1702 Work Starts on Wicklow Gaol

The building of Wicklow Gaol commenced in 1702 and was completed within a few years. The earliest recorded prisoner was Fr. Owen McFee, a seventy two year old priest, who was convicted of saying Mass in the County contrary to the law. He was sentenced to transportation to a British colony in America in 1716.

Conditions within the Gaols at this time were appalling , Gaolers were paid a wage and from this expected to supply prisoners with food, bedding, heat, lighting and clothing. Many of these Gaolers were themselves unsavoury characters and were open to bribery and corruption. At this time there was little, if any, supervision of the prison system. The Gaoler was responsible to no overseeing body. For those poor prisoners who were imprisoned as debtors with no money or means to pay the Gaoler, life in the Gaol was extremely harsh. Prisoners were held together in rooms and it was not until prison legislation in 1763 that the separation of prisoners – male and female, tried from untried and sane from insane – was introduced.

1763 Prison Reform

Prison reformers, such as Irishman Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick, M.D. and the Englishman John Howard, brought the plight of the wretches held in Gaols in Ireland, Britain and Europe before the public and the legislators. Legislation was slowly enacted which, starting in the 1760s, attempted to provide better sanitation and living conditions for prisoners, though it took considerable time for the acts to be actually put into operation on the ground. Fitzpatrick visited Wicklow Gaol in 1785 and declared it to be “a very insecure, bad prison”. Two years later Howard wrote that the Gaol had not been improved in line with the new Gaol Acts for prison reform. Their efforts to establish standards within the prison system on behalf of a voiceless and powerless group were to have far reaching consequences. Reforms were gradually introduced which covered all aspects of prison life, including the structures themselves, the day to day running of Gaols and the method of annual inspection in the form of an Inspector General of Prisons.

1788 Transportation to Australia

The practice of transporting those convicted of crimes and political prisoners from England and Ireland “beyond the seas” was formalised in 1716 with the Banishment Act. Those transported at this time were sent to the Americas. When this colony was lost to the British with the American War of Independence in 1776 another destination was required. A number of options were listed and tried and eventually the recently discovered New Holland (New South Wales) was selected and began to be colonised by convicts from 1788.

The first Irish Wicklow Gaol male and female convicts were to be sent out to this colony were Patrick Murray in 1789 and Mary Pendergast in 1809. Prisoners were sent there from Wicklow Gaol until the 1856. Over 600 Irishmen who were in the 1798 Rebellion were transported. Of that number, approximately 143 were Wicklow men, the highest number of men from any county including prominent rebels such as “General” Joseph Holt, Michael Dwyer and Hugh Vesty Byrne, John Mernagh, Martin Burke, Arthur Devlin, James Dempsey, Thomas O’Neill and Nicholas Delaney.

Indeed, convicts were transported for a variety of crimes such as sheep stealing, assault, highway robbery, burglary, vagrancy and in a small number of cases murder and infanticide. One prisoner, Eliza Davis, found guilty of this crime was sentenced to be executed, but due to petitions written on her behalf, her sentence was commuted to transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land in 1845. Recent research has catalogued over 400 prisoners held in Wicklow Gaol prior to being transported.

1798 The Rebellion

The 1798 Rebellion put considerable pressure on the physical structure of Wicklow Gaol. A new addition had been erected in the 1790s. However, the materials used were “so bad that the walls of the yards though not 10 years erected” were in danger of “giving way”. The large number of prisoners held, as a consequence of the Rebellion was the reason for this situation. Bribery and corruption were still prevalent at this time as is evident from the privileged position held by one of the 1798 rebels, Billy Byrne, incarcerated there for over six months. He had obviously paid the Gaoler to provide him with a private chamber and free access to the Gaol, while other prisoners were chained and manacled together in locked cells. The Inspector General remarked on this in his report of 1799 and recommended that John Carr, the Gaoler was threatened with dismissal and he was also criticized for not having correct lists of prisoners for his Gaol.

Some of the 1798 rebels – United Irishmen – such as Billy Byrne (whose monument stands in Wicklow’s Market Square) was hanged at Gallows Lane, Wicklow. Another leader of the United Irishmen, James `Napper’ Tandy was held in Wicklow Gaol prior to his deportation to France. Hugh Vesty Byrne, a first cousin of Michael Dwyer, `Rebel Outstanding in Arms’ and a follower of Dwyer, was one of the few prisoners ever to have escaped from the Gaol and remain at large. Hugh Vesty had a £50 reward on his head. He was later to be transported as a freeman to New South Wales.

1841-52 The Famine

The bad years for the famine were 1846-47 known as ‘black 47′. During the time of the of the Great Famine the occurrence of food stealing had greatly increased with offences such as stealing potato seed, cabbage, carrots, bread and of course sheep being very common. Depending on the particular circumstances of their offence, people were often transported to Australia. It is likely that some committed petty offences in order to be imprisoned during the years of the Famine, thereby ensuring they had regular meals. By the height of the Famine the number of prisoners at the Gaol had swelled to 780. The additional pressure placed upon the Gaol by the Famine meant that the method of controlling prisoners, the system of silence and separation, was unenforceable due to the confines of the Gaol structure.

1843 New Gaol Building

Following the Rebellion of 1798 the reports of the Inspector General remarked upon the impact on the Gaol of the large number of prisoners held within its walls. It was feared that the very walls would collapse. In the early reports of the Inspector General in the 1820s it is stated that a new building had been erected but the Authorities were unhappy with the quality of workmanship. Apparently it was felt by the governor that low quality materials had been used by the builder. It was recommended that payments should be withheld until matters were rectified. The Inspectors General were advocating that another addition should be built onto the Gaol. By 1840 the Grand Jury had placed £10,000 aside for construction work.

It was completed in 1843, bringing the total to seventy seven cells, six day rooms, four yards, a public kitchen, a chapel – ‘minutely divided for seventy prisoners’, a hospital and a laundry all within the Gaol complex, as well as the infamous treadwheel. The treadwheel was the most common form of punishment inflicted on the prisoners. It had been invented by William Cubitt in 1818 purely for punitary purposes, with few exceptions. No benefits, such as water being pumped or the grinding of wheat, accrued to Wicklow Gaol. According to the early Inspectors General reports, a treadwheel had been installed in the early 1820s in Wicklow but because of concern over its legality it was not put into use for several years. Once this situation was defined the authorities put it into full use and male prisoners were required to work the treadwheel for five hours in summer and five hours in winter, with breaks of twenty minutes allowed from time to time.

1877 Demolition and Closure of Wicklow Gaol

Wicklow Gaol’s status was demoted from that of a County Gaol to a bridewell in 1877 by legislation. It was closed as a Gaol in 1900 and partially demolished in 1954.

1918 War of Independence

Wicklow Gaol was re-opened again in 1918, manned by the Cheshire and Lancashire Regiment of the British Army, to house members of the Irish republican Brotherhood and Sinn Fein. The Anti-Treaty Rebel Robert Erskine Childers was kept at the Gaol, prior to being brought to Dublin for execution, following his capture at Glendalough House. The Gaol closed again in 1924.