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Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright © 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and

Chapter Fourteen

                 Crime and Police

Summary of chapter. Crime was divided into ordinary crime like murder, robbery etc. and agrarian crime which was committed by local, often temporary, gangs in pursuit of local aims. This type of agrarian crime fused into political crime and afflicts Ireland to the present day. Illicit distillation during the period of high taxes during the Napoleonic Wars had a similar role to that in the United States during Prohibition. Organised police forces besides the posse of a sheriff were commenced on te basis of local units called baronies, but in time was developed into county forces, and finally a national force. Penology was simple, consisting largely of either hanging or transportation, but gradually a system of penitentiaries was build up.

(i) Ordinary Crime

(ii) Agrarian Crime

(iii) Illicit Distillation

(iv) The Dublin Metropolitan Police

(v) The County Police and Irish Constabulary

(vi) Gaols and Penology


(i) Ordinary Crime 

            There is an interesting list of ordinary crimes brought before the judge at the Spring Assizes in Mayo in 1846. There were 15 charges of murder, 1 of suspicion of murder, 1 of manslaughter, 3 of assault and riot, 2 of malicious assault, 3 of affray and violent assault, 2 of common assault, and 2 of assault and robbery. Against these 29 cases of crimes of violence were only 9 cases of burglary, robbery without violence, and rustling of animals. (There were also two cases of rape, but lawyers regarded these charges with suspicion for they considered them likely to be ruses to entrap an unwilling husband into matrimony.) Offences against the person were far more common than offences against property. In 1843 there were 122 charges of murder in Ireland as a whole and 139 in 1845. 

            There is always a problem in Ireland in distinguishing ordinary crime from crimes resulting from agrarian or other conspiracies.  The courts and the police in the nineteenth century normally expressed an opinion as to whether conspiracy was involved. 

            Crime is by definition acts against the well-being of society punishable by law. Law can be defined as enactments by legitimate authority. Crime than therefore be more simply defined as breaking the law. This definition is followed here with no distinction between crimes, misdemeanours, etc. 

            In the eighteenth century attitudes among all classes in Ireland regarding the law or the resort to violence were quite casual. Duelling was common among gentlemen, and rough sports like football and faction fighting were found among the lower classes. There was strong resistance to the idea of an effective police force, and Henry Grattan was an inveterate opponent of an effective police. In the nineteenth century social attitudes gradually changed. This change was particularly marked in the Protestant working classes where sobriety, church-going, and Bible-reading became the norm. There was also a great temperance movement leading to a lessening of violence.  

            Even if murder was common, some counties were more violent than others. The judges in assize considered that the calendar of crimes in Fermanagh was particularly light and in Tipperary particularly heavy. But in some counties there was a greater tendency to refer crimes to the assize judges. 

            Yet Ireland was not necessarily a violent society. Almost certainly most of the murders were committed by young men especially when they were drunk on the afternoons of fair days. Those who prudently stayed at home at such times might never see violent crime at all. Most offences came before the magistrates, or even before the sheriff's court and involved small offences. What was said in an earlier section about the prevalence of petty dishonesty should also be recalled. [Top] 

(ii) Agrarian Crime 

            A mythology has grown up and has been fostered that this type of crime was directed at those perceived as national or class enemies, people like landlords, land agents, and tithe proctors. Actually most of it was directed at fellow members of the working classes, fishermen against fishermen, smallholder against smallholder, trade unionist against non-trade unionist. The aim was always the same, to enforce a common policy among the local group and to exclude outsiders. 

            It was obvious when a conspiracy was started in a locality. The Catholic priests noticed that men no longer came to receive the sacraments. There was a spate of house-breakings at night to seize arms. Notices were placed outside chapel gates stating the aims of the conspirators, and everyone was warned not to oppose them. Those who did oppose them had their hayricks burned, their cattle houghed (hacked), and they themselves were beaten up, tortured, and even murdered. Witnesses and jurymen were intimidated. 

