With not much happening midway through the Midterm school break, and in much need of an excursion away from the safety of our warm and comfortable 'home sweet home', we took ourselves back in time. Back in time to the cruelty and pain of life behind the stark walls of Wicklow Historic Gaol.
This jail was in operation from 1702 to 1924 and reflects such a cruel time in our history. You can read a quick synopsis in the link above.
Yes, people were strung from that protrusion
you see just above the top centre window
And yes, we did dare enter. We were met by a Gaoler in full attire and soon found ourselves locked behind the 'Gates of Hell', followed by being led down a very 'atmospheric', steep and narrow stairway . So atmospheric that I felt sick to the pit of my stomach on the descent.
The first question our Gaoler posed - to much 'he IS joking - right?!' giggles - was: 'Well, what's he in for this time then'!
We were led into the Day Room - a misnomer if ever there was one - and he explained how up to 40 unsegregated prisoners were held here for hours at a time. Men, women and children - imprisoned for anything from murder, to prostitution, to stealing a few potatoes to feed their starving families. Sickness was rife due to this non-segregation and children fared very badly, most succumbing to Jail Fever. Truly horrific.
Eventually a very pro-active Doctor came on board and made some changes - segregation being the main one - that improved things. Then in 1857 came a new Matron, Mary Morris, who also made some helpful changes. A school room being one, so the children could receive some education. When they weren't being worked to the bone that is.
We were then left to our own devices to roam the spooky corridors and to enter the pokey cells, all alone. We were the only visitors at the start so it really was very eerie and spooky. All that history and cruelty etched into the walls and seeped into the atmosphere....
Or did it.......?
Prisoners from the 1798 rebellion and from the War of Independence were incarcerated here over the years and some weapons were on display...
Erskine Childers himself was imprisoned here before he was brought to Beggars Bush to be executed in 1922.
Each cell we visited depicted some aspect of prison life and told the tales of horror held deep within these walls. There were also audio accounts in some of the cells too.
The cruelty and the minor misdeeds for which some women and children were imprisoned for was truly shocking. Children as young as 8 or 13 sent down for a month or more into these horrific conditions for nicking gooseberries or a few potatoes.
* Ironically our Gaoler (played by an actor) was a Fagin type character
and used to send the children out to rob for him!
Then there was the audio tale of a mother of 2, sent off to Botany Bay for stealing potatoes to feed her starving family. She had to say a quick goodbye to her crying children through the prison bars before she departed to Australia.... and they to the workhouse. How frightful. And this was merely a typical tale.
A woman's fascinating tale that has resonated with me since I read about her a few years ago is Eliza Davies. She received an apparently dodgy conviction for 'murdering' her baby and was ultimately sent on to Van Diemens Land in 1845. She married twice had 9 children and died at the age of 62! But not after withstanding a cruel conviction and appalling sentence. Her story is in the link above plus a mention of the bonnets campaign her Great-great-granddaughter initiated in Tasmania.
The journey to Australia for prisoners was cruel and inhumane, they took forever and only paltry weekly rations were available to survive on. There was a whole upper section of the Gaol devoted to this and it told it's own tale. A tale our Gaoler expanded on initially when we posed some questions of our own.
Women in particular, who experienced this awful regime suffered hugely. When they got to Australia to be handed on to complete their sentences in factories or farms/homesteads etc., they sometimes never made it that far. Their ships were met dock-side by many including soldiers who traded for them. A women could be bought for the price of a gallon of rum... earning the soldiers the name of the Rum Corp.
The story I liked best though was how some of the men and women ultimately went on to become entrepreneurs. Some of the men entered the Australian police force! The absolute best story was how when land was eventually handed out the men got the best farming land while the women got the mostly barren coastal lands. But the women were clever, they put on their thinking bonnets and built guest houses and ultimately hotels! All according to 'Fagin', our Gaoler!
This was an amazing tour of a fascinating place, a perfect and totally screen-free day for a teenager with an interest in history. It is a highly atmospheric and emotional place that is recognised as one of the most haunted locations in Ireland, so much so that Paranormal Tours are available here too.
I'm glad that these people and what they endured are being kept alive in this 'museum'. We need to keep this period of our history alive and it is a reminder of how easy we have it these days really.
A fact a certain Teen Boy would do well to take note of. There are a lot worse things then detention or loss of pocket money for a 14 year old boy's misdemeanors you know....
A fascinating visit to a truly historic site. It is said that many people entered these Gates of Hell but not everyone left.
Thankfully we did.
Go visit ... and soak up some of that seriously spooky atmosphere!
* The ghostly figures you see at the bottom of this photo are just me and my son's reflections.
Or are they......??!!