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A model of an impoverished woman inside Wicklow Gaol.

Wicklow Gaol: Rebels, Ghosts, and Severe Punishment in 18th Century Ireland

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Wicklow Gaol is a historic prison located in the town of Wicklow in Ireland, which gained notoriety for the brutality of the prison wardens, and the harsh treatment suffered by its inmates, many of them who were imprisoned for crimes as petty as stealing a potato. The prison was closed down in the 20th century, however there are tales that some of the spectral inmates never left.

Wicklow Gaol as it stands today (CC by SA 3.0)

Wicklow Gaol as it stands today ( CC by SA 3.0 )

Wicklow Gaol is recorded to have been opened in 1702. During that time, the prison was used to hold inmates who were sentenced under the Penal Laws. These were repressive laws passed against Roman Catholics in Britain and Ireland after the Reformation and were aimed at penalizing those who continued to practice Roman Catholicism, as well as to impose civil disabilities on Catholics.

Imprisoning Rebels

In 1798, almost a century after Wicklow Gaol first opened, the Irish Rebellion of 1798, known also as the Rising, broke out. This was a local uprising against British rule in Ireland, which ended in defeat for the rebels. County Wicklow was a major area of conflict, and its gaol was used to imprison rebels who were captured. Many of them were executed and their corpses disposed of by throwing them into waters offshore from fishing boats. Several prominent rebels were also imprisoned in Wicklow Gaol. Two of the most famous inmates of Wicklow Gaol during this time were William “Billy” Byrne, and James ‘Napper’ Tandy.     

Models inside Wicklow Gaol recreate scenes of how it once was

Models inside Wicklow Gaol recreate scenes of how it once was

Byrne was one of the leaders of the rebellion, and led several attacks in County Wicklow before being captured, tried, and executed. When he was held in Wicklow Gaol, he was treated differently from the other prisoners. For instance, Byrne was given an individual cell with a bed, and could keep his cell door open as he wished. By comparison, other prisoners, which included men, women and children, were locked up in cells that held between 10 and 14 people, and were shackled to the floor. After Byrne’s execution, the sacrifice he made for Ireland was commemorated with the erection of a statue in the center of Wicklow’s Market Square. Moreover, Byrne was also immortalized through a song about his life.

Most of the prisoners, which included men, women, and children, were in overcrowded cells and shackled to the floor

Most of the prisoners, which included men, women, and children, were in overcrowded cells and shackled to the floor

As for Tandy, he was imprisoned in 1801, several years after the rebellion had been suppressed. He had originally been a shopkeeper in Dublin, and had been agitating for political change in Ireland since the 1780s. He was found guilty for treason in 1801, but escaped execution due to his connections with Napoleonic France. It has been rumored that Napoleon himself negotiated for Tandy’s release. After his imprisonment in Wicklow, Tandy was sent to France in 1802.

The inside of Wicklow goal today

The inside of Wicklow goal today

Off to Australia – The Worst Punishment of All

Many of the inmates in Wicklow Gaol that had committed political crimes were given a sentence of ‘transportation’, which meant being exiled to Australia. For many Irish today, this would not be much of a punishment at all as sunny weather and scenic beaches await. But in the 18 th and 19 th centuries, this was one of the worst punishments of all. For a start, it was a one-way ticket; the prisoner would never see family or loved ones again.

But many never arrived on Australian shores at all. “Starvation and mutiny endangered the lives of all people onboard; both redcoat and convict,” reports the Wicklow Historic Gaol website. “The convicts had to survive lack of food, heat, disease, and exhaustion on the long journey to Australia. Many people sentenced to ‘transportation’ for petty crimes died before reaching their intended destination.”

Women on board who ‘served’ the guards faired better and were given extra rations for their ‘favors’.

Women who carried out ‘favors’ for the guards were more likely to survive as they were given extra rations.

Women who carried out ‘favors’ for the guards were more likely to survive as they were given extra rations.