            The crimes in a given area were committed by people of the locality, not by outsiders. The criminals were almost invariably from the working classes, and nearly always Catholics. Up to 1830 they seem to have had no political ambitions, but to have been concerned with what they regarded as local grievances. 

            Despite what many Protestants believed there was no widespread 'conspiracy' to overthrow Protestantism, or the Established Church, or to restore the land to the old Catholic families, though that did not mean that the local criminals would not cheerfully join in a major conspiracy organised by the middle classes in Dublin.

             Outbreaks of agrarian crime could spread over several counties at a time, but always it would seem on the copycat principle. This does not exclude sending experienced members of a group to assist the organisation of a neighbouring group. The Government in Dublin always disbelieved the theory of a conspiracy, and felt and said that there would be little problem if the local magistrates and gentlemen stirred themselves and acted firmly within the law and constitution. 

            Despite the brutal nature of the crimes very little is known about the conspirators. In their notices they usually claimed they were fighting against popular grievances like tithes or high rents. But these notices could either have been genuine or a cover for protection rackets. Some authorities at the time like William Carleton and Richard Lalor Sheil were inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, and attribute good motives to most of them.  Carleton had inside knowledge, having been a Ribbonman in his youth, but he too recognised that there were evil, violent, and designing men among the leaders. Dr James Doyle and the land agent W. S. Trench were more scathing in their denunciations and considered the conspirators lazy, drunken, and worthless wretches. Doyle regarded the conspiracies among the peasants and miners as the greatest blot in his diocese and wore himself out striving against them (Fitzpatrick Doyle: Carleton; O'Donoghue; Trench). 

            Almost all the Coercion Acts in Ireland were passed to deal with agrarian crime. When large-scale agrarian crime broke out in 1760 the authorities were unclear what those apprehended should be charged with, and some of the earliest trials were for high treason. A series of temporary Acts, called the Whiteboy Acts were passed to clarify the situation and to give the magistrates emergency powers. The Whiteboy legislation was later made permanent, and the various temporary Coercion Acts of the nineteenth century were modifications of the Whiteboy Act (1776.) The county gentlemen always loudly demanded extra powers, but this may have been a ploy to draw Dublin into the suppression of local crime and so to avoid the local odium if they themselves acted too harshly. The Government always maintained that the local gentlemen could deal with the matter themselves, and it is true that when a Coercion Act was passed and special commissions appointed the local conspiracy always collapsed quickly. 

            The involvement of the agrarian conspirators in the political insurrections in 1798, 1803, and 1848, also remains obscure. The years preceding 1798 and 1848 saw enormous expansions of agrarian crime, or what resembled it. Robert Emmett in 1803 and Smith O'Brien in 1848 were appalled by the kind of supporter they had attracted. They had not envisaged a murder campaign.  Agrarian-style campaigns of violence marked the 'Tithe War'. A.M. Sullivan noted an attempt by the Ribbon leader Richard Jones in the 1830's to steer the movement towards an all-Ireland organisation. It is likely that the agrarian conspirators and the 'physical force' faction in the revolutionaries came together in 1848. With the collapse of the attempted rising in 1848 the wave of agrarian crime came to an end, and remained quiescent until the outbreak of the so-called 'Land War' in 1879 (Sullivan). [Top] 

(iii) Illicit Distillation 

            Illicit distillation of spirits replaced smuggling as the chief illegal activity and the pattern of behaviour of the distillers was similar to that of the smugglers. The laws against illicit distillation like 'Prohibition' in America led to an enormous increase in crime of all kinds. A culture of crime developed in which lying, deceit, evasion of the law, perjury, intimidation, physical violence, and murder were condoned. Children were taught habits of lying and deceit. The Government and the clergy of all denominations were in a rare accord in denouncing the evils resulting from illicit distillation. 

            In his charge to the Grand Jury in Donegal in 1822 Judge Fletcher noted that the county had formerly been peaceful and law-abiding but now the Calder was full of crimes of every description. He noted perjury especially, and said that parents were teaching their children to swear false alibis. Donegal, and in particular the barony of Inishowen, was the centre of illicit distillation, and there was open warfare with the police and revenue officers. In many areas in the east and south of Ireland it scarcely existed. 

