Because I’m a friendly soul, when someone says ‘Bus trip and lunch for five euro’ I say ‘Righto then’. So it was that I ended up at Wicklow Gaol, officially the most haunted place in Ireland.
When the kids heard that I was going somewhere with bona fide ghosts they were all clamouring to get in on the action and I said that although obviously I’d really love them to join in with the quiet, relaxing, orderly parents’ trip it wasn’t allowed and we could do a trip there ourselves sometime.
But we won’t. Not for a long time anyway. It’s amazing as an historical venue and educational centre but it’s no place for children even without the ghosts.
There are some places that just change you, you know? In some small way you’re never going to quite leave behind what you experienced there. Pearl Harbour is one such place, in my experience. I’ve heard people describe Anne Frank’s attic and former concentration camps in the same way. I will say now that I saw no ghosts and felt no supernatural energy – nor did I expect to – but if there’s anywhere that deserves to be haunted this is it.
Wicklow Gaol was built in 1702 and the first prisoner, later transported to Australia, was a seventy-year-old priest who’d been caught saying Mass. This was the era of the Penal Laws and the Protestant Ascendancy. The Penal laws were designed to uphold the power of the (Anglican) Church of Ireland by keeping Catholics, Presbyterians, Jews and other undesirables disenfranchised and impoverished. When you take into account the severity of the laws, the length of time they were in place and the places like Wicklow Gaol which were used to enforce them what we’re really talking about is a robust attempt at genocide.
Under the Penal Laws Catholics were barred from holding public office, from owning guns or joining the military, from voting, from owning a horse valued at more than five pounds, from buying land, from inheriting under many circumstances, from teaching children or being educated, from marrying Protestants, from being lawyers or judges, from adopting children and all sorts of other things. They were allowed to do nothing that would give them any chance to better their life circumstances or their children’s. For generation after generation they were denied any hope of a better future.
The sad thing (well, one of so very many) about all this is that as far as I can work out it wasn’t about the Irish at all. The real Catholic-Protestant power struggles were going on in England, Scotland and France. Their kings and queens were slogging it out over centuries and Ireland was collateral damage.
Wicklow Gaol was home over the years to rebels from the 1798 Rebellion, the 1916 Easter Rising, the Anglo-Irish War of Independence in 1919 and the Irish Civil War in 1922 as well as people who fell foul of the Penal Laws, those who couldn’t pay their debts, the insane, thieves, prostitutes, murderers and everything in between. During the height of the Famine in 1848 it had a population of 780 housed in 77 small cells. The diet in 1845 consisted of potatoes and milk for breakfast and tea with bread on Sundays but during the Famine there were no potatoes so it was ‘meal’ and bread. Despite the meagre rations there were people who committed crimes on purpose to get into the Gaol because it was better than starving. When you go there and get an understanding of how hellish the conditions were, then find that people went there by choice because it was the best option they had, that’s when you get the Pearl Harbour/Auschwitz effect: in this place occurred something so big and so evil that its shock waves still bring you to your knees over two hundred years later.
It was overcrowded, freezing in winter and boiling in summer. All prisoners were put in together. Men and women and children, bread thieves and brutal killers, sane and insane, there was no distinction or separation. Diseases like goal fever (typhoid) and dysentry ran rife; so did sexually transmitted infections and, you’d have to assume, unwanted pregnancies. People were flogged, tortured and executed and there was no regulation whatsoever. The prison guards were expected to feed and clothe prisoners out of their own salaries so we can imagine how that worked out. Bribery was the main way that anything got done but many of the prisoners were in there for crimes of poverty anyway so for most there was no help there. Once your sentence was served you had to pay to leave which again was beyond the reach of many so they just stayed there. Many people died in Wicklow Gaol and if their spirits are still there now I can’t say I blame them. I’d be surprised if they weren’t.
When I say people were executed I don’t just mean the worst of the worst every now and then. I mean in large numbers. The bodies were disposed of by taking them out into the harbour and chucking them overboard. This practice was stopped eventually when the local fishermen refused to go out fishing any longer because the harbour was so clogged up with corpses.
I am not making this up. I wish I was.
People who died of typhoid were often left to rot in their cells until everybody in there was dead because the guards didn’t want to risk going in to get them while there were people alive who may have been contagious. At one point there was a semi-tame hawk who was let into cells sometimes to clean up but eventually it was trapped by a starving prisoner and eaten.
And now you see why Wicklow Gaol won’t be on our list of Fun Family Activities over the summer holidays.
To relieve overcrowding and raise the tone of the country many people were ‘transported’ – sent to Australia, America, Canada and the Indies to live out their lives and die there. There was no return. The youngest prisoner to be shipped off in this way was an 11-year-old girl who had been caught stealing a small amount of cloth. Again there was no regulation, no separation of prisoners and not much in the way of food or water and those who didn’t die on the way probably wished they had.
Last year, our guide (dressed as a matron of the time) told us, an Australian lady came to visit the Gaol. Her great-great grandmother (maybe more greats) had been shipped for killing her baby. She married in Australia, had more children and started a family now large and well-established there. Good for her. When some of the descendants researched her past they found that she had suffered from what we now know as epilepsy and had, most likely, accidentally suffocated the baby during a seizure. One of the witnesses who’d testified against her had a history of accepting payment to say whatever was needed at trial. There’s no point in trying to imagine what that poor woman suffered; madness that way lies.
During the 19th century conditions began to improve. This was the time of Reform Societies and philanthropists taking an interest in Doing Good Works. The focus changed from punishment to education and rehabilitation. There is a classroom in which children did schoolwork and others were taught trades and skills such as fabric-making. Medical attention was provided giving people yet another reason to commit petty crimes to access help which they couldn’t get outside the gaol. A new governor was hired who wouldn’t accept bribes. Torture and transportation were phased out.
Wicklow Goal was closed in 1924 after the Civil War ended. It was used as a storeroom by the local council until 1985 when it was recognised as one of the country’s most historic buildings. It was restored through the ’90s and opened to the public as a heritage centre in 1998.
Wicklow Gaol has officially been listed as the most haunted place in Ireland and one of the top ten in the world. I don’t know who measures these things but there’s certainly an impressive list of spirits who’ve apparently made themselves known there. Many paranormal investigators have visited to check it out and they seem convinced. The T.V. show ‘Ghost Hunters International’ made an extra-long episode about it (I think they were the ones who ‘officially’ declared it ‘the most haunted’ etc etc. They’d know as well as anyone I guess). The guide who showed us around seemed like a very normal down-to-earth person and she said she feels an energy from time to time. Not scary or angry, just there. She says a quick rosary when that happens.
Who am I to say?
Most of us Kiwis have an Irish forebear or several. I’d never given any thought to the conditions in which mine were living, or why they left, but I have now. I suppose I had an image in my mind of people growing potatoes in beautiful landscapes, living in cosy thatched cottages and dancing the Irish Jig to a merry fiddle on Saturday nights. Poor but bearable.
In truth it was probably far uglier. If you are a descendant of the Irish, for the love of God, don’t ever take for granted the incredible odds that the great-great-grandparents had to beat in order for you to be here at all.
And that’s all I have to say about that.