Situated in Ireland’s Ancient East, the County town of Wicklow is shadowed by the imposing and sinister Wicklow Gaol. For more than three hundred years, prisoners have been subjected to torture and hardship and the three storey building with sprawling foundations and walls of granite has witnessed some of Ireland’s must oppressive and historical events.
Over the years it has become a favourite venue for tourists and Paranormal Investigators alike, so let’s find out some more about Wicklow Gaol, listed as one of the world’s ‘Top Haunted Locations.’
HISTORY OF WICKLOW GAOL
Since 1702 there has been a prison on the site at Kilmartin Hill. The existing buildings were constructed over the remnants of the first gaol and were gradually expanded over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The Rebellion of 1798 brought ongoing notoriety to the prison as freedom fighters were jailed before trial and exile or execution. This pattern continued through the Famine, Easter Rising of 1916 and the Irish Civil War.
In the mid-nineteenth century overcrowding at Wicklow gaol brought expansion as the authorities feared the granite walls themselves would collapse under the pressure. Britain was forced to bring about changes due to European Prison Reform and that included the gaols of Ireland and as a result, facilities now included classrooms, workrooms and proper medical quarters.
The prison was downsized in 1877 and renamed a ‘Bridewell’, which was a remand prison for those awaiting trial and sentencing for petty crimes.
Wicklow Gaol had been dormant for sometime, however the Irish Civil War of 1922-23 brought the prison back into use for political prisoners, primarily members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Sinn Féin, including Erskine Childers, notable Irish Nationalist and gun smuggler,
The early twentieth century also brought in a change of use to an army barracks. It became home to the Cheshire regiment, which in a strange twist of fate, was founded thirty years previously by none other than Hugh Childers, cousin of one of Wicklow Gaol’s most famous prisoners.
Finally, in 1924 the Gates of Hell closed on the prison as it fell into disuse and disrepair, until such time as it was respectfully restored and opened to the public.
CRIMES, PUNISHMENT AND EXILE
The prison was used for years for general convictions, however the 1798 rebellion saw its use change to include the incarceration of political prisoners. Many inmates, from those rebelling against the crown to petty thieves were taken from Wicklow Gaol to the convict ships and exiled to distant lands such as Australia. A replica of the deck of the convict ship HMS Hercules, has been built inside the gaol.
There was no segregation within the prison as such and people who had stolen to provide food for their families in times of hardship found themselves sharing with the mentally ill, murderers and political prisoners.
Those who were exiled may have deemed themselves lucky, as the torture and methods of execution, poor conditions and suffering were unpleasant and unending.
Prison reforms introduced rehabilitation through education, although attempts at segregation, silence and torture were the preferred methods of atonement.
Torture devices included the everlasting staircase, a treadmill of sorts designed for maximum fatigue, breaking of spirit and isolation and a shot drill, a metal ball that was required to be held for periods of time suited to the prison guard, or else loss of rations would be enforced.
Flogging was by far the most favoured form of punishment, especially due to increased numbers of local workers being imprisoned for drunk and disorderly conduct.
When it came to execution, in the early eighteenth century prisoners would be hanged from the gallows arm jutting out of the prison walls. After death, the head would be severed from the body which would be buried. The head would then be scavenged and eaten by the gaol’s ‘pet’ hawk.
Other bodies would be unceremoniously dumped at sea, until the problem became enough for local fishermen to threaten to stop fishing due to pollution.
DISEASE, DIRE CONDITIONS AND DEATH
Overcrowding was a consistently major problem and expansion just couldn’t keep up with demand, peaking at an inmate population of almost 800 being housed in just 77 cells.
As a result, the spread of disease was rife and death wasn’t far behind. Often if a prisoner died of an infection they were left in the crowded cell, the rotting and diseased corpse bringing about the hideous deaths of those within the four walls, prison guards or ‘turnkeys’ just looking on, afraid to enter for fear of becoming a victim themselves.
The Great Famine (1845-1952) brought around a very different kind of problem. Upstanding citizens would commit crime in order to be incarcerated in Wicklow Gaol, as prison reforms guaranteed them shelter and regular meals – life staples they could not get on the outside.
There were no asylums or care facilities for the mentally ill in Wicklow, so the insane were mixed in with the general population. The women prisoners would be responsible for the welfare of these inmates.
Attempts were made to ‘employ’ prisoners for local work such as making nets for fishermen, however this practice stopped due to a growing fear of authorities that these items would be used in an attempt to escape.
Some of Ireland’s most famous rebel sons and at least one daughter were incarcerated for their attempts to bring about political change and create a Free State. This included Billy Byrne, mounter of several ambush attacks during the 1798 rebellion who was tried and then hanged at Gallows’ Lane.
James ‘Napper’ Tandy worked long and hard for political change, however after a short imprisonment he was exiled to France despite being convicted of treason. It is believed Napoleon may have exerted some influence, hence his designated place of exile.
Erskine Childers was a London born author and avid sailor. A firm believer in Ireland as a free nation, Childer’s used his yacht the Asgard to smuggle guns into the east coast of Ireland. His arrest was made after being found in possession of a gun, a gift from Michael Collins. Childers was convicted and executed by firing squad on 24th November 1922.
HAUNTINGS BEYOND THE GATES OF HELL
Wicklow Gaol has been the subject of paranormal activity for centuries and has attracted worldwide interest from paranormal investigators including myself and the other members of Irish Paranormal Investigations. Over the years we have found ourselves at the centre of a myriad of supernatural experiences.
At least one medium has entered Wicklow Gaol and claimed to have made contact with Erskine Childers, however there have been many witnesses to other phenomena.
A young child is regularly seen in the former school room and can also be heard. Other ‘inmates’ of the spectral variety are seen shimmering in and out of cells and along walkways.
On the replica of the Hercules deck, visitors are overcome with a sense of foreboding and eerie mists circle unsuspecting visitors.
Certain cells have been the epicentre of extraordinary paranormal occurrences including smells from stagnant to the sublime, female apparitions in black floating and sounds to terrify the hardiest of souls.
A ghostly prisoner can be seen on the walkway, hands behind his back and the eerie sounds of long gone children fill the ancient prison.
Our own experiences have included stones being thrown across a solitary prison cell during a loan vigil and murmuring and ice cold touch in the prayer room. We have had a host of K2 meters collectively responding to questioning by Natalie in a cell previously giving no tangible readings.
We have had REM-Pods going off on an empty landing and voices carrying up from the dungeons. The ship deck has consistently projected a feeling of wariness and fear, goosebumps appearing involuntarily as we felt the temperature drop and the location grow darker. Shadows have darted in the recesses between kegs and footsteps sounding on the stairs.
While our last time within the gaol was probably the quietest, perhaps with 2020 having seen the prison closed for the most part, the spectres of despair are ready once again to call out to you if you enter the Gates of Hell into Wicklow Gaol.