            The distillation was in itself only a form of tax evasion, like smuggling. The fact that it led to so much crime was not lost on Members of Parliament who wondered if it were essential to have so much crime, and such strong police forces, merely to collect revenue which could probably be better raised in other ways. 

            Despite it reputation in some quarters illegally distilled whiskey, called 'poteen' or 'potcheen' was neither better flavoured, stronger, or cheaper, than legally distilled spirits, even if it were properly made. Badly made whiskey, like methyl alcohol or methylated spirits, could cause madness. It was only the high excises during the War that made the industry profitable. 

            In 1779 the Irish Parliament enacted that only stills of two hundred gallons capacity or more should be licensed. A large still was more efficient than a small one and imported coal for heating better than native turf. The excise on whiskey at the time was only 4 pence a gallon, so the small stills used illegally were not profitable. Excises on whiskey continued to rise especially after the outbreak of war in 1793, and by 1805 the problem of tax evasion was a serious one. The Irish Chancellors of the Exchequer were determined to stamp out abuses. 

            Troops had been used since 1779 to aid the revenue officers. This was an extension of their regular duty to assist in combating smuggling. In 1807 'townland fines' were imposed on the supposition that everyone living in a given townland knew what was going on and were conniving in it. A fine was imposed on all the inhabitants of a townland in which a still or part of a still was found. 

             Between 1807 and 1819 the topic was discussed endlessly in Parliament, and different Irish Secretaries tried different methods. In 1815 the excise stood at 6/1½ a gallon and no solution was in sight. An attempt was made to licence small stills in the hope that a cottage industry might develop, but this scheme had not the same success in Ireland as it had in the Scottish Highlands. Wellesley Pole removed the townland fines and relied on increased military patrols. This led to accusations of brutality by the army, so Peel returned to the fines. In 1819 a special Revenue Police was established. Following a proclamation by the Lord Lieutenant the local revenue Surveyor was empowered to swear in special revenue constables to a limit of fifty per barony. This force was reorganised along with the other forces in 1836, and was absorbed into the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1857.

            Illicit distillation gradually declined in the nineteenth century. The excises were lowered, small legal stills were established, a revenue police and a county police were established and trained, and the clergy consistently denounced it. [Top] 

(iv) The Dublin Metropolitan Police 

            Constables to maintain law and order within the bounds of a parish or manor existed since the early Middle Ages. In the seventeenth century the responsibility for policing was transferred to the baronies. A constable was an officer of a county, a barony, or a parish. It seems that the High Constable in a county was originally responsible for commanding troops in time of war or civil disturbance. These could summon a number of petty constables when they were needed. Each parish from the time of Edward III was supposed to have its own petty constable, also responsible for keeping the peace and assisting the Chief Constable. 

            As early as 1712 in Dublin the petty constables in the parishes were commanded to employ six able-bodied watchmen each in their respective parishes and wards, and to patrol the streets at night with them (Dublin Intelligence 8 April 1712). By an order of the Lords Justices in 1729 justices of the peace were allowed to employ not more than 4 personal constables each. The nightwatch in Dublin was armed with poles and rattles. They were supposed to patrol the streets, and to call out the time on the hour, and to arrest and to bring to the watchhouse those disturbing the peace. Many complaints were made about these constables who were nicknamed 'Charlies' because they were established under an Act of Charles II. They were accused of spending most of the time asleep, and it was said that they were mostly old men. During the day, people had to rely on the parish constables, and on the 'hue and cry', the impromptu pursuit of a wrongdoer by the local bystanders. Many calls were made for reforms of the constabulary in the eighteenth century. 

