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Welcome to the docks! Climb aboard the Hercules, a convict ship to Australia, to witness conditions for those sentenced to exile.

On the second floor of Wicklow Gaol, find a scale model of the deck of HMS Hercules. Hercules was a convict ship that was used to transport convicts to New South Wales under the captaincy of Luckyn Betts. Other cells are devoted to the stories of the prisoners once they arrived in Australia.

Why were convicts sent abroad?

Many convicts transported from Wicklow by ship had committed ‘political’ crime. These included hundreds of United Irishmen who had been arrested during the failed 1798 Rebellion. The most high profile of these included:

  • Michael Dwyer;
  • James “Napper” Tandy;
  • Joseph Holt.

However, a person could be exiled for petty crimes too. Stealing bread or being homeless was enough to be sent to Australia. Prostitutes were also known to have been exiled.

‘Transportation’, as the sentence of being exiled to Australia and elsewhere was called, solved several problems for the authorities in Ireland. Not only did it remove troublesome locals from the jurisdiction, it also appeared as a more humane sentence than flogging or execution. It relaxed overcrowding in the prison system, and in Ireland generally, which had a much higher population before the Great Famine of the 1840s.

Where were convicts sent?

Transport was to the far-flung colonies of the British Empire. The destinations included:

  • The American Colonies (USA and Canada);
  • New South Wales (Australia);
  • New Holland (Tasmania);
  • Caribbean (East and West Indies).

Life was harsh and sometimes short for transported convicts but there were those who did well for themselves after they had served their sentence. They carved out a civilisation from the wild frontiers for civilised settlers who would follow them.

What was life like onboard the Hercules?

Starvation and mutiny endangered the lives of all people onboard; both redcoat and convict. The convicts had to survive lack of food, heat, disease, and exhaustion on the long journey to Australia. Many people sentenced to ‘transportation’ for petty crimes died before reaching their intended destination.

The crew and guards similarly had to guard against any signs of mutiny among the prisoners – and each other!

Who gets transported from Wicklow today?

After your visit to Wicklow Gaol, why not stroll down to the real Wicklow docks? Just as in the days of transportation, Wicklow is still very much a maritime town. It’s mostly pleasure cruisers and fish leaving port these days!

An active fishing fleet lands fresh catches of fish and shellfish every day. Maybe you’ll bump into Sammy, a friendly local seal who is a regular visitor to the quays.

Other things to look out for around Wicklow Harbour:

  • Wicklow Sailing Club – hosts the start of the famous Round Ireland yacht race;
  • Lighthouse on the East Pier, with spectacular sea views;
  • The Black Castle – a Norman (medieval) ruins, perched on top of sea cliffs.