Have you ever wanted to see inside the secret world of one of our historic prisons? Each one offers unique features for a very revealing visit.

Arial image of Spike Island, Co. Cork

© Fáilte Ireland/Tourism Ireland; Courtesy Spike Island Management

Discover some fascinating facts about these museums.

  • Which prison inmates built a golf course?
  • Which of the museums has a ghost?
  • Which held a wedding within the walls?
  • Which prison do you take a boat to?
  • Were any of these prisons famous for escapes?

Today, we have several historic prison buildings which are now museums.

Let’s travel to Wicklow, Cork and Dublin to explore these legendary museums. We will see that prison museums can be fascinating places to visit.

Wicklow Gaol

©Dylan Vaughan; Courtesy Dylan Vaughen

Wicklow Gaol is possibly Ireland’s premier virtual reality experience “the Gates of Hell”. A snippet of this virtual reality experience, which brings the terrifying history alive, can be seen on the website. Here is the link.

History

In the 1840’s, famine increased crime level with the shortage of food for the people. Potatoes had been the main food source of most folks but now the people no longer had food to feed their families. The potato crops failed with the famine. As a result, cattle and sheep stealing increased as the starving people saw life in prison as a way to secure food to survive.

Inside the prison conditions were horrible.

  • Only 77 cells held up to 780 people during the famine times. The extreme overcrowding must have been very grim for the inmates.
  • In the 19th century improvements in the prison system were introduced and bribes could no longer be accepted.

Prisoners were transported to the colonies of the British Empire from this prison and a scale model of one of the ships can be seen in the museum. By 1924, the building was no longer in use as a prison. In the later part of the 20th century, the historic importance of the goal was realized.  With the aid of funding from Fáilte Ireland, the building was renovated and opened as a museum.

Gates of Hell Virtual reality tour

  • This 3-dimensional experience will transport you back to the law-breaking world of this dark prison. Ghosts, well known prisoners, and daily life in the 1700’s feature in this experience.
  • Included in this tour is also the daytime tour.

Daytime tour

  • The hardened gritty gaoler and Mary, the matron, will welcome you on this tour and you might even encounter famous people.

All tickets should be booked in advance.

https://www.wicklowshistoricgaol.com/

The gaol is located in Wicklow town and is an unforgettable family visit.

Spike Island

© Fáilte Ireland/Tourism Ireland; Courtesy Spike Island Management

How about a visit to a remote island, in Cork, to uncover 1,300 years of Irish history? This jail began life as a monastery and had a monastic community for the next 900 years. But life on the island was to change.  Spike Island, which is a very heart-breaking museum was a former prison. Up to 2,300 people were held in this prison in the 1850s. Today it is a very popular tourist attraction.

The visit starts with a short boat trip from Cobh, County Cork, to the island museum. This island covers 104 acres and in the past the prison staff that lived on the island had surprising sports facilities including a golf course, which was built by the convicts. On your visit you can enjoy the wide open spaces in nature and you might be lucky enough to see some seals. As the island is secluded, it is loved by wildlife.

Fascinating historic characters

During your visit you can learn about the inmates of the island.

  • One of the most fascinating was James Grey, the “Jack in the Box” who was among those held at the prison.
  • Discover who the man tried to swim his way to freedom
  • The “gravedigger” who enjoyed the high life but ended up on the island.
  • The man who tried to dig his way out.

Here is a link to the Spike Island brochure which is packed with details for your visit.

https://www.spikeislandcork.ie/contentFiles/Spike_Island_brocure_group.pdf

You can see many stand out items on your visit as you make your way around the prison.

  • Fort Mitchell, a 24-acre fort, which covers a large part of the island is star shaped and many of the original buildings can be explored on your visit.
  • Visit the actual historic cells.

Before your visit, please check the up to date opening hours of the museum.

https://www.spikeislandcork.ie/

Remember to book you tickets in advance.

Kilmainham Gaol

©Chris Hill; Courtesy Chris Hill

Kilmainham Gaol, in Dublin, dates back to 1796 and holds a very significant part in Irish history. Rebellion leaders including those of 1798 and 1916 were confined here along with women and children.  Public hangings took place in front of the prison in the 1800s. Not all crimes were major crimes as inmates were imprisoned here even for stealing. As you enter the building you will be surrounded by a very powerful sense of history.

Would you like to see areas not normally accessible to visitors?

To start your visit, a very interesting series of short Lockdown videos on you tube has been produced by the OPW (Office of Public Works). These videos, give a glimpse of areas not normally seen on the regular tours and can set the stage for your visit. So, go ahead and spend a few minutes before your visit to delve into these videos.

Here are two links that you can start with.

Find out how the weather was recorded by an inmate from Saint Swithen’s day in1923 and for the following 40 days. This is the link for the Kilmainham on Lockdown Video:

Here is another interesting video on the internal courtyard and what the inmates had to eat. This is the link:

 

Historic areas of the prison.

The Chapel

The building houses two chapels on different floors, one Catholic and one Protestant.  In 1916 a wedding was celebrated here shortly before the groom was executed.

The West Wing

Of the two original wings built in 1796, only the West Wing, which is the oldest, still exists. It is chilly, dreary and dim today but must have been a lot worse for the prisoners of the day as there was neither light nor heat in the original cells. At that time the windows did not have any glass which meant that this wing would have been very uncomfortable in winter. Following additions to the original construction, it houses 79 cells today. This section was the scene of famous escapes from the prison.

The East Wing

Visitors may think that this wing is familiar to them as it has featured in many films. Perhaps you have seen one of the films.

This wing reflects the updated Victorian ideals for imprisonment and was constructed in the 1860s. Floods of light from the skylight into this building must have been very welcome for the inmates at that time. The light filled areas contrast to the pitch black, below ground, punishment cells which were in use.

The Stonebreaker’s Yard

The men who were condemned to hard labour worked here and it was also the scene of executions in 1916.

Before planning your visit remember to check the opening times and book your tickets.

Here is the link to the museum.

http://kilmainhamgaolmuseum.ie/

Which of these museums is your favourite? Do you know of any other jails that are now museums?

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