            About 1780 there was much agrarian crime, and also much violence and civil disturbance on the streets of Dublin. One of the best of Irish Secretaries, Sir John de Blaquire, concluded that the policing system should be reformed, first in Dublin, and later in the baronies. He may have been inspired by Henry Fielding's efficient Bow Street 'Runners' in London who were not policemen but bailiffs of the magistrate's court in Bow Street, London. The development of the Irish police may be dated from a motion he brought forward on the subject in the Irish House of Commons on the 18th February 1784. With regard to the development of the concept of policing it may be noted that the Edinburgh watch assisted at putting out fires, directing traffic when houses were being pulled down, suppressing houses of ill-fame and billiard rooms, escorting prisoners, and quelling riots. 

            Countries on the Continent had efficient police forces, The problem facing de Blaquire was to establish a force which would be efficient against criminals but would not interfere with the constitutional liberties of British subjects. He studied the police forces in France, the Papal States, and in Vienna.  He proposed that the parish watches should be consolidated into a single force commanded by former army officers. These officers were to be given the authority of civil magistrates equal to that of the aldermen. The force was to be organised into five companies of forty five men each, who were to be given a uniform, and were to be properly drilled. Police offices or police courts were to replace the watchhouses. In these offenders could be lawfully detained until brought before the police magistrates, in cases of summary jurisdiction. In addition there were to be forty constables patrolling on horse or on foot, who would have authority, under the direction of a magistrate, to enter houses in search of arms.  The Dublin Police Act (1786) establishing this force was passed.

            Henry Grattan and the ‘Patriots’ were strongly opposed to the formation of any kind of police force, and in 1795 succeeded in getting the Act reversed and the nightwatch restored.  Dublin was without an effective police force in the disturbed period leading up to and following 1798, and the only effective police officer was the Town Major, who was actually a military officer concerned with the discipline of the troops. The army, the militia, and especially the yeomanry had to be used instead. 

            Not until 1804 did the Government get the opportunity of putting forward new proposals, and this time the chief opposition came from the Corporation of Dublin. Negotiations between the Government and the Corporation dragged on for four years, and the Irish Secretary who happened to be there at the time, Sir Arthur Wellesley, got the credit for the establishment of the new force. 

            By Wellesley's Dublin Metropolitan Police Act (1808) some of the police magistrates were to be aldermen. This was to prove an unfortunate concession, for no provision was made for the removal of old or incompetent aldermen. The Dublin police district was to be extended for eight miles beyond the jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor. Unlike in London in 1829, where the Lord Mayor's jurisdiction was excluded from the scope of the new metropolitan police, in Dublin it was included. There were to be foot and horse patrols. The city and suburbs were divided into districts under the control of three police magistrates, one an alderman, one a Common Councilman, and one appointed by the Lord Lieutenant. In 1814 the force consisted of 621 men of whom 417 were (night) watchmen, 30 watch constables, 100 men on regular patrol, and 12 on horse patrol. Another 52 were distinguished as 'peace officers' but it is unclear what exactly each category of officer did. 

            At first the entire cost of this force was placed on the city, but by 1819 the Government had agreed to share the cost. By 1846 the Government was paying the full cost. In 1836, the Dublin Police, like the other police forces was reorganised, and it remained a separate force until the setting up of the Irish Free State. 

            A by-product of the 1795 Act restoring the Dublin watch was the first appointment of 'stipendiary magistrates'. In 1798 Lord Cloncurry complained that he was being followed by plainclothes 'detectives', but these were almost certainly employed by the Town Major, an office which will be described under military forces. [Top] 

(v) The County Police and Irish Constabulary 

            It had been Blaquire’s intention to conduct a thorough reform of the baronial constabulary as well, but only modest changes were achieved by his successor Orde's Baronial Constabulary Act (1787), the 27th of George III. The appointment of High Constables was removed from the Grand Juries and given to the Lord Lieutenant, but the appointment of ordinary constables was left with the Grand Jury. The barony remained the unit for policing. The force was limited to 16 or 20 petty constables for each barony, about a quarter of what was ultimately found necessary. Even so in 1792 the number of constables per barony was reduced by Parliament to eight, and thirteen counties were exempted altogether from the Act. The police were to be paid from the Grand Jury cess, and the salary per man was set a £4 a year, scarcely at subsistence level. 

