowing subjects.

If you didn’t know Kilmainham was designed as a prison–if you hadn’t heard the sorry stories of its previous inhabitants–might you initially think it was a beautiful, well-designed place, a crystal palace of light? Kilmainham’s Victorian wing is more optimistic in that it reflects a belief that criminals could be reformed through separation, work, and surveillance. Although we today might (and should) question the efficacy and ethics of such practices, the well-lit central atrium of Kilmainham’s panopticon is far less depressing than the dank, underlit cells of the prison’s older wing. Why devote the time or expense to building an intricate spiral staircase used only by prisoners and their guards? The occasional beauty of Kilmainham’s inner architecture belies the grim use to which it was put.

One of Kilmainham’s educational exhibits explains the theory behind its panopticon-inspired layout:

    A prisoner once described the spy-hole on the cell door as “the eye that never sleeps.” This was exactly what those who designed and ran the new prisons intended. At no time of the day would the prisoner be free of the gaze of his moral supervisors and superiors. Whether alone in his cell, or working silently with comrades, the prisoner was either under observation or capable of being observed. Stripped of privacy, he was denied the unsupervised solitude or bad company in which evil thoughts fermented.

Convicts in Kilmainham’s Victorian wing were afforded the dignity of individual cells: no longer were clusters of men, women, and children crammed together in crowded, underlit caves. These newer cells were by no means luxurious, but they point toward a Victorian desire to discipline rather than merely punish. As creepy as constant surveillance is both in theory and practice, such scrutiny was well-intended. Designers of Kilmainham’s Victorian wing sincerely believed that they were helping convicts whose moral fiber needed strengthening. The goal in theory at least was to reform and rehabilitate prisoners who would then could become upstanding members of society.

Good intentions notwithstanding, the thought of constant surveillance is more than a bit creepy. On the crowded trolley cars where curious men ogled me for reading a book titled Disclipline & Punish, I felt inappropriately invaded by their gaze: I didn’t want to think what they might be thinking. And in the bland room that passed as a chapel inside the state prison in Concord, NH, it was both reassurring and unnerving to know that an armed guard sat right outside the room where I meditated, eyes down, with a couple dozen inmates. The guard’s back was turned toward a window which looked into the chapel, so he wasn’t watching…but if something bad were to happen, how loud a sound would cause him to turn and see the trouble?

Before I led that prison meditation group, a friend who’s a veteran prison chaplain explained that inmates might prefer to meditate with their backs toward the wall, not being able to let down their guard if their backs weren’t watched. The prisoners I meditated with weren’t as skittish as the ones my friend had encountered…but I know that I looked up from my meditation at several points just to check that none of these nameless men–inmates whose crimes I had no way of knowing–were looking at me, the only woman in the room.

An all-seeing eye might not bear the same literal impact as an firing squad’s aim, but Foucault for one would insist that perpetual, invasive scrutiny is a kind of oppressive power. Before boarding my flight from Boston to Dublin, I was randomly selected for a more thorough security screening, my person subjected to a pat-down by a female security worker while a second uniformed official unpacked my hand-luggage on the other side of a glass wall. I could watch my personal belongings being examined: presumably, my watchful eyes would guarantee there’d be no pilfering of my property. But at the same time, others could watch me while I stood with arms outstretched, bare feet on a plastic mat where other “random suspects” had been similarly scrutinized. In light of recent terror threats, I told myself it was a good thing a third uniformed guard was swabbing and testing every surface of my unpacked hand-luggage for explosive residues…but if I, like a prisoner, were subjected to such inpertinent scrutiny every day of my life, it would get old quickly.

Foucault would argue that society at large acts as a kind of prison, the hegemonic powers-that-be perpetually employing practices like surveillance to keep citizens paranoid, suspicious, and tractable. In our post-9/11 world, “vigilance” has become an encouraged virtue…and yet, virtue itself is defined as how you behave when no one is watching. If we need “the authorities” to keep watch without ceasing to “protect” us from invisible threats in our midst, have we already entered a virtual panopticon, our privacy and human dignity sacrificed in the name of “safety” and “security”? If we agree to constant scrutiny to assure we behave, are we allowing ourselves to become diffidently mousy subjects who will stand up for ourselves only when the cat’s away?

Foucault’s sometimes-mentor Louis Althusser argued that prisons aren’t the main instiller of social ideology; instead, we learn how to behave as “good citizens” from schools, churches, and other seemingly innocuous institutions he called Ideological State Apparatuses. It’s ironic, perhaps, that I almost missed the start of my Kilmainham tour because I was busy watching standard security camera footage of the courtyard where that tour assembled: might museums be another way that we learn (and are watched while we learn) what the hegemonic powers-that-be think we should know?

One lesson of Kilmainham Gaol is the pervasive power of the all-seeing eye: if you perpetually watch those you’ve deemed criminal, you don’t have to abuse or execute them to inflict lasting damage. Kilmainham points to the vivid lessons of Irish as well as Irish-American history, but it also offers lessons to anyone who dares enter its stone portal. If we allow liberty to be sacrificed in the name of so-called security, we’ve already willingly entered a prison of our own making.