Seeking Food

Another important incident in Irish history that left its mark on Wicklow Gaol was the Great Famine, which lasted from 1845 to 1849. Many people died of starvation during this period, and those who survived resorted to extreme measures to sustain themselves. As a consequence, there was an increase in crimes, in particular in the theft of livestock. It has been reported, for instance, that between 1846 and 1850, 800 cases of cattle and sheep-stealing were reported in Wicklow.

At the height of the famine in 1848, as many as 780 people were cramped into Wicklow Gaol’s 77 cells, the highest number of prisoners ever recorded. Conditions were so bad in Wicklow (and Ireland as a whole) that many resorted to petty crimes so that they could be sent to the prison, where at least regular meals were provided.

At the height of the famine, some committed crimes in the hope of being sent to Wicklow gaol, as they felt life on the inside would be easier.

At the height of the famine, some committed crimes in the hope of being sent to Wicklow gaol, as they felt life on the inside would be easier.

Children in Wicklow Gaol

Before prison reform in Ireland, there was no difference between adults and children when it came to their sentencing or punishment, and in its history, Wicklow goal held many children, most imprisoned for petty theft. The youngest in the goal record books was Thomas Pitt, an 8-year-old boy who was imprisoned and whipped for stealing two shillings from a woman’s purse.

Children were treated as harshly as the adults – they were whipped, starved, and made to work the treadmill, a grueling torture device in which prisoners were made to work a treadmill for up to 5 hours a day. Children would struggle to keep up with the pace set by the adults on the treadmill and would fall and getting trampled by other prisoners.

A full-size reconstruction of Wicklow Gaol’s treadmill (VisitWicklow)

A full-size reconstruction of Wicklow Gaol’s treadmill ( VisitWicklow)

Wicklow Gaol Becomes Known as a Haunted Museum

Over the years, the goal earned the reputation of being haunted by many of the tortured souls that lost their lives within the prison walls. Some of the paranormal events reported by visitors to the goal include: a green mist floating around the main floor, a man seen walking out of cell 19, a woman in a black velvet cloak seen walking on the ground floor, the sound of children crying, and a man seen walking in front of the bars to the holding cell. Some of these events were witnessed by several visitors or staff members at the same time.

Halloween at Wicklow Gaol

Halloween at Wicklow Gaol

Wicklow Gaol continued to be in use until the 20th century, when it ceased operations in 1924. The building was abandoned, and gradually fell into ruin. During the 1990s, the prison was restored, due to its historical significance, and in 1998 it was re-opened as a museum.

Top image: A model of an impoverished woman inside Wicklow Gaol. Photo source: Ioannis Syrigos

All images courtesy of Ioannis Syrigos unless otherwise stated.

By Wu Mingren

References

Buchanan, M., 2017. Terror of work at gaol revealed 20 years on. Available at: https://www.independent.ie/regionals/wicklowpeople/news/terror-of-work-at-gaol-revealed-20-years-on-36278239.html

Criminal Historian, 2016. A very dark tourism: Torture, incarceration and execution in Wicklow. Available at: http://www.criminalhistorian.com/a-very-dark-tourism-torture-incarceration-and-execution-in-wicklow/

Lonely Planet, 2018. Wicklow's Historic Gaol. Available at: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/ireland/wicklow-town/attractions/wicklows-historic-gaol/a/poi-sig/1173365/359789

Murphy, S., 2018. Wicklow Historic Gaol. Available at: https://myrealireland.com/wicklow/wicklow-historic-gaol/

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2008. Penal Laws. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/event/Penal-Laws

Visit Wicklow, 2017. Prisoner’s life of Billy Byrne at Wicklow’s Historic Gaol. Available at: http://visitwicklow.ie/prisoners-life-billy-byrne-wicklows-historic-gaol/#

Wicklow Gaol, 2014. Wicklows Historic Gaol. Available at: http://www.wicklowshistoricgaol.com/

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