Fearsome island fortresses, chilling cell blocks and bleak punishments: life inside Ireland’s oldest gaols was brutal in every sense of the word. Now, ghostly night tours and fascinating exhibitions offer a compelling glimpse into the island’s penal past…
Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin
Outside Kilmainham Gaol
Menacing, weathered walls, freezing cells and a deep sense of foreboding: a tour of Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol is something you’ll never forget. The troubled past of this prison dates back over 100 years. Its walls once housed the leaders of Ireland's Easter Rising in 1916, whose imprisonment ended in executions on these very grounds. As one of the largest unoccupied gaols in Europe, Kilmainham is packed with harrowing history, museum memorabilia and thought-provoking insights into Ireland’s best-known penitentiary. It's enough to give you goosebumps!
Spike Island, County Cork
Aerial of Spike Island
Welcome to 1,300 years of enthralling history on an isle once home to monks, saints and deadly sinners. This is the only place in Ireland where you’ll find a monastery, fortress and prison all in the one spot! Spike Island is an award-winning tourist attraction located off the coast of County Cork. Take the ferry from Cobh and embark on a guided tour of what was once called 'Ireland’s hell', owing to the severity of the conditions within the notorious Punishment Block. The 24 acre star-shaped Fort Mitchell once held over 2,300 prisoners. If you're really feeling brave, try the spine-tingling After Dark Tour and hear tales of the island's tortured souls while exploring underground tunnels and empty cells…
Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast, County Antrim
Cell Block in Crumlin Road Gaol
Walk in the footsteps of over 25,000 prisoners at Crumlin Road Gaol – Northern Ireland’s only remaining Victorian Era prison. Since it first opened in 1846, "The Crum" in Belfast city has held murderers, suffragettes and political rebels. Prisoners here were often subjected to hard labour and corporal punishment, such as being lashed with the cat-o’-nine-tails, a particularly nasty whip. Explore C-Wing for a sobering insight into prison life, stand in the Condemned Man’s Cell where 17 men were executed and learn all about the tragic tales of escapes, hunger-strikes and riots throughout the jail’s grim past.
Wicklow Gaol, County Wicklow
Outside Wicklow Gaol
The horrors of 18th century penal servitude can still be felt in Wicklow Gaol. This is a guided tour with a difference, thanks to audio-visual technology and actors clad in period costumes. The overcrowded prison in County Wicklow counted Famine-era thieves, criminals awaiting transportation to Australia and even children among its inmates. Explore the chilling tales of this historic site and descend into the depths of despair (literally) in the original dungeon. The prison is said to be one of Ireland's most haunted places and daring visitors can book ahead for the Paranormal Tour – definitely not for the faint-hearted!
Cork City Gaol, County Cork
Inside Cork City Gaol
Do you have a wicked tongue? Well, spare a thought for poor Mary Tucker – a 19th century inmate at Cork City Gaol who was imprisoned simply for the use of "obscene language". The prison's romantic castle exterior hides the stories of penal horror that lie within, where many inmates were locked away simply for stealing loaves of bread during times of poverty. Lifelike figures, furnished cells and sound effects enhance the experience, giving a sensory insight into day-to-day life for prisoners and their gaolers. When Cork City Gaol closed its doors in 1923, it became home to a radio station and you can explore its on-air past with a wander around the Radio Museum, complete with the microphone used by John F Kennedy on his 1963 visit to Ireland.