Please note that since some prisons took in prisoners from the entire country, the county the prison is in may not be your ancestor’s home county.
In 1822 there were 178 prisons in Ireland. These records cover 3,127,598 prisoners who spent time there between 1790 and 1924.
In the 18th century Irish prisons were desperate places. Since punishments for crime were usually physical or capital, gaols were generally dumping grounds for the so-called unruly poor, those who had fallen into debt and those awaiting trial or transportation. Many gaols were effectively dungeons, privately-run dumping grounds for the manorial and debtors courts. Gaolers were frequently unpaid or poorly paid and many supplemented their incomes by demanding a fee before a prisoner could leave. Since many prisoners didn’t have a hope of paying, this practise led to chronic overcrowding.
Starvation was common among prisoners and many sought to escape the misery through cheap alcohol that was readily available – for a very reasonable price, often from a gaoler eager to supplement meagre earnings.
The drive to reform the prisons grew throughout the 18th century. In 1864 Cesare di Baccaria’s An Essay on Crimes and Punishment was published. It was published in Ireland three years later. The following decade prison reformer John Howard made his first trip to Ireland. He was not impressed. He noted that corruption was rife amongst the public institutions and many were “totally inattentive” Of the gaols, he said that he had never seen prisons or abuses worse than those in Ireland.
In 1786 the Regulation of Prisons Bill tried to address some of these problems. The bill established a prison inspector who would be appointed by the Grand Jury (similar to a county council today). Prisons should be inspected at least once every two years and budgets were to be agreed to feed the prisoners and maintain the prisons. Money was also allocated for the building of state bridewells across the country. The move partially worked. The drive for greater accountability also resulted in the registers that make up this record set. The Dublin Metropolitan Police was set up the same year and transportation to New South Wales was introduced.
Prisons finally came under state control in the Irish Prisons Act of 1826 with the setting up of the Prisons Board.
In the 19th century there were several types of prisons. Bridewells, as previously mentioned, were houses of correction and where those awaiting trial were put. These would have been the most common prison in Ireland. Debtors prisons and marshalseas were for those who could not pay their debts. These were more open than the criminal prisons to allow the debtors some chance of paying off their debts. Convict depots were where those awaiting transportation were sent. Prisons were for those convicted of criminal wrongdoing, frequently where they would serve out their sentences of hard labour. Many prisons and gaols served a variety of functions.
Many Irish prisons were built along the panopticon design of philosopher Jeremy Bentham. These buildings were built in a semi-circular design with cells off balconies on successive levels. This design can be seen in the newer part of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, familiar through its’ use in films and television programmes including The Italian Job, The Name of the Father, The Face of Fu Manchu, Michael Collins, Ripper Street, The Wind That Shakes the Barley and many others. The idea behind the design was to allow even a small number of gaolers to easily view the prison population.
Grangegorman women’s prison was built as a model prison centered around the idea of moral reform. Opened in 1836 it was the first ever exclusively female penitentiary in the British Isles. Prisoners were strictly segregated so that those awaiting trial or serving sentences for minor crimes were not corrupted by those convicted for major crimes or who had been convicted multiple times.
Convict depots were usually national, with prisoners from around the country. Kilmainham served as a depot, as did Grangegorman and, in the later 19th century, prisoners from around the country were sent to Spike Island in Cork to await a ship to take them to Van Dieman’s Land.
The most common crimes included theft, prostitution, drunk and disorderly behaviour and vagrancy. Many were convicted for using obscene language and there were high numbers convicted of seditious behaviour and rebellion at particularly volatile periods in Irish history, particularly between 1798 and 1803 and during the War for Independence when the country was under Marshal Law.
Sentences for hard labour were typically in weeks or months. Transportation sentences were generally for at least seven years, although shorter sentences were given.
The prison population peaked around the time of the Great Famine between 1845 and 1852 where many sought to get themselves arrested to escape from the harsh conditions. As prison food was often better than that available in the workhouses there were cases of workhouse inmates committing a crime to get sent to prison. In response, prison rations were cut to be more in line with the workhouses.
Despite the reforms throughout the 19th century it wasn’t until the 1860s that many took hold. Although exit fees were gradually stamped out right up until the 1850s those with the money could considerably ease their time in prison by paying off the gaolers in exchange for certain privileges including food being brought in from outside, and even conjugal visits.
These are the prisons and covering dates of registers on this site. Please be aware that other prison register may survive locally with county libraries or archives. Furthermore the registers for the prisons now in Northern Ireland are mostly held by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast.
Only one prison was national (it took prisoners from all over the island of Ireland) which was the short lived Reformatory for Alcoholics in Ennis. Some of the principal jails in Dublin had a national character, but on the whole prisons housed inmates on a local basis.
|CORK||SPIKE ISLAND PRISON||1860-1883|
|DUBLIN||GRANGEGORMAN FEMALE PRISON||1831-1897|
|WEXFORD||NEW ROSS (BRIDEWELL)||1846-1905|