The Last County - Wicklow County Gaol

Wicklow Gaol pre 1950

Early Days

The building of Wicklow Gaol commenced in 1702 and was completed within a few years. The earliest reference to Wicklow Gaol appears in the Urban District Council minutes for the town in 1709, where it is recorded that it cost 2s. 6d. to provide candles and straw for a party of French prisoners (1). The earliest recorded prisoner was a Fr. Owen McFee, a seventy-two year old “popish priest”. He was convicted of saying mass in the county contrary to the law and was sentenced to transportation to a British colony in America m 1716 (2).

Conditions within gaols at this time can only be imagined as appalling. Gaolers were sometimes paid a wage by a local body and were expected to provide food, lighting, bedding and other human necessities from their own income. 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. It was quite normal for prisoners to have to pay a ‘garnish’ to the gaoler in order to receive preferential treatment. This could mean anything from obtaining the very basic requirements of food, lighting and bedding to being provided with rooms and even bed chambers. Many gaolers made considerable amounts of money through such activities and also by selling alcohol to the prisoners.

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 – males from females, tried from untried and sane from insane – was introduced. Until then all were incarcerated together and crimes were often committed by prisoners on unwitting new inmates. There were instances of clothes and valuables being stolen in order to pay the gaoler for alcohol and indeed prisoners were sometimes murdered for the very clothes on their backs. As men and women were lodged together rape was a common occurrence.

Prison Reform

It was against this background that prison reform in Ireland began in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Reformers such as the Englishman John Howard and his Irish equivalent, Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick M.D., began to see the need to establish standards within the prison system. These standards were to be far-reaching and were to cover all aspects of the prison system, including the gaol structures themselves, the day to day running of the gaol and the method of annual scrutiny of gaols in the form of the Inspector General of Prisons. Sir Jeremiah, in his capacity as a medical man, had seen the urgent need to restructure the whole system by providing better facilities in terms of buildings, hygiene and sanitation. The constant threat of outbreaks of disease could be eradicated and the segregation of prisoners into separate male and female sections would enhance their well being. On visiting Wicklow Gaol in 1785 he viewed it as “a very insecure, bad prison” (3).

Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick


John Howard

With the Prison Act of 1786 an Inspector General of Prisons was appointed and Sir Jeremiah was given this role, due no doubt to his excellent record in leading the field in prison reform in Ireland. This act established an administrative pyramid with a local inspector at its base, then the Inspector General and finally Parliament before which the Inspector General had to lay an annual report as to the state of gaols in Ireland.


Rev. Foster Archer became the second Inspector General of Prisons in 1796. Again annual reports were very irregular and it was not until 1823 that reports appeared on an annual basis up till 1876 when the General Prisons Board took over this role. The Prisons Act of 1822 had reinforced the position of an inspectorate by appointing a second Inspector General of Prisons.

In the Inspector General’s report of 1799 it is stated that a prisoner, a William (Billy) Byrne of Ballymanus was enjoying great freedom within the confines of Wicklow Gaol. His fellow inmates were either locked in their cells or were manacled, while Billy Byrne’s cell door remained open all day. Visitors, it was reported, were allowed to visit the rebel leader anytime, day or night. The Inspector General was not pleased with this situation and recommended that the gaoler be dismissed.

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.

Building Extensions

In the early reports of the Inspector General in the 1820s it is stated that a new building had been erected but that 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.

With this new addition, Wicklow County Gaol could now boast six yards, five small day rooms, two work rooms, thirty four cells, two solitary cells, a chapel and infirmary and a marshalsea. However, it soon became obvious that the method of controlling prisoners, the system of silence and separation, was unenforceable due to the confines of the Gaol structure. From as early as 1836 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 treadwheel, a hospital and a laundry all within the Gaol complex.

The system that emerged in the early part of the nineteenth century was one whereby people were sent to prison to be punished for their crimes and while there would go through a process of rehabilitation. This meant that they attended school (within the prison) on a daily basis; chaplains of all denominations visited regularly to talk to the prisoners and exhort them to virtue; a system of separation was introduced whereby moral contamination of one prisoner by another would be avoided by providing separate cells for each prisoner, as well as individual stalls in the chapel and the treadwheel house.

