The Ghosts of Wicklow Gaol

The Ghosts of Wicklow Gaol

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Ireland has a long and volatile history. So it is no surprise that many people claim to have had paranormal experiences related to past events and places in Ireland. One place of interest to paranormal investigators is Wicklow Gaol.

There seems to be a lot of ghostly goings-on in Wicklow Gaol. And that’s no surprise, considering its truly awful back story. Built in 1702, its first prisoner was thought to be Father Owen McFee, a seventy-two-year-old priest, who was convicted of saying Mass despite it being banned by the invading English. His steadfast rebellion and dedication to Catholicism led to him being thrown into a cell in the gaol. After this he was put onto a creaky old ship and posted to a British colony in the Americas.
At the time Father McFee was living in the gaol, conditions were beyond appalling. In fact they were so utterly terrible that the guides of the night tour don’t explain fully the conditions in which these tormented souls lived in, for fear of their guests not getting a full night’s sleep for the rest of their lives. The reason for these awful conditions was the level of power given to the gaoler at the time. Gaolers were paid a wage by the government of the day, and from this they were 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. So if the gaoler was of shady character, then he could lose the run of himself with impunity. At the time of the gaol’s inception, there was little, if any, supervision of the prison system. The gaoler was responsible to no overseeing body.

For the prisoners who were jailed as debtors with no money or means to pay the gaoler, life in the gaol was exceptionally harsh. And worse – there was no separation of prisoners based on their supposed crimes. All prisoners were held together – male and female, tried from untried and sane from insane. This was not rectified until a much later date in the jail’s history, when prison reformers set about to right this wrong. But for many, it was too late. Prisoners, some of them political, some of them poverty-stricken, some of them innocent, lived an existence even worse than being dragged through Hell backwards and forwards. It’s no wonder that ghost hunters say these spirits want their story heard.

Eventually, though, prison reformers made their case heard. 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. Prisoners eventually were separated according to their gender, crimes and mental states. However with rising rebellion, the gaols starting filling up beyond capacity, so much so that the walls were in danger of collapse, especially around the perimeter of the complex. A solution was required – and fast. The result? Banishment.

The practice of transporting the dregs of society from England and Ireland “beyond the seas” was formalised in 1716 with the Banishment Act. After this time, prisoners were thrown on a ship and sent across the world. Initially, those transported were sent to the Americas. When this colony was lost with the American War of Independence in 1776 another destination was required. New South Wales, Australia was considered a place perfect for the rejected dregs.

Prisoners usually never saw Irish shores again. If they even survived their journey and lived out their sentence, they were usually too poor to pay for the journey back to the Old World. It was a sentence most harsh, especially for those mothers who left children behind. Over 600 Irishmen who were involved in the 1798 Rebellion were transported. Of that number, approximately 105 were Wicklowmen, the highest number of men from any county. It is for this reason that the front gates of the Wicklow Gaol were considered “The Gates of Hell”…once you entered you were never seen again.

As for the ghosts of the gaol, they could be the apparitions of many people. Some of the 1798 rebels – the United Irishmen – such as Billy Byrne were hanged in or near the gaol. But Hugh Vesty Byrne, a first cousin of Michael Dwyer, the Wicklow Chieftain, was one of the few prisoners ever to have escaped from the Gaol and he remained at large.

Throughout the gaol’s life, lives ebbed and flowed miserably through it. Some people conducted a petty crime to be taken to the jail in times of famine, just so they could get something to eat. Other convicts were thrown in there for a variety of misdemeanors such as sheep stealing, assault, highway robbery, burglary, vagrancy and in a small number of cases murder and infanticide. It was closed as a Gaol in 1900, however it was re-opened again in 1918, manned by the Cheshire Regiment of the British Army, to house members of the Irish republican Brotherhood and Sinn Fein. The Gaol closed again in 1924. It fell into ruin before being restored in recent times as a tourist attraction.

Hauntings

With this backdrop of human despair, it’s no wonder that there are some wretched souls still haunting the cells and walkways of Wicklow Gaol. In 2009 the ghosts at Wicklow’s Historic Gaol received international attention when the American Sci-Fi channel flew across the Atlantic to investigate chilling reports of paranormal presences at the ancient prison. The team locked the doors and spent the night using paranormal measuring equipment including motion detectors and infrared cameras. They confirmed that the refurbished prison building is one of the most haunted locations in the world.

But there are other reports from both tourists and gaol guides that tell tales of spirits willfully lingering around. Over the last 10 years, tourists and gaol staff have been baffled by the regular appearance of a young boy in the historic prison’s school room. He appears often, and his life and connection to the gaol is as yet still a mystery. But he’s not alone in his haunting walks. A lady in her late 20s, dressed completely in black, makes an occasional appearance. She walks in and out of cell 22 on the first floor, and again why she shows an unwillingness to pass over remains a mystery. Another common event is the appearance of a cold and eerie mist that envelops the walkway to the first floor cells. This has been seen by multiple people over a number of years.

It is though the sinister past of the desperate prisoners have made an imprint on the present. The brutal whippings and violent executions were so horrific that it has put the souls in the position whereby they feel they must have their story told.

Gaol Guide Marie Comerford says the huge number of arrests following the 1798 rebellion unleashed unspeakable horrors upon prisoners sentenced to stay at the Wicklow Gaol. “Once you went in, there was very little chance you would ever come back out. The cells were overcrowded and hundreds of prisoners were crammed into a 30 square foot cell, originally designed for just 6 prisoners. The tragedy is that the poor people who were arrested for stealing sheep or some potato seed were forced to share the space with psychopaths, violent murderers and rapists.”

Marie has worked as a guide at the ancient building for the last eight years. She is no longer surprised when visitors approach her after entering the School Room to say they have seen a little boy standing there. “It is always in the same places. I feel him there most of the time. Not long ago, a young boy from an American family stood behind me to take a photograph, and a red silhouette of the boy appeared in the shot.”

Last year, a group of primary school students from Austria were dumbstruck when the hanging mist latched onto their teacher and enveloped her in a huge ball, moving with her. On another occasion, an elderly woman passed out in cell 12, which tells the story of Wicklow rebel, Billy Byrne. The fainting lady refused to continue the tour. She later reported that she felt a pressure around her neck and couldn’t breathe. Billy Byrne was hanged in the gaol and many people think this is Billy himself trying to be heard. There are other reports, especially by those who work in the gaol. All eleven staffers claim they were overcome one evening when the entire floor in front of them began to move. So the gaol remains a place of mystery, imperfection, and unexplained happenings.

If you want to get a feel for the paranormal in Wicklow Gaol, you can go for a gentle introduction via a night tour. 

But don’t say we didn’t warn you if you feel utterly creeped out!

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