Conditions in Irish Debtors Prisons
Conditions in Debtors Prisons in Ireland
If you owed money and could not pay the debt in 19th century Ireland then this had serious consequences.
The debtor was imprisoned until the money was paid.
If they could not afford to pay the debt, they stayed in a Debtors Prison until they died there.
Owing Money was a Terrible Crime
Prisoners in Debt had to Pay Rent for a Cell and Decent Food.
This in effect meant that if the money owed could not be repaid then a life sentence in prison was not uncommon in Ireland.
At Old Kilmainham Jail in Kilmainham Lane, Dublin. Men, women and children were locked up together.
The debtors area was over crowded as well as damp and rat infested. The prison was deteriorating badly. The prisoners who could not afford the higher rents for the better cells and food were locked up in special areas of the prison.
Usually the damp lower cells with no windows or fresh air and were treated very badly. Very often for these debtors to spend the rest of their life in prison was not uncommon
The new Kilmainham Jail, by John Traile was finished in 1792, but not officially opened until 1796.
In the debtors area of the new prison the men and women were strictly segregated. The other prisoners were segregated according to their crimes. A special section was for prisoners awaiting transportation to Australia.
This stopped in 1853. The children were kept in the lower cells and the lunatics were also separated.
No Help if They Got Sick
The Debtor was Not Entitled to Medical Attention. Those who could not get their families to arrange payment of rent at the prison had to take the dampest and darkest cells. If payment was not made for food they were given bread which was boiled in water three times a day.
If by whatever means they were lucky enough to have the original debt paid off, they were still liable for the rent which had accumulated.
If this was not paid they were returned to prison, all the time running up the bill. Unlike all the other prisoners the debtor was not entitled to medical attention.
These were the severe consequences of defaulting on a debt in 19th century Ireland
No one was Immune from Debtors Prison
If you owed money and could not pay it back then you were in trouble
In 1800 Sir Newenham M.P. was sent to Kilmainham Jail because he owed over £600.
Ironically he had been an ardent supporter of reform. When the new Kilmainham was opened only four years before Newenham was one of the dignitaries present.
Newgate Prison in Green Street Dublin was opened in 1781. It cost £18,000 of which only £2,000 was given by the Government. The debtors had to endure even harsher treatment.
Here the rent was high and those who could not pay were beaten up and stripped naked. They were left chained in their cells with barely enough food to keep them alive.
Those whom the jailers took a further dislike to were put into the worst cells in the bowels of the prison where a tiniest bit of light came from the sewer.
The prison closed down in 1863. It was turned into a fruit and vegetable market in 1875. It was demolished and turned into a park in 1893.
The outlines of the space available are clearly visible in the present structure which is a childrens playground..
Debt and lack of money in 19th Century Ireland - a serious offence if not repaid
In 18th century Ireland before the prisons were built they put the debtors into sponging houses. These were usually the houses of the bailiffs and they charged very high rents to the prisoners who were forced to stay there.
Corruption was widespread and the bailiffs made a lot of money from the misery of the prisoners locked up for the inability to pay their debts.
A City Marshalsea Prison
This was built in 1798 at a cost of £2,174. It was very badly designed by Sir John Trail. It was falling down and in a bad state of disrepair within ten years. But here as in the other prisons it all depended on the amount of money the prisoner was able to pay as to how he was treated.
Considering the fact that the prisoners were in jail because they were unable to repay their debt, these men and women had now way out of their miserable existence in prison.
It was a nightmare they could not escape from. If you failed to pay off your debts in 19th Century Ireland you were in serious trouble. You were sent to prison because you had no money to pay your debtors.
But the system of charging for rent of cells and food meant the debt continued to rise.
So for many Irish people in debt in 19th century Ireland spending the remainder of their life in prison was not uncommon
All Images are copyright of L.M.Reid