Rehabilitation: Education & Work

Probably the most important aspect of the rehabilitation was the concept of the prisoners working within the prison, producing a product which could be sold outside. Money from this could be used to offset the running costs of the Gaol, with a portion returning to the prisoners as profit. It was also considered essential that the Gaol should be self sufficient and be able to maintain the building and clothe the prisoners from within. The prisoners were expected to paint the Gaol and maintain the yards, make the uniforms and shoes and wash and repair their clothes. In order to achieve this the appointment of turnkeys who were also tradesmen was necessary and so the turnkeys working in Wicklow Gaol were a painter, a tailor and a shoemaker by trade, in addition to others who acted as school masters. The matron, along with the assistant, supervised the female prisoners who were engaged in knitting, sewing, mending, weaving, spinning and washing. She also acted as school mistress.

At various times the prisoners in Wicklow Gaol made fishing nets which were sold both locally and in Arklow, picked oakum, which was rope used as insulation between boards on a ship, and did stone breaking. The making of fishing nets was abandoned after a short time however, as it was feared that they could be used as a means of escape by throwing them over the walls.

By showing the prisoners the error of their ways and giving them the benefit of a trade, their opportunities of obtaining gainful employment on their release either at home or in the event of emigration would be enhanced. In theory the moral rehabilitation of the prisoners would be complete.

Female Inmates

A matron was appointed to supervise all aspects of the female prisoners’ welfare at all times, with responsibility for their medical wellbeing, prison work, treatment and schooling. As well as eating communally, female prisoners were allowed to work together. Classes were held in a refectory type room. A school master was employed to teach the men and this was carried out in the chapel until the Inspector General objected saying that the chapel should be retained for religious worship only.

According to the Inspectors General, prostitutes frequently committed crime for the express purpose of being sentenced to the Gaol and thus being assured of receiving treatment for their social diseases. This was the case in 1845 when seven females, “the worst and most abandoned characters in the town” committed crimes for venereal disease treatment. That same year two children were born in the prison, one being stillborn.

Punishments and Torture

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 four hours in winter, with breaks of twenty minutes allowed from time to time.


The whipping of boys was another form of punishment meted out to prisoners in Wicklow according to the reports, with the governor responsible for overseeing that all punishments were carried out and administered correctly.

Special Treatments

The presence of lunatics within the prison created problems for the authorities as it was deemed necessary to have them accompanied, usually by fellow prisoners, at all times. This requirement meant that the penal system of silence and separation was unenforceable, as two prisoners would have to sleep with a lunatic in a cell and wash, dress and feed their charge. The term ‘lunatic’ covered those who were mentally handicapped, epileptic and the insane.

Transportation of Prisoners

Wicklow Gaol catered for both short and long term prisoners, those who had commited misdemeanours and felonies. In its early years, as was seen in the case of Fr. Owen McFee, offenders against the penal laws were held there and even transported to America. When this colony was lost to the English with the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 another’dumping ground’ for the criminal classes was identified with the opening up of a colony in New South Wales in 1788.

Hugh Vesty Byrne

Prisoners were transported to this new colony from Wicklow Gaol from the 1790s until the 1850s. Many of those involved in the 1798 Rebellion were transported, such as General Joseph Holt, Michael Dwyer and Hugh Vesty Byrne, though these were transported as free men. Byrne was one of the few men who escaped from the Gaol.

Famine Times

By the time 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.

Due to improvements in transport and communications, and the construction of Mountjoy Gaol in Dublin in the 1850s, Wicklow Gaol became more of a holding centre. Under the terms of the Prison Act of 1877 Wicklow Gaol was finally demoted from a county gaol to a bridewell.


(1) Urban District Council Minutes Book, Borough of Wicklow (1709), courtesy of Wicklow Urban District Council.
(2) Burke, Irish Priests in Penal Times, p.299.
(3) Report of the Committee appointed to enquire into the present state, situation and management of the Public Prisons, Gaols and Brideweils of this Kingdom. Irish House of Commons Journals, vol.11, 1786.

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