Women and Children Locked up in Prisons in Ireland
The story of Prisons in Ireland in the 1800's
Punishment and hard labour was common for prisoners in all Irish prisons. Women and children in Grangegorman Female Penitentiary in Stoneybatter Dublin 7 Ireland suffered as did the young boys at the Smithfield Young Offenders Prison. I have written about some of their stories below.
The Tread Mill in Irish Prisons
Harsh Punishment of Women and Children
The Tread Mill was a machine that was used to grind corn in the flour mills, but it was a form of hard labour used in some of the prisons. There were long handles around the centre piece. The prisoners had to hold on to these and walk around in circles pushing it along.
In the workhouses the children worked on the Tread Mill to grind the corn, but if one child fell it took the other children a few minutes to stop, usually not before the fallen child had been trampled on. The large building in Stoneybatter, Dublin 7 Ireland was opened in 1816 as the Richmond Penitentiary for both male and female prisoners.
In the prisons the Tread Mill was used only as a form of punishment, no corn was ground. The prisoners had to stay on this for five hours in the summer and four hours in the winter. One prison officer stated, “I have seen today the strongest of fellows led away crying from the Tread Mill."
The Shot Drill
The prisoners had to lift this heavy ball to the height of their chest, walk two paces and then replace it on the ground. Four hours a day was spent on this. They had to ask permission to blow their nose and could not sing, whistle or make any unnecessary noise. They were constantly whipped for breaking the rules. Courts would also Order Whipping as part of the Prisoner's Sentence
Imprisonment of Children
The majority of the prisoners would be thrown into overcrowded cells to sleep on the damp floor with rats running all over them. They had lice infested straw to cover them. Children as young as seven were also imprisoned in these conditions.
Young Offenders Prison
In 1801 at Smithfield in Dublin 7, a Young Offenders Prison was opened for boys. It was the first in Ireland. But only some of the many children in the adult prisons could be accommodated there. It also took in orphan boys and then some years later girls who were brought in front of the magistrates for begging on the streets.
In 1819 a report stated that there were a hundred and twenty two boys there. Imprisonment of these children was therefore common place with most of them committing no crime and receiving no sentence. Some had been there for five years.
Young Children in Prisons
When the Lord Lieutenant saw the report he ordered that every effort be made to find any relatives willing to take the children. If this could not be done then the children were to be transferred to the House of Industry or apprenticed out to tradesmen. He ordered that young children were not to be imprisoned there anymore. It was only to be used for teenage offenders and women serving short term sentences.
Another report only ten years later showed there had been little improvement. It stated that there were nineteen young children in the prison. Four of the youngest children ranged in age from two years old to five and were all girls. Children would continue to be imprisoned with adults for at least another thirty years.
Grangegorman Female Prison
Construction began on the Richmond Penitentiary in 1812 and was completed in 1816. The front of the building housed the administration block of the prison. The clock and weathercock above the entrance are still in good condition.
It was designed by Francis Johnston, and named after the fourth Duke of Richmond. The prison closed in 1826. There was a scandal involving discrimination against Catholics and it also came out that the authorities were trying to convert the prisoners to Protestantism.
By 1832 the cholera epidemic was at its height in Dublin and it was used as a temporary hospital. The Richmond Penitentiary was reopened in April 1837 and was to receive only female prisoners. It was at that time the only prison in Ireland used exclusively for this purpose. It had 256 cells and these were 12ft by 4" square, and 11ft high. It became known as the Grangegorman Female Penitentiary.
Some young children who were imprisoned at the Grangegorman Female Penitentiary in 1841 were:
Name Age Area Crime Sentence Date
- Margaret Ryan 10 Francis St. Pawning a silver spoon 14 days 11th Aug.1841
- Mary Ryan 10 Heplin St. Disturbing the peace 7 days 12th Aug. 1841
- Cath St John 10 Liffey St. Disturbing the peace 7 days 6th Oct.1841
- Cath Connor 11 Britain St. Indecent exposure 30 days 14th Aug 1841
- Mary Johnston 15 Coombe Stealing potatoes 3 months 10th Sept.1841
Disturbing the peace would have been drunkenness and indecent exposure was prostitution.
