Prisoners in Irish Debtors' Prisons in 19th Century Ireland

Updated on June 25, 2020
viking305 profile image

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

The Debtors prison in Newgate, Dublin Ireland
The Debtors prison in Newgate, Dublin Ireland | Source

Irish Debtors Prisons

There were serious consequences if you owed money and could not pay the debt in 19th century Ireland. The debtor was imprisoned until the money was paid. If they could not afford to pay the debt, then it was not uncommon for the person to stay in the prison until they died there.

Kilmainham Jail in Dublin

Men, women and children were locked up together at the old Kilmainham Jail in Kilmainham Lane, Dublin. The debtors' area was overcrowded, damp and rat-infested. The prison was deteriorating, and the prisoners who could not afford the higher rents for the better cells and food were locked up in designated areas.

Damp and Rotting Cells

These prisoners found themselves housed in lower, damp cells that had no windows or fresh air. The new Kilmainham Jail was finished by John Traile in 1792, although it did not officially open until 1796.

Men and women were strictly segregated first by gender and then according to their crimes. A special section was designated for prisoners awaiting transportation to Australia, but this stopped in 1853. The children were kept in the lower cells, and the lunatics were separated as well.

No Medical Attention

Debtors were not entitled to medical attention. Those who could not get their families to arrange payments of rent at the prison had to take the dampest and darkest cells. If payment was not made for food they were given bread that 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 total rent which had accumulated. If this was not paid they were returned to prison while the total amount of the bill continued to rise.

Poor Irish people locked up in Debtors' Prisons in Ireland
Poor Irish people locked up in Debtors' Prisons in Ireland | Source

No One Was Exempt From Debtors' Prison

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 the tiniest bit of light flickered from the sewer. The prison finally closed down in 1863 and was turned into a fruit and vegetable market in 1875. Eventually, it was demolished and converted into a park in 1893.

Damp cells in Irish prisons
Damp cells in Irish prisons | Source

Sponging Houses in the 18th Century

In the 18th century Ireland before the prisons were built, debtors were placed into sponging houses. These were usually the houses of the bailiffs that 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.

The City Marshalsea Prison

The City Marshalsea Prison was built in 1798 at a cost of £2,174. It was very badly designed by Sir John Trail. The prison was falling down and was in a bad state of disrepair within ten years. Just as in the other prisons, the amount of money the prisoner was able to pay would determine how they were treated. Considering the fact that the prisoners were in jail because they were unable to repay a debt, usually they had now way out of their miserable existence in the prison.

Debtors' prisons were unescapable nightmares for the individuals confined there. Increasing rates for cells and food worked against the prisoners' hopes for freedom. Unfortunately, spending the remainder of their life in prison was not uncommon for Irish people in the 19th century.


  • Ireland Since The Famine. F S L Lyons. 1973
  • The Irish Republic. Dorothy Macardle. 1968
  • A Terrible Beauty is Born. Ulick O'Connor. 1975
  • Kilmainham. Kilmainham Jail Restoration Society. 1982
  • Dublin Slums. 1800 - 1925. A Study in Urban Geography. Jacinta Prunty.
  • The History of the City of Dublin Volume 1 by John Gilbert
  • The Heart of Dublin by P. Pearson
  • Directory 1848. An Oifig Taifead Poibli BB1
  • The Sisters of Charity ( RSC ) 1838. Web Site.
  • Dublin 1913, A Divided City. Curriculum Development Unit. 1989


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    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      2 years ago from Ireland

      Hello Patrick, Yes I agree. The authorities knew those in debt could not pay for food or a decent cell so were given starvation rations. They did not care once they were off the streets.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Totally illogical - people in prison for debt had no means of earning money to clear the debt or pay for food an rent in prison - if they (or their friends) could pay prison board and lodging that money would be better used in reducing the debt. On a note of interest - the term "going to clink" (going to jail) refers to a debtors prison in Clink Street, Southwark, London.

