Wicklow Gaol: The Gates of Hell

Ireland’s Wicklow Historic Gaol is a place not suited for the faint of heart, for it’s not just the air that’s chilling there. Locally known as the “Gates of Hell,” it is a place that with even one visit, lives up to its spooky reputation.

The Wicklow gaol, or jail, is a place known for its brutality and indignity. Because the jail was used pre-prison reform, its nickname is no surprise. The gaol was built in 1702 to deal with prisoners sentenced under Penal Laws. These laws were passed against Roman Catholics and penalized the practice of Roman Catholicism. Enacted to convert Roman Catholics to Protestantism, any participation in Catholic worship resulted in fines and imprisonment. Wicklow Gaol is still known and remembered today for the immense cruelty of its keepers and the severe conditions suffered by its inmates.

Desperate Times

In the 19th century, the Great Famine of 1845 struck Ireland. It left many people poor and starving. The situation was so desperate that, motivated by the promise of food in jail, people intentionally committed small crimes. A decision they would come to regret once they reached the gaol.

Prison Life

In the gaol’s early days, all of the inmates were housed together. There were no isolation cells or mental wards – the sane shared space with the insane, the men with the women, the sick with the healthy, the guilty with the accused. In fact, if an inmate happened to die in a shared cell, the body was left to rot amongst the other cell mates. This was not a rare happening either – regular death among inmates was a huge problem and resulted in a need to dispose of bodies, which they often did not do.

The cause of many of the inmate deaths was “Gaol Fever,” better known today as Typhoid. This illness, among others, ran rampant through the gaol. Apparently, although conditions were harsh, there was a “high standard” of medicine that came in the form of about 106-240 doctor visits a year (the latter coming in the year 1845, nearly 143 years after the jail first opened). With such a small amount of medicinal frequency, it’s no wonder so many inmates were left suffering.


Punishment of inmates was ruthless and severe. Some of these punishments included solitary confinement, the treadwheel, the shot-drill, whipping, and stone breaking. The treadwheel was a torture device known as “The Everlasting Staircase.” It was in essence a large wheel with wooden steps, and as the wheel began to rotate, the prisoners were forced to continue stepping. The device was partitioned with stalls so that prisoners could not communicate with one another while performing the task. The treadwheel’s sole purpose was to punish and torture, and prisoners were expected to work the wheel for three hours daily in the dead of winter and four hours daily in the hot summer months.

The shot drill was another torture task meant to punish inmates. The shot drill itself was a heavy steel ball. Apparently, if a person was sentenced to this task it meant that they had to stand above the shot (ball) and when instructed to do so, bend their back, without bending their legs, down to the shot and lift it to their chest. They were forced to hold it at their chest for a few seconds, and then replace it. They had to replace it either to their right, where another inmate was standing, or back to the same spot where it was first picked up. This task had to be done in complete silence, and if a prisoner made any type of sound when replacing the shot, his food rations were taken away for a day. Food was already of utmost importance to some, especially those who had committed crimes for the promise of food in jail, so this punishment might have been the most upsetting of them all.

Death Toll

Historians say that those sentenced to death in the Wicklow Gaol were hanged. In fact, a gallows bar is still visible protruding from the front of the gaol building where it is said many of the hangings occurred. To add to the horror, oftentimes a hawk would eat the heads of those hanged, and the rest of the corpse would be thrown into the sea.

When they did dispose of dead bodies, the corpses were simply thrown into the Atlantic. Rumor has it that there were so many dead bodies flung into the water that local fishermen were no longer able to fish in the area.

The Haunting of Wicklow Gaol

Wicklow Gaol finally closed its doors in 1924. Many say the spirits of the abused still roam around the gaol. Wicklow Gaol is known as the most haunted place in all of Ireland. The gaol is open today to the public for shopping, eats, and tours. Visitors can roam through inmate cells, see the treadwheel, and take a peek at the once gruesome dungeon. Locals might warn you to stay away though, for at night the spirits there are palpable.

If you want to learn more about Ireland, or just daydream about satisfying your wanderlust, check out The Engaging Ireland Podcast.



By: Cassie Sclafani

Photo courtesy of Tour Wicklow