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Treatment of Women and Children in 19th-Century Irish Prisons

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L.M.Reid is an Irish writer who has published many history articles online and in magazines.

In 19th-century Ireland, many unfortunate souls were imprisoned for minor infractions.

In 19th-century Ireland, many unfortunate souls were imprisoned for minor infractions.

Irish Prisons Were Harsh for All

Regardless of sex or age, Irish prisoners in the 19th century were forced to perform hard labour and live under harsh conditions. Being a woman or a child did not necessarily translate to gentler treatment.

In this article, I will share some of the stories of women and children at three Dublin prisons: Grangegorman Female Penitentiary, Kilmainham Jail, and Smithfield Young Offenders Prison. I will also describe two instruments of hard labour: the penal treadmill and the shot drill.

The penal treadmill was used as an instrument of hard labour

The penal treadmill was used as an instrument of hard labour

Hard Labour: The Penal Treadmill

The penal treadmill was a device that was developed for prisons as a hard labour machine. The device was based on an agricultural machine that was used to grind corn in the flour mills, but in the prisons there was no grinding of corn. The penal treadmill existed only as a means of punishment.

The device consisted of a long cylinder with steps built around the outside that could accommodate multiple prisoners who were separated from one another by partitions. Prisoners pushed down on the steps to turn the cylinder, creating an everlasting staircase experience. If one prisoner fell, it might take several minutes for the cylinder to stop, during which time the person who had fallen might be trampled.

In the summer, prisoners had to walk on the treadmill for five hours a day, and in the winter it was four hours. One prison officer stated, “I have seen today the strongest of fellows led away crying from the Tread Mill."

Hard Labour: The Shot Drill

The shot drill was another technique that was created for the purpose of punishment. The shot itself was a heavy ball that prisoners had to lift to the height of their chest, carry two paces and then place back on the ground. Prisoners would have to spend four hours a day on this pointless task. They had to ask permission to blow their nose and could not sing, whistle or make any unnecessary noise. If any rules were broken, they would be whipped.

Grangegorman Female Prison, Dublin, Ireland

Grangegorman Female Prison, Dublin, Ireland

Grangegorman Female Prison

The Grangegorman Female Prison, located in the Stoneybatter neighbourhood of Dublin, began its life as the Richmond Penitentiary. Designed by Francis Johnston and named after the fourth Duke of Richmond, construction began in 1812 and was completed in 1816.

The Richmond Penitentiary closed in 1826 due to a scandal involving discrimination against Catholics. It was revealed that the authorities were trying to convert the prisoners to Protestantism.

By 1832 the cholera epidemic was at its height in Dublin, and the old Richmond Penitentiary was converted to a temporary hospital.

In April 1837, the building was converted once again; this time as a female prison known as the Grangegorman Female Penitentiary. At the time, it was the only prison in Ireland used exclusively for women.

It contained 256 cells, each of which was 12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 11 feet high. The front of the building housed the administration block of the prison. Today, the clock and weathercock above the entrance are still in good condition.

What Crimes Did Women Commit?

According to records, there were many different crimes that could land an unfortunate young woman in prison.

Theft and Disturbing the Peace

The two most common offenses were theft and disturbing the peace. Here are two representative cases:

  • Mary Coughlin of 28 Manor Street. Convicted on 10 September 1841 of breach of the peace. Sentenced to 7 days.
  • Catherine Lear of 25 Church Street. Convicted on 13 August 1841 of stealing a bucket and rope. Sentenced to 3 months.

Attempted Suicide

At the time, attempting to commit suicide was considered to be a crime. Here are several examples of unhappy young women who attempted to end their lives—and were sent to prison for doing so.

  • Mary Walsh of Angelsea Street, age 17, unemployed. Convicted on 2 October 1841 of attempted suicide by drowning. Sentenced to 14 days.
  • Hannah Walsh of Britain Street, age 27, unemployed. Convicted on 14 September 1841 of attempted suicide. Sentenced to 14 days.
  • Catherine Booth of Ship Street, age 25, servant. Convicted on 22 August 1841 of attempted suicide by drowning. Sentenced to 30 days.