            The baronial constabulary was charged with such matters as the preservation of roads and bridges, and the removal of nuisances, obstructions, and encroachments thereon. Various minor Acts were passed, usually of limited duration, concerning the regulation of the police, and it is rarely clear which were still in force at any given date. A general Police Act (1809) was passed renewing most of the minor acts, and this contained a provision, unusual for the period, that only Protestants could be appointed constables. Peel later removed this clause. 

            According to some accounts the 'Barnies' were as bad as the 'Charlies' but we do not know if the descriptions we have of them were typical. The Police Act (1822) was resisted in some counties on the grounds that an efficient and well-drilled baronial constabulary already existed in them. Nor do we know how civil policing developed. It is clear that concepts of civil policing owe much to the experience and practice of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. 

            When Peel came to Ireland in 1812 he had to decide whether to renew the Police Acts, especially that of 1809, or to try to develop an entirely new force. He decided to retain and improve the baronial constabulary. Among the measures he introduced was one raising the salary for a petty constable to £20 a year. He also had an Act passed allowing the raising of special police forces in proclaimed districts. The police were usually drawn from the Metropolitan Police, and never formed a distinct or permanent body. They were the first policemen to be called 'Peelers'. 

            In 1822 the Irish Secretary, Henry Goulburn, decided after consultation with Peel, the Home Secretary, that an entirely new approach was required and the Irish Police Act (1822) was passed establishing the new police. The new force was to be formed even in those counties in which there was an efficient baronial constabulary under the 37th of George III (1787). The county was to be made the basis of the forces, and every constable was to be a constable for the entire county. Constables could be ordered by their superiors to serve temporarily in other counties. They were to number 15 to the barony or half-barony. The Lord Lieutenant was empowered to appoint officers to every rank in every county but could leave some or all of these appointments to the local gentlemen. The Chief Constables and other constables were to act under the direction of the civil magistrates, but police magistrates were also to be appointed. There was little new or controversial in these proposals. 

            The Act went on to provide that the police force would be armed with muskets, would live in barracks, and would be subject to a military discipline. A police inspectorate for the whole of Ireland was to be established, and adequate Police Regulations were to be drawn up. Sir Henry Parnell, though approving of the proposals in general, thought the new force was too closely modelled on the French police, as indeed it was. It would be interesting to known why the Government chose this form of organisation.  It explained in Parliament that the New Police would be expected to seek out lawbreakers actively, and not to wait as heretofore for some convenient opportunity to arise, or until some citizens made the arrest for them. 

            There was no bias against Catholics in selecting recruits but a requirement of literacy favoured Protestants. Goulburn felt that former members of the militia with good records should be favoured, but some judges felt it necessary to warn against a too hasty recourse to firearms. By 1824 2717 constables were appointed of whom 845 were Catholics. 

             The baronies were allowed to keep the old constabulary as well but were responsible for its full cost while the Government paid half the costs of the New Police. The constables, though subject to the local magistrates, were only to obey orders from their own officers in accordance with the Police Regulations approved for them. The Government was determined that the police would only be used for the purposes for which they were established, and would not be dragged into acting as bailiffs to serve writs or warrants, or to collect tithes. The Government consistently defended police officers in the courts up until 1836 against charges of refusing to obey orders of magistrates or writs of the courts. It took nearly fifteen years to hammer out the relations between senior police officers, county magistrates, and the justices in the courts in Dublin. 

            The New Police became very unpopular in parts of the South and were soon the subjects of murderous attacks. As already noted, murders and attempts at murder were not uncommon but the new police officers seem to have been specially singled out especially on fairdays. In a normal attack a large body of drunken farmers would try to cut off a small body of policemen and try to beat them up with sticks. Whether they wished actually to murder them is unclear. The small numbers of policemen present compared with the larger files of armed soldiers formerly employed made successful attacks easier, and some thought that the troops should be called out again. The police took to defending themselves with live ammunition, but this did nothing to deter the attackers. Between 1823 and 1830 84 people were killed and 122 severely wounded in affrays with the police. In the same period 35 policemen were killed and 439 severely wounded in the attacks on them. In 1831 alone 35 policemen were killed. This was during the confused period of disturbance commonly called the 'Tithe War', though resistance to tithes was only one of the factors involved.  What prompted these attacks, or why they were persisted in when the police began using life ammunition to defend themselves, remain mysteries. We can, however, suspect that the police had begun actively to investigate the secret agrarian societies. 

