27 November 2017 Edition
Wicklow Gaol – 300 years of history
Wicklow Town and the surrounding countryside have a history of rebellion and resistance to foreign invasions
THE IMPOSING BASTION of the historic Wicklow Gaol dominates the picturesque coastal settlement of Wicklow town.
Before the 1700s, the British considered the ‘The Garden County’ to be one of the safest places in Ireland, so heavily was it planted with their settlers. But the town itself and the surrounding countryside have a history of rebellion and resistance to foreign invasions.
A short distance away from the gaol, partially crumbling into the ocean, stand the remnants of the Normans’ Black Castle. The building and its defences, which controlled the north Wicklow coast, was overrun and destroyed by local Gaelic chiefs from the O’Toole and O’Byrne clans in 1301.
A prison has stood on the site of Wicklow Gaol since the early 1700s, but it was the 1798 Rebellion which forced the British Government to hugely upgrade the site into the extensive stone building that sits there today.
During the 1798 Rebellion, Wicklow was a stronghold of the rebels.
Even after the major defeat at the Battle of Vinegar Hill, the rebels continued to hold out in the hills, forests and valleys of Wicklow with the support of a sympathetic local population. Leading a guerrilla campaign, Michael ‘The Wicklow Chief’ Dwyer and his men harried the British Army, conducting devastating ambushes and even forced them to begin construction on the now famous Military Road to allow British troops based in Dublin access to the mountains.
Dwyer would eventually become one of the most famous of the 1798 rebels to be held in Wicklow Gaol after his forces negotiated surrender in December 1803 and before his deportation to Australia. His surrender came following the defeat of Robert Emmet’s rebellion in Dublin.
Emmet’s confidante, Anne Devlin, who faced brutal torture at the hand of British forces, was also imprisoned in the gaol, as was James ‘Napper’ Tandy. Tandy was held there reportedly out of fear that holding him in a major city could lead to large protests in the locality, such was his popularity.
Other rebels were not as lucky as Dwyer and Tandy.
On the street outside the prison stands a monument to rebel leader Billy Byrne. Originally a member of the pro-British loyalist yeomanry, Byrne was expelled from the organisation for refusing to swear a blatantly anti-Catholic oath. He went on to join the United Irishmen and played a leading role in the Battle of Arklow and the Battle of Vinegar Hill.
Betrayed by an informer, Byrne was arrested in Dublin in 1799 and conveyed to Wicklow Gaol for trial.
It turned out that the evidence used to convict the 24-year-old of treason came from a British prisoner whose life he had saved on the slopes of Mount Pleasant. The prisoner, Thomas Dowse, believed his testimony recalling how Byrne ensured no prisoners of war were executed would be viewed favourably. The British court, however, stated that if Byrne could exercise such authority on the treatment of prisoners then “he must have been one of the leaders”.
• During An Gorta Mór almost 780 people were held in the prison
The decision to execute him sparked revulsion across Wicklow. He was dragged from Wicklow Gaol shortly after the sentence and, with his comrade Patrick Grant, he was hanged on nearby Gallows Lane, now Friar’s Hill.
During An Gorta Mór, the number of prisoners in the 77 cells of Wicklow Gaol swelled to almost 800 people (many imprisoned for stealing food for their starving families), resulting in a spread of disease and deaths. Many bodies were buried in quicklime within the prison walls.
There were multiple executions during the 1800s using the still-visible gallows above the main entrance.
The last person to be executed in Wicklow Gaol was James Askins, convicted of murder in 1843.
The prison closed in 1900 but, a few years later, it was back in use during the Tan War. The heavily-fortified prison served a new purpose – as a stronghold for British forces in the county and a place to hold suspected republicans. Most of the nearby RIC barracks had been wiped out in an effective IRA guerrilla campaign, forcing British troops and RIC into the larger towns like Wicklow. Wicklow Gaol itself became the headquarters for the Cheshire Regiment, whose graffiti is still visible around the prison.
During the Civil War it served as a base for the Free State forces. There were several successful escape attempts by IRA prisoners. In February 1923, seven IRA prisoners escaped custody by using bedding to scale the walls into the prison exercise yard from where a hole was blown in the wall and you can still see the scorch marks. Two more successfully escaped that July by breaking down the door of the official underground tunnel that leads to the adjacent courthouse.
The most famous prisoner of this time was Erskine Childers.
The man who had landed weapons for the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and had been a leading member of the Republican Movement throughout the Tan War, Childers was arrested at his Glendalough home in November 1923 and held in Wicklow Gaol before his execution at Beggar’s Bush barracks in Dublin.
Wicklow Gaol closed its doors for the final time in 1924 and was partially demolished 20 years later. It sat idle until the 1990s, when renovation took place and it opened to visitors at the turn of the century.
»Wicklow Gaol is open every day from 10:30am to 4:30pm. Kilmantin Hill, Wicklow Town, County Wicklow. Phone +353 (0) 404 61599. Email: [email protected]