Read More From Owlcation

  • Jane McAllister of Athy, age 20, servant. Convicted on 19 August 1841 of attempting to conceal the birth of her baby. Sentenced to 3 months.
  • Margaret Walsh of Blessington, age 21, servant. Convicted on 14 August 1841 of deserting her child. Sentenced to 3 months.
Children were frequently sentenced to be whipped in Irish prisons

Children were frequently sentenced to be whipped in Irish prisons

Imprisonment of Children

In 19th-century Ireland, it was not at all uncommon for children to be sentenced to prison for minor infractions. They would be thrown into overcrowded, rat-infested cells to sleep on the damp floors. For warmth, they had lice-infested straw. Children as young as seven, and sometimes even younger, were subjected to these horrific conditions.

Workhouse to Jail Pipeline for Children

During this time in Irish history, poor children were commonly sent to work at workhouses. Unfortunately, many of these children could be sent to jail for very trivial reasons. For example, a 15-year-old boy was caught jumping on a school desk, for which he received a sentence of six weeks in prison and hard labour on the treadmill.

If a child ran away they were arrested for the theft of the workhouse clothes they were wearing at the time. For this offense, a boy of 14 was sentenced to one month in prison and hard labour on the treadmill.

In Nenagh 1849 it was reported that 14 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 too high.

Children were sent to Grangegorman Female Prison

Children were sent to Grangegorman Female Prison

Children at Grangegorman Female Penitentiary

Some of the young children who were imprisoned at the Grangegorman Female Penitentiary in 1841 included:

  • Margaret Ryan of Francis Street, age 10. Convicted on 11 August 1841 of pawning a silver spoon. Sentenced to 14 days.
  • Mary Ryan of Heplin Street, age 10. Convicted on 12 August 1841 of disturbing the peace. Sentenced to 7 days.
  • Cath St John of Liffey Street, age 10. Convicted on 6 October 1841 of disturbing the peace. Sentenced to 7 days.
  • Cath Connor of Britain Street, age 11. Convicted on 14 August 1841 of indecent exposure. Sentenced to 30 days.
  • Mary Johnston of Coombe, age 15. Convicted on 10 September 1841 of stealing potatoes. Sentenced to 3 months.

'Disturbing the peace' referred to drunkenness and 'indecent exposure' referred to prostitution.

Mary Monaghan, Grangegorman Prisoner at Age 10

On 11 August 1841, Mary Monaghan, of Arbour Hill, Stoneybatter Dublin 7, was convicted of disturbing the peace. She was sentenced to 14 days at the Grangegorman Female Prison. On 29 August 1841 she received a further four days for once again disturbing the peace. She was just 10 years old.

Sixty years later, according to the 1901 census, Mary was living not far from the place where she had once been imprisoned; her address is listed as 3 Manor Street Stoneybatter Dublin 7. She was 70 years old and her occupation was recorded as 'charwoman'. In the 1911 census she was listed as an 'old age pensioner', and she was still residing at the same address on Manor Street.

Children at Kilmainham Jail

Children as young as eight years old were imprisoned at Dublin's Kilmainham Jail.

  • Alicia Kelly, age 8. Convicted in March of 1839 of stealing a clock. Sentenced to 5 months' hard labour.
  • Jane Beerds, age 9. Convicted in January of 1840 of stealing a fowl. Spent 3 months in jail before being released after being found not guilty.
  • Michael and Patrick Reilly, ages 12 and 13. Convicted in April of 1833 of stealing three ducks and a hen. Sentenced to 3 weeks in prison plus 60 lashes. Each week they received 20 lashes.
  • Mick and Stephen Kearney, ages 12 and 9. Convicted in December of 1838 of stealing money. Sentenced to 4 weeks in prison and lashings once a week.
  • John Keegen, age 11. Convicted 11 August 1833 of stealing apples from a garden. Sentenced to 2 months' hard labour.

Children at Smithfield Young Offenders Prison

In 1801, the Smithfield Young Offenders Prison in Dublin 7 was opened for boys, the first of its kind in Ireland. Previously, children had been imprisoned in the same facilities that held adults.