            From 1828 onwards the various Irish Secretaries considered further reforms of the Irish police but for various reasons the necessary legislation was not passed until 1836. The Irish Constabulary Act (1836) reorganised the county constabularies as a national police force called the Irish Constabulary, and after 1867 the Royal Irish Constabulary, the name by which it is best known. It was freed from all subjection to the county authorities and made subject only to its own police inspectorate appointed by the Lord Lieutenant. It was made the sole police force in Ireland except for the Dublin Metropolitan Police (and until 1857 the Revenue Police). The force was retrained by a strict disciplinarian, a veteran of the Peninsular War, named Shaw Kennedy. The establishment was set at 8,400 officers, about twice that of the baronial police in 1822. There were 10 police magistrates, and 155 chief constables.  A mounted force of 277 constables was included. It numbered 12,000 in 1914. It was a first class force and highly respected by the people, but it was disbanded (except in Ulster) by the victorious republicans in 1822 for political reasons.  Its successor, the Garda Siochana was modelled closely on it. After 1836 the connection of the police with the counties became tenuous and the Government took over full financial responsibility for it. 

            In 1839 the Dublin Evening Post commenting on the efficiency of the police noted that the numbers of those committed for trial had greatly increased since 1807: 

1807          3,512 committals secured by 48,559 soldiers
1814          5,167     "         "     "         “   Peel's police
1822        15,363     "         "     "         “   New Constabulary
1833        17,819     "         "     "            "      "

1836        23,891     "         "     "            "      " under new inspectorate.

There were of course more than one factor involved in this increase, but still the success of the police in bring criminals to trial is clear. 

            In the debates on the New Police in 1822 it was mentioned that in most cases of crime nobody was ever charged, and even coroners' courts returned verdicts of manslaughter if no witnesses appeared. 

            The organisational model of the Irish Constabulary was widely imitated throughout the empire, and after independence the former colonies organised their forces on similar lines. [Top] 

(vi) Gaols and Penology 

            It seems that a corporate body that had a right to a constable also had a right to maintain a gaol at least for temporary detention until the accused could be brought before magistrates and lodged in the county gaol (jail). When watchhouses and later police offices or stations were established these too became legal places for detention. (Official usage favours the spelling gaol, though dictionaries favour jail; the pronunciation nowadays is the same -OED) Persons could be detained in gaol while awaiting trial, or while awaiting hanging or transportation, or because they were sentenced to terms of imprisonment, or for debt. In 1826 all gaols except county gaols were abolished, though the new police still retained the right to detain offenders or suspects overnight in the police stations. 

             The Habeas Corpus Act (1781) of the Irish Parliament extended legally Habeas Corpus to Ireland, though that does not imply that Irish practice over the preceding centuries had differed from British practice. A writ of Habeas corpus, meaning 'let the body be produced' could be obtained from the courts since early in the Middle Ages. An Act was passed in the English Parliament in 1679 facilitating the process, and is commonly referred to as the Habeas Corpus Act. These Acts were aimed at preventing arbitrary detention by the monarch. 

            In the eighteenth century, largely perhaps because of low conviction rates, there was a tendency to make as many crimes as possible capital offences. The presumption was that anyone actually caught stealing a sheep or a few yards of linen was, or would become, a habitual thief. If the jury thought this unlikely they could and did refused to convict. Though there are tales of young people being transported for stealing a handkerchief the average jury was likely to have a pretty shrewd notion of the character of the accused. 

Even in the eighteenth century there were doubts about the humanity and ineffectiveness of capital punishment and the ideas of Baccaria had some influence. Throughout the nineteenth century successive Governments removed the death-penalty from an ever-increasing number of crimes. The Crown and Government Security Act (1848) made acts of treason not directed against the person of the monarch into felonies punishable by terms of imprisonment. 

