Today is Midsummer’s Eve, and across much of the world the festival of Midsummer, Midsummer’s Night, is held from sunset on the eve until sunrise tomorrow, but only rarely in the British Isles in modern times. What is the difference between the Summer Solstice and Midsummer? That’s where things get interesting.
In the same way that Christmas Day occurs three days after the Winter Solstice, the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist was three days after the Summer Solstice. John the Baptist was said to have been exactly six months older than Jesus, and whereas John baptised with water, Jesus was said to baptise with fire. Anyhow, in many places June 25 was the feast day of St. John, but in medieval times it was decided to settle on June 24, possibly for fear or the mirror-image similarities being noticed.
Anyhow, Midsummer’s Night, was traditionally held to be the most dangerous time of year, because between midnight and sunrise all sorts of spirits, ghosts, ghouls and goblins were held to be at their most powerful. Here in Wicklow midnight, the point at which the sun is furthest from where it set and where it will rise, actually occurs at around 12.30 GMT, which, in summertime, is actually 1.30 am. At Greenwich in London it occurs at 1 am tonight – so make sure you’re safe in bed before that time, or else go looking for Will-O’-The-Wisp, as traditionally it is most often seen on Midsummer’s Night. It should also be a great night for moths and other creatures of the night. A good time for nature lovers.
One of the most unique heritage-related experiences you can get in Wicklow is a trip to Wicklow Gaol (or ‘jail’ as it has come to be speled today), a fortress-like building used to hold Irish prisoners from early Penal times (when Roman Catholics were legally second-class citizens in the British Empire) until Irish Independence in 1922.
What makes this combination of museum and architectural artefact most interesting is that it tells the story of the Irish Diaspora prior to, and in the wake of the 1798 Rebellion in a superb and memorable way. It is not the usual museum experience by a long way. For example, in the 18th century and in the immediate aftermath of the rebellion Irish people (Protestant and Roman Catholic) were detained here en masse before many of them were sold into slavery in the Caribbean, and sometimes also the North American colonies too.
Experts on the subject both act and educate before letting you free in the prison to experience the bleakness. The story of Irish people being punished by being sent to Australia also tells the story of the European settling of the continent and the real freedom that would eventually lead to the global Irish movement to obtain independence for the island of Ireland, an adventure that was actually started by the mostly Protestant leaders of the United Irishmen who were inspired by American Independence and the French Revolution. But the ordinary people who got caught up in all this history are give special treatment. Use of Holograms and innovative methods or education make these tales very effective.
It has to be said that the events in Wicklow before during and after the 1798 Rising have often been ignored by historians, but Wicklow Gaol goes to great lengths to put that right, and to remind us that it isn’t all that long ago. But there is a spooky bonus too, with Wicklow Gaol being considered one of the two most haunted buildings in Ireland, and the subject of many paranormal investigations and TV shows. In the very last cell you enter on the tour you will definitely see some very pooky things thanks to brilliant use of special effects, and a display of equipment used to identify spectral activity. There are also special night time paranormal tours and I’m told the occasional séance also takes place. A truly remarkable museum and a must-see.
There is car-parking available and tickets are a mere €7.90 for adults and €5.00 for children (be warned, they will see ghosts) and the Gaol is open everyday between 10.30 am and 4.30 pm, but do ask about the night-time paranormal tours (they cost a little more, but are an incredible experience. They’re a great place to take a girl on a date as hand-holding is practically a requirement…).