In addition to boys who had been found guilty of various infractions, the new prison also took in orphan boys. In later years it also accepted girls who had been caught begging on the streets.

In 1819 a report stated that there were 122 boys at this prison. Some inmates had never been convicted of a crime or received a formal sentence. Some had been there for as many as five years.

When the Lord Lieutenant saw this report he ordered that every effort be made to locate relatives who might be 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 not be imprisoned there anymore. It was to be used only for teenage offenders and adult women serving short-term sentences.

Ten years later, a new report revealed little improvement. It stated that there were 19 young children in the prison. Four of the youngest children ranged in age from two years old to five, and they were all girls. Children would continue to be imprisoned with adults for at least another 30 years.

Sources

  • Dublin Slums. 1800–1925. A Study in Urban Geography. Jacinta Prunty.
  • Directory 1848. An Oifig Taifead Poibli BB1.
  • Wicklow's Historical Gaol 1702–1924.
  • The Workhouses of Ireland. The fate of Ireland's poor. John O'Connor. 1995.
  • The Great Hunger. Cecil Woodham Smith. 1981.
  • Kilmainham Gaol Document Pack. Blackrock Teachers Centre. 1992..
  • The Lost Children. A study of charity children in Ireland 1700–1900. Joseph Robins.
  • 1901 Census. Manor Street Dublin 7. National Archives.
  • 1911 Census. Manor Street Dublin 7. National Archives.
  • Ireland Since the Famine. F S L Lyons. 1973.
  • An Age of Change. The 19th Century. Ray Rivlin. School and College Publishing Ltd. 1982.

More About Irish Prison History

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on October 18, 2020:

Yes children were really treated terribly in those days. If you were poor you did not stand a chance. Thank you for all the comments on this article.

Brian Paul John Corcoran on September 10, 2020:

Its tragic, very young children and woman were placed in prison for very minor crimes to survive. Heart breaking.

Feryn on September 10, 2020:

Is this humanity? These crimes were for survival, no jobs no parents and men had all rights toward women and their offspring. Just horrific child or adult. I hope for karma.

Eileenfrafferty@outlook.com on August 30, 2020:

Heartbreaking. Man’s inhumanity to man.

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on May 14, 2020:

Hello Kate, thanks for stopping by. I am glad you found the article interesting, yes a lot of our Irish history is very sad.

Kate on March 23, 2020:

A sad but interesting article. I’m American and of Irish descent. My ancestors came from County Mayo and Roscommon. I’ve heard about the abuses the Irish endured under English rule and it’s still disheartening to read about man’s inhumanity to man. My last name is Manton and my cousin was American congressman Thomas Manton. My mom’s maiden name was

Carey. Some of the last names that my Irish ancestors bore were Connolly, Moran and Parham.

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on February 04, 2020:

Hello M Coffey, Apart from the photo of the Tread Mill all the other photos were taken by myself. Maybe they look similar to your ones but they are definetly all my own work. I would love to read your book when it is published. Let me know when it is on sale. Thanks Lorraine

M Coffey on February 04, 2020:

A couple of the photos you have on Grangegorman Prison were taken by myself for inclusion in my book "Murder in the Monto". My great grandmother and her sister were both imprisoned here when they were 13/14 years of age...

Joan on August 19, 2016:

Wendy Ross - I have only just discovered this site, and was delighted to read your message from 3 years ago. Descended through Horace Webster, grandson of Etty.

Belatedly researching great grandmother, and yours, Etty (Esther) Dunne. I do have a contact in Dublin, and will check with him. Will ask him for assistance or if he knows anyone else interested in helping us.

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on January 25, 2015:

Hello Patrick You can Google the Irish National Archives for other stuff on Convicts and Prisoners in Ireland

There is lots of information on Irish Convicts who were sent to Australia in this article

https://owlcation.com/humanities/Grangegorman-Fema...

patrick on December 14, 2014:

is there any more info on prisons in ireland

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on September 23, 2012:

Wendy I see from your comment on the other article I wrote about Irish convicts sent to Australia that someone in Dublin did locate the relevant information for you on his Genealogy membership site. That is great.