            Capital punishment or execution was always by hanging by the neck. This was done by breaking the neck swiftly, not by suffocation, and by the nineteenth century was common to both men and women. The use of torture had never been legal in England, but could be exercised by royal prerogative. Though common in the time of Elizabeth I it was last so exercised in 1640. Irish law seems to have been the same, but not Scottish, where torture was forbidden by an Act of 1709 (OED. There was an exception only when martial law was in force, for by that flogging of soldiers and sailors was legal, and could be applied to civilians. 

            The hangings always took place in public, normally on a scaffold erected outside the gaol or courthouse, but in any place the judge might direct. There were no other punishments like drawing or quartering even for high treason. The body was normally cut down when life was extinct but the judge could order that the body be left hanging. This was done in Co. Louth following the 'Wild Goose Lodge murders' in 1818 when the murderers were executed at the scene of their crime. Women were stilled being executed by burning late in the eighteenth century, but this practice was discontinued. 

            Transportation to penal colonies in Australasia could have involved only detention in such colonies, i.e. banishment from the country for a specified time. Or it could have included a sentence to work as an indentured labourer. Gradually penal colonies became overseas penitentiaries. In the seventeenth century a favourite punishment was sending convicts as indentured labourers to the plantations. Judges and juries regarded it as appropriate for capital offences if there were mitigating circumstances. Those sentenced to be transported were sent to Dublin and were lodged in hulks in the bay until a sufficient number were assembled. Then the Government chartered a ship and the convicts were sent to Botany Bay or Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania) in the Australian colonies under the care of soldiers being sent to a new posting. It was noted that men could work their way home on the expiration of their sentences, but women were in effect transported for life. The under-secretary Drummond abolished the hulks in 1839, and thereafter those awaiting transportation were kept in Kilmainham gaol, the healthiest of the prisons in Dublin. In 1840 nobody was hanged for a capital offence in Ireland though 27 were transported. The name convict was usually restricted to those convicted of graver crimes. 

            Those sentenced only to terms of imprisonment suffered no other punishment but detention. Those like Daniel O Connell who were so sentenced could hire rooms and entertain visitors within the prison. Prisons were noted as places of idleness and even mirth. 

             These aspects of idleness and mirth became especial targets for prison reformers, and increasingly the sentence included a measure of labour. The original purpose of introducing work into prisons seems to have been to teach the convicts an honest trade like weaving, but it very rapidly became a punishment in itself.  'Bridewells' or 'work-jayles' had been built in the sixteenth century but by the end of the eighteenth century little work was done in any of them. By the British Penitentiaries Act of 1779 (passed when transportation to America stopped) special 'penitentiaries' were to be built in which convicted highwaymen and others could serve sentences with hard labour, but for many years few penitentiaries were built.  (The word penitentiary was also used early in the nineteenth century to denote houses where repentant prostitutes and such like could go voluntarily to learn an honest trade.) As the century advanced 'hard labour' and the convict chain gang were increasingly introduced. Hard labour was described as working on the treadmill or capstan, or breaking stones. 'Penal servitude’, i.e. imprisonment with hard labour was introduced in 1853 as a substitute for transportation, but hard labour was to be found long before that.  

            Penal reform was mooted in the 1760's and was strongly advocated by John Howard at the end of the eighteenth century. He studied conditions in Irish gaols and was called to give evidence before a committee of the Irish Parliament in 1782 (DNB Howard). He was an advocate of the moral reform of the prisoner through solitary confinement and hard labour. An associate of his, William Blackburn, was asked to improve the buildings at Newgate gaol in Dublin, and to construct a new gaol in Limerick. These became the models for Irish gaols in the nineteenth century. A prison inspectorate was also established. 

            When the United Irish leaders were imprisoned in Dublin in the early years of the nineteenth century they complained about the kind of treatment they received. They were young men of good Protestant families unused to rough conditions, and they received little sympathy from the public. Nevertheless the Lord Lieutenant had an official enquiry into prison conditions made by a leading judge. He reported that the gaol officers were in no way neglecting their duties. 