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      5 years ago from Ireland

      Yes PT money attracts money in our society all over the world. Being in too much debt in any era is frightening.

    • profile image

      P. T. Geraghty. 

      5 years ago

      The greatest crime you can commit is to be poor. You will find that privilege is given to those who are already over privileged.

      You scratch my back and I will scratch yours.

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      5 years ago from Ireland

      the poor in any society always suffer. Hello Lee, thanks for taking he time to leave a comment.

    • profile image

      Lee Cloak 

      5 years ago

      Great hub, very interesting, thanks!

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      7 years ago from Ireland

      The issue of the poor and debt in Ireland has still not changed. Irish people are still suffering from the mistakes and criminal activity of the few. Those who were in government at the time and were supposed to look after our interests have been let off with out any criminal charges been brought.

      We the tax payers have to pay off the billions in debt that they caused.

      As was the case in the 1800's in Ireland it is the ordinary person today who is punished if they can not pay off their debts.

      The Government responds by cutting the social welfare payments to those who have worked all their lives and paid taxes. There are so many Irish people losing their homes because of this situation.

      What is happening to these once cherished homes? The rich are buying them up in the thousands at very reduced prices.

      Yes FLC I agree, Nothing changes!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I don't think there's supposed to be any logic to this sad situation, I think that this was a deliberate tactic of the government to exterminate the social problem of poverty it had created. Poor people are the most desperate, and will often commit desperate acts in order to save themselves. Locking them up meant that the government didn't have to either take responsibility for its failure or to have to share the wealth of the influential ruling class, so it essentially left them to rot.

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      8 years ago from Ireland

      Yes I agree with you that the lack of Money can cause so much heartache and pain.

      Nothing has changed either. Those who owe millions and in some cases billions of euro are walking around free. They brought the banks down and the country with it.

      But those ordinary people who owe a few thousand euros are threatened with eviction and prison.

      Look at the state of my own wonderful country! Ireland is now under the RULE of the EU because we are in so much Debt. They are going to be given more control of our Laws and how we live when this new Treaty is voted in.

      If Ireland had Money we could tell them where to go.

      Thanks BakerRambles and Virtually Bored for taking the time to leave a comment.

    • profile image

      Virtually Bored 

      8 years ago from Ireland

      I enjoyed this piece. But when you consider it, kill one person and you're in prison for murder. Kill a million people and you are a freedom fighter or liberator. It's the same with money. If you're going to break the law, do it big. It's sad to think that our sole purpose now on this earth is to make money. It's the meaning of life and we're all beaten into submission. Make money or die. what a waste of a life

    • BakerRambles profile image


      9 years ago from Baltimore, MD

      Wow, I really liked your information regarding Irelands debt issues of the 19th century, and I must say that in addition to their debt issues, there was also the British that had their hands in the mess as well

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      10 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks for your comment Jaypyramid. Yes it defies belief, here in Ireland when someone who attacks, abuses or even kills another person is given a lighter sentence than those who have been found guilty of theft or fraud.

      I know this is not a victimless crime but it seems to me that fraud and theft of money is penalised with a much longer prison sentence than that of personal injury or death, Madness.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      As you say in your response to Rochelle, nothing much has changed as regards the logic of a custodial sentence for people owing money. I wonder how they defined 'lunatics' in those days. Madness, they couldn't pay their debts yet they were expected to pay rent.

    • viking305 profile imageAUTHOR

      L M Reid 

      10 years ago from Ireland

      Yes Rochelle I agree. The people were punished for being poor. That was the 1800's in Ireland. Unfortunately the only thing that has changed here in Ireland is that anyone who is imprisoned in the year 2010 for debt does not have to pay rent for the privilege. The debt is still there when they come out and if they were lucky enough to have a job then that too would be lost on release. Crazy.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 

      10 years ago from California Gold Country

      I never quite understood the 'logic' of this. If people couldn't work or earn, how were they expected to pay a debt?


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