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On stormy nights, cell doors rattle in the dank corridors of Kilmainham Jail. Wind whistles through broken windows and an eerie sound can be heard coming from the rafters.

Dublin's most gruesome tourist attraction, with its dimly lit dungeons, stark hanging room and chilling execution yard, has a lugubrious fascination for staff and visitors alike."It's the old horror movie syndrome - like trying to touch the devil," jail supervisor John Toolan said.

Toolan, who first visited the jail as an overawed 10-year-old, added: "We get rough, tough city kids in here. Within a short space of time, they are cowed and quiet and prepared to leave their alter egos at the door."

Kilmainham Jail bears mute witness to the turbulent and bloody birth of a nation. Once a grim place of bondage, it has now become a symbol of Ireland's fight for freedom and attracts up to 45,000 visitors a year.

Built in 1796, when the British colonial authorities feared French revolutionary ideals would spread to Ireland, it housed scores of political prisoners over 128 grim years.

Fourteen leaders of the 1916 Easter Uprising against Britain were shot in its stone-breakers yard. One, his leg rotting with gangrene, had to be tied to a chair to face his executioner.

Its last inmate was Eamon de Valera, one of the Irish Republic's founding fathers, who became prime minister and then president. He was imprisoned in Kilmainham for six months in 1924 at the tail end of the civil war that tore Ireland apart after independence.

Recently discovered photographs of Kilmainham execution victims stay etched in Toolan's mind while he works late in his supervisor's office, a cosily converted guard room.

"Rigor mortis had not set in. The expression on their faces was absolutely ghoulish," Toolan said of the old photos.

"I can tell you - you won't find me wandering around here after dark. It's a tremendously evocative place - there is still a damp, dank feeling about it."

Bare light bulbs cast bleak shadows. The silent, gloomy corridors lead to solitary confinement cells where prisoners scratched out each day of their sentence on the damp walls.

The pervasive chill eats into your bones. The hook on the ceiling in the hangman's room casts a ghostly silhouette on the wall. At one time men were executed there for stealing sheep.

Curator Patrick Long said: "One visitor asked about the special effects. We have none. You can hear the wind howling through the gaps and the doors being rattled. There are so many broken windows. There are drafts everywhere."

But what about that ghostly sound above? "We have got hundreds of pigeons roosting in the rafters," he explained.

From the day that Kilmainham clanged its door shut behind de Valera, the prison rapidly deteriorated into an ivy-strewn ruin, a jungle of shrubbery and fallen masonry.

Then in 1960, a dedicated group of volunteers set to work on the mammoth task of restoration. It took 10,000 tiles and six years of work to open on time in 1966 for the 50th anniversary of the Easter Uprising.

Kilmainham has 20 volunteer guides, ranging from lawyers to bus drivers, students to pensioners. Any tendency to display fiercely republican sentiments is discouraged.

"There is no need to gild the lily," Toolan said. "Some staff are very enthusiastic about the place. I wouldn't want them to be less than professional. That is an essential litmus test - it should appeal to all and sundry and has to be non-tendentious."