            Public attention was focussed on conditions in Irish gaols and the Irish newspapers reflected the public concern. All the buildings were very ancient and had no heating other than what the prisoner himself could afford to buy. Glass was often broken in the windows, and those imprisoned for debt were particularly badly off for they normally had no money at all. The rates for lodgings in the two marshalseas (marshalcies), the debtors' prisons, had been set in the reign of William III. The hire of a room with a bed was 2/6 a week, but the room itself was only 1/3 if the prisoner brought his own bed, and 2/- if he shared a bed. In private rooms in the gaol the gaoler charged the same rates as local innkeepers. The poor were charged one penny a night for straw on the floors of the common rooms that had no glass in the windows. By law the Grand Jury had to provide enough food for every prisoner who asked for it. It was also legal to make a presentment at the Grand Jury sessions to buy beds and blankets, but the county gentlemen were in no hurry to provide these. Lord Norbury, who had the reputation of being a very humane judge, tried to stimulate the Grand Jury in King's County to build a proper gaol. 

            When Wellesley Pole arrived in Ireland as Irish Secretary in 1809 he immediately began to study conditions in the Dublin prisons. His first act was to gather all the women prisoners together in one prison and provide them with a chaplain. He then brought in the Gaol Act (1810) to regulate Irish prisons. Grand Juries were allowed to present for the construction of new gaols. In future, all prison chaplains, including Catholic chaplains, were to be paid a salary out of the Grand Jury cess. In a very few places the Grand Jury tried to make trouble by appointing chaplains who were not appointed by the local Catholic bishop. Pole then went on to develop in Dublin a system of bridewells or penitentiaries in which the prisoners were kept employed at light work such as spinning or weaving cotton. There always was a problem with prison labour of finding a product that was not in direct competition with that produced by ordinary tradesmen.

            Ladies' committees were formed at the same time to visit the prisoners and to bring them improving tracts and books. The newly formed Irish Sisters of Charity undertook this work until the practice was prohibited in the heyday of the 'silent system'. 

            In 1818 Peel abolished all fees payable to the gaoler 'for the entrance, commitment, and discharge' of any prisoner except in the Four Courts marshalsea and the city of Dublin marshalsea.  The gaoler's salary was henceforth to be paid from the Grand Jury cess. The Gaol Act (1822) stopped the practice of bringing in food, and all food henceforth was to be supplied by the county. All prisoners were to be divided into three categories, and young offenders especially were to be kept apart from hardened criminals. Individual cells could still be hired out to the 'superior category' of prisoner. In 1823 the prison inspectors recommended the widespread use of the treadmill, marking perhaps the introduction of hard labour. A Dublin ironmaster called Mallet produced an 'improved model of native Irish construction'. The labour on the treadmill was described as 'irksome, dull, monotonous, and disgusting to the last degree'. In 1826 all gaols except county gaols were abolished. 

            Urged by the Government and by the assize judges the Grand Juries began the construction of modern prison buildings. In the 1820's there were two rival theories how best to construct a prison.  One system favoured a 'radiating' or star-shaped plan with a central administrative block with the cellblocks radiating from it. The other system was called the 'polygonal' though in fact it could consist of only half a polygon.  The administrative block was placed at the focus of the polygon with the exercise yards in between so that they could be overseen from the central block. It was argued in favour of this system that all cells got the benefit of sunlight, that each prisoner at exercise could be supervised from one spot, and that heating by the 'hypocaust' system was made easier. It is unclear if a hot-air or hot-water system was used (SNL) 27 March 1827.

            Prison development reached its peak in Ireland in 1850 when the new model prison in Dublin (Mountjoy) was opened. It was planned so that the 'silent system' could be put properly and fully into operation. In this system the prisoners were never allowed to speak to each other but were to spend their whole time in silence meditating on pious texts and the sermons read to them by the prison chaplain. This system was also in use in England, and was chiefly famous for driving prisoners mad.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.