Good luck with your further research

Wendy A. Ross on August 25, 2012:

This message is intended for anyone living in hope of obtaining copies from the "Grangegorman Female Penitentiary" Register. My correspondence with the National Archives of Ireland was ignored. A recent search of their website clearly indicates that they will not undertake research, photocopying or scanning for members of the public. They have posted a list of professional researchers whom are available to conduct research for anyone living outside Ireland or cannot visit the Archives in person. Living in Australia, a personal visit is not possible for me. I have been quoted in excess of 50 Euros for one page. The Archives do confirm on the website that they hold the abovementioned Register. Wondering if anyone in Dublin, who lives near the establishment, does free lookups?? Thanks Viking 305.

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on July 18, 2012:

Martin it was indeed terrible times for the ordinary poor citizens of Ireland. But it was the same in the UK and other countries. Women and children were routinely sentenced to prison for minor crimes and treated terribly.

The thing that really upsets me though is the children in the orphanages and workhouses who committed no crimes but were whipped and abused every day too and treated as hardened criminals.

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on July 18, 2012:

Hello Bella. Thank you for sharing your family history of your Great Grandmother and aunt who were transported from Grangegorman Prison to Australia. Yes 1849 was the height of the Irish Famine so they would have stole the sheep to eat like so many Irish people at the time. Being sent to Australia even as convicts would have saved their lives.

The photos above are mostly my own and you can use any of those you wish. I have put my name L.M.Reid under those ones. The photo of the Thread Mill is from a copyright free website but I can not find it now, always the way.

I have another article that deals specifically about Irish women and children who were transported to Australia in 1848. The same would apply here for the photos, any with my name under them as the source you are welcome to use.

The link is below

https://owlcation.com/humanities/Grangegorman-Fema...

I presume you know the Irish National Museum now has all the Irish convict information on file so you can access it on the internet. You will be able to type in your great grandmother's name with the ship name and date and get lots of info on her

Good luck with writing your family history

Martin G. on July 17, 2012:

HARROWING.

Bella on July 13, 2012:

Hi there, Viking 305. Thanks for the terrific photos and info about Grangegorman. My gg grandmother also passed through those heavy doors en route to Tasmania. It was April 1849. She and her sister had been convicted of sheep stealing in Clifden, Galway. They must have been starving because her baby was so malnourished he was blind. I am in the process of writing up their story for family history and non-commercial distribution. I'm wondering whether these photos of the prison are in the public domain. If not, what would be involved in getting permission to use them in my publication. I'd really appreciate your advice.

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on May 02, 2012:

Prisons were really bad places to find yourself in those dark days. Women and children were treated just as badly as the men. It is a terrible part of Irish history but at that time in Britain and all over the world human suffering and even life was not valued very highly at all.

susan hager on February 09, 2012:

Grave atrocities, horrific torturous lives, deprevation,

starvation and disease, but nothing whatsoever could

dampen the resilience of the great Irish spirit which

Irish history has so strengthend in modern times

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on January 25, 2012:

Another tragic bit of history that few know about.

Writergirl 60 on October 05, 2011:

THIS IS SO HORRIFYING!! I CAN'T READ THIS!!!

lee monahan on August 25, 2011:

hi i did the paranormal tour of wicklow jail i am not a medium but a little girl called annie i she was 15 if anyone might know her secound name it would be great help thanks

Pamela Dapples from Arizona. on August 05, 2011:

This was very interesting and, of course, sad. I must do some more research on this. Thank you for bringing it to light for all of us.

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on April 23, 2011:

Thank you everyone for reading my article and for your comments.

Yes aussiemeg I would be very interested to contact you and hear about your Great great grandmother Mary Byrne. Can you email me privately by clicking on the contact viking305 button on the top right hand corner on this article.