Children Were Whipped in Irish Prisons
On August 11th 1841 Mary Monaghan from Arbour Hill, Stoneybatter Dublin 7, was convicted of 'disturbing the peace.' She was sentenced to fourteen days at the Grangegorman Penitentiary. On August 29th 1841 she received a further four days for 'disturbing the peace' again. She was ten years old. Sixty years later in the 1901 Census, Mary Monaghan was living at 3 Manor Street Stoneybatter Dublin 7.
She was seventy years old and her occupation was stated as a charwoman. In the 1911 Census it is stated that she was an old age pensioner and still at this address in Manor Street.
Attempted Suicide Got You a Prison Sentence
Local women who were imprisoned at the Grangegorman Female Penitentiary were:
- Mary Coughlin 28 Manor St. Breach of the peace 7 days 10th Sept 1841
- Catherine Lear 25 Church St. Stealing bucket & rope 3 months 13th Aug 1841
Disturbing the peace and theft are the most common crimes recorded. But there were a few unusual ones.
- Mary Walsh from Angelsea Street was seventeen years old and unemployed when she attempted to drown herself. She was sentenced to fourteen days in the penitentiary for this crime on October 2nd 1841.
- Another unhappy woman, Hannah Walsh, from Britain St. attempted to do the same. She was twenty seven and unemployed. She received a sentence of fourteen days on September 14th 1841.
- Catherine Booth was twenty five and worked in Ship Street as a servant. She also tried to drown herself and received a sentence of thirty days in the prison on 22nd August 1841.
Whatever it was that drove these women to try to commit suicide, their state of mind was not helped by their imprisonment.
- On August 19th 1841, Jane McAllister aged twenty, from Athy, was convicted of attempting to conceal the birth of her baby. She was a servant at the time. She received a sentence of three months at the Penitentiary.
- Margaret Walsh, aged twenty one from Blessington, was convicted on 14th August 1841, of deserting her child. She worked as a servant, and received the sentence of three months at the prison.
Kilmainham Jail Dublin
Other children as young as eight years old were imprisoned in the nearby Kilmainham Jail.
- Alicia Kelly was only eight years old when she was sentenced to five months hard labour in March 1839 for stealing a cloak.
- Jane Beerds who was nine years old was accused of stealing fowl in January 1840. She spent three months in the jail before being released in April after been found not guilty.
- Michael and Patrick Reilly were aged twelve and thirteen years old in April 1833. They were both found guilty of stealing three ducks and a hen
- They each received a sentence of three weeks in prison and a total of sixty lashes. They were whipped each week receiving twenty lashes at a time.
- Mick Kearney, twelve and his younger brother Stephen, nine were convicted of stealing money in December 1838. They both received a sentence of four weeks imprisonment and were whipped once a week.
- For stealing apples from a garden John Keegen aged eleven, got two months hard labour on 11th August 1833.
Many of the children from the workhouses were sent to jail for very trivial reasons. A fifteen year old boy was caught jumping on a school desk, he received a sentence of six weeks in prison on the Tread Mill.
If a child ran away they were arrested for the theft of the workhouse clothes they were wearing at the time. A boy of fourteen was sentenced to one month in prison on the Tread Mill for this offence.
In Nenagh 1849 it was reported that fourteen children were escorted through the streets by the police. Thirteen of these were little boys who were to be whipped at the local jail because they were caught throwing stones at the workhouse master.
The sentences handed down to these women and children were harsh, but worse was to come. The prison system in Ireland could not cope, there was overcrowding and the cost of keeping the prisoners in jail was too high.
Irish Famine and Convicts
Imprisonment of women and children in Ireland had to be stopped. During the famine years of 1845 to 1848 the influx of country people to the cities was enormous. They could not get work, so they had to beg on the streets.
The government brought out a Vagrancy Law which made begging a crime. Others were stealing food and livestock to survive. If they got caught they knew at least they would be fed in prison. Once the famine started and potatoes were in short supply, the prisoners were given poor substitutes
In order to deter the people from committing crimes so that they could get imprisoned and fed, the food rations were drastically reduced. This had no effect on the numbers; all it did was create more misery for the inmates and save the government on the food bill. Something had to be done, so transportation to Australia was increased.