Poor hygiene, rampant disease and death were commonplace in Wicklow, both inside the Gaol and without, in society.
In the 19th century, cleanliness was not a part of everyday life. Ordinary Irish people were poorly educated.
Houses did not feature baths, showers, or even running water. It was generally thought that washing caused colds and would lead to death. There was little or no scientific knowledge of germs and bacteria.
Whitewashing and painting was carried out two to three times yearly. Whitewash was a ‘chalky’ type of lime paint usually applied to exteriors. However, it was also used internally for its mildly anti-bacterial properties.
The airing of Wicklow Gaol was facilitated in the 19th century by the addition of new ceiling traps. This made the building feel a lot fresher and cleaner than it did in the previous century.
Regular deaths among inmates resulted in the need to dispose of bodies. However, if an inmate were to perish and they were sharing a cell, their body was often left to rot amongst the other cellmates. If they were infected with the extremely contagious condition of “gaol fever” – now known as ‘typhoid’ – a gaoler might leave the infected among his cellmates until all others died, in order that he would not be infected.
In cases where the death sentence was handed down by judges, hanging was the preferred method. A well-worn gallows bar is still visible protruding from the front of Wicklow Gaol’s facade.
However, other execution sites were used. For example, 1798 rebel leader Billy Byrne was hanged at Gallows Hill (now Friars Hill) in Wicklow town.
Local historican Stan J. O’Reilly writes that:
“James Askins (Haskins) was the last prisoner to hang for murder in 1843. Others included two female highwaywomen in 1792, hanged from the front of the gaol and nine youths in 1820.
Eight of these were hanged in pairs at two hour intervals. They had set off walking to Dublin in search of adventure, cheap gin and cheaper women in the dance halls of Dublin. On the way they had stolen from clothes lines when the nights were cold. Rewards were offered and bounty hunters were soon on the trail of the outlaws.
The last to be hanged declared from the gallows that the young men of Wicklow should stay away from the Dublin dance halls (little more than dens of vice and intemperence)”
Disposing of Bodies
In the 1700s a half-tame hawk that was released in order to feast on the bodies of Wicklow Gaol’s dead inmates. When inmates were hanged, their bodies were removed while the head was left, to be snacked on by the hawk. Eventually, the bird was killed and eaten by one of the inmates.
Other bodies were thrown into the sea. When the numbers of corpses floating about reached critical level, local fisherman began to refuse to fish.
Burial of Prisoners
In the 1900s and later people gained a greater respect for human burials. The graves of Anne Devlin and Erskine Childers, two of Wicklow Gaol’s most famous prisoners, can still be found in good condition. There is also some evidence of prisoners having been buried on the grounds of Wicklow Gaol. Some remains were found in the jailyard as recently as the 1990s. These bodies were probably covered with quicklime to prevent them from smelling and to speed up their decay.