I would like to write an aricle about her and her daughter and what happened to them when they arrived in Australia as convicts.

aussiemeg on April 21, 2011:

Thank you for your Hub. I am a direct descendant of one of these women sent to Hobart on the "John Calvin". You have added to my family history as I did not know about Grangegorman Prison. Her name is Mary Byrne & she arrived in Australia with her daughter Catherine aged 4. Let me know if you would like to know anything about their tragic lives in Australia. Mary was convicted in Wicklow of stealing 5 stone of potatoes.

Wendy Powell on July 29, 2010:

Speechlessly in awe of the inhumanity of some people and the magnitude of their ability to stomach the abuse they inflict - my GOD!! One person committing an act of atrocity is hard enough to deal with, but when you have a GROUP in communion with such acts, it is absolutely staggering!!

Great Hub, Viking305. Sick Truths need to be uncovered so offenders and the likes of such dare not attempt a repeat...

Gloria Siess from Wrightwood, California on July 02, 2010:

horrific-horrible!! I spent a summer in Ireland and studied the Famine, but was not aware these conditions existed in the 1800's. Very serious, very disturbing Hub. Good Work. I would love your comments on my Hub, The Killing of a King (King Charles of US).

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on May 04, 2010:

Thank you missmaudie for reading the hub and your comment I appreciate it.

missmaudie from Brittany, France on May 04, 2010:

Well done on a very sobering subject viking305. It really beggars belief what one human being can do to another doesn't it. Unfortunately, as you say it hasn't stopped to this day. Congrats on the nominations

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on May 03, 2010:

Thanks rose 56 for reading the hub and your comment, it is appreciated. Thank you Money Glitch for also reading the hub and your comment.

Yes I agree people can be very cruel. I wish this kind of behaviour was just part of history but unfortunatley as we all know children in many parts of the world are still living in despereate situations today.

Thanks again to both of you for taking the time to read it

Money Glitch from Texas on May 03, 2010:

It amazing how inhumane some people can be to others at times; unfortunately world history is full of such horrific stories. Congrats on being selected to this week's HubNuggets Wannabe nominees. Good luck to ya!

rose56 on May 02, 2010:

amazing hub

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on May 02, 2010:

Thanks NamvetRich for reading the hub and for your kind comments. Yes it does make you stop and think sometimes when you read how the people were treated, and the majority of them got in to trouble because of poverty.

NamVetRich from Springfield Oregon on May 02, 2010:

Sometimes you just wonder, how can people be so cruel, your Hub pulls at the heart strings. I can see why you were nominated for the Hubnuggets great writing, Bravo!!!!!

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on May 01, 2010:

Thank you ripplemaker for reading the article and for highlighting the fact it has been nominated.

Michelle Simtoco from Cebu, Philippines on April 30, 2010:

My heart is in pain and cringing with the horrors of it all. Now I'm quiet...

This hub has been nominated for the Hubnuggets. Please, make your way to the Hubnuggets and be sure to vote. https://hubpages.com/hubnuggets10/hub/HubNuggets-P...

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on April 19, 2010:

Thanks for reading the article Lisa HW. Yes it is strange alright lol. But I suppose she was someone's great grandmother, who doesn't realise what their ancestor went through

Lisa HW from Massachusetts on April 19, 2010:

This is sobering, of course. I couldn't help but mention this: I know "Walsh" is a really common name; but my father had Irish people in his ancestry; and we had "Walsh's" in our ancestry. Even knowing it's a common Irish name, it does kind of make me wonder (especially since my grandmother, who died before I was born, was named, "Margaret Walsh". It wouldn't have been her, but it makes me wonder about, maybe, her grandmother... (Just pondering after seeing the name...)

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on April 07, 2010:

Thanks for the comments Casangel and Patrick Collins, much appreciated.

It's amazing the way something is the norm in one age and shocking in another. Their treatment was not just in Ireland. Most countries had very little sympathy for the poor and disadvantaged in those days.

Thanks again for taking the time to read it

Patrick Collins on April 07, 2010:

shocking stuff. That was a great hub, thanks

Casangel on April 07, 2010:

So interesting ,those poor children, What they had to do just to survive. The pregnant women,my God, what they must have gone through,unbelievable. Thank you for all your work in this article

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