Photo 28-03-2016, 12 14 08As part of a recent research trip to Ireland, I visited the 18th century gaol in Wicklow town, to look at how prisoners were treated here. This week, I’ll be publishing a series of posts on aspects of prison life here, but I thought I’d start with a general review of the site as a tourist attraction.

The ‘Historic Gaol’ as it has been termed is packaged as a bit of a themed day out with costumed interpreters – always a bit of a concern for me, as these ‘interpretations’ can be a bit hit or miss (and I’ve even heard interpreters give completely erroneous information out to visitors). It also means it has a completely different approach to Kilmainham Gaol in nearby Dublin, which only lets you round as part of a guided tour, but takes these (uncostumed!) tours very seriously, concentrating on the prison’s political history and leaving the cells and so on as they would have been – giving you the shudders as you go round.

But in reality, the costumed ‘warder’ only gives you, in effect, an introduction to the site before letting you loose on the rest of the gaol (although you have to follow a set path round). The first stop is the exercise yard, where there is a treadwheel in situ. The ‘prisoners’ depicted on this really showed how mind-numbing the treadwheel was, and how dangerous – it was stressed to visitors that the ‘windows’ at the top of the treadwheel were not for prisoners to look through, but for the spotting of bodies, as particularly younger, smaller prisoners may have slipped between the steps and fallen to their deaths.

After the exercise yard, you are taken back into the main building, where, on the ground floor, each cell has been fitted with something to look at – either a recreation of a cell scene, or a video screen telling the story of an individual or a type of offence, or an audio track again telling a story. The history of transportation is covered here in detail. Downstairs, the dungeons can be viewed; upstairs are more cells looking at different aspects of the criminal justice system and incarceration, including the treatment of lunatic prisoners and the jobs that prisoners undertook.

The multimedia elements are both good and creative; although I dislike the use of waxworks to show prisoners in their cells, they are at least used here for a distinct purpose (the torture cell, which I will cover in a separate post, is particularly fascinating). There is a recreation of a transportation ship, which offers something different to the usual prison experience, and the obligatory cafe and (small) gift shop.

Although the gaol’s website and Facebook page suggest that a visit will be more theme park than serious learning experience, they actually give the wrong impression. There is plenty of serious history here, informative and well presented; it’s well worth a visit.

Wicklow Historic Gaol is on Kilmantin Hill in Wicklow Town, and is open every day. See the website for more details.

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The next in my short series of blog posts on Wicklow Gaol, looking at torture and one particular torturer at the site, will be published on Wednesday.