During the 17th and 18th centuries the prison system was very different to the one we are familiar with today. Prisons were run by private individuals. Gaolers had no concern for the physical or moral well being of their prisoners. Those who could afford it, could pay the gaoler in order to buy themselves some comforts while imprisoned such as private rooms, family visits, food and even drink. Overcrowding, disease and escapes were common.
Many crimes were punished by means other than imprisonment. Offenders were only held in prison while awaiting trial or after sentencing awaiting transportation. Actual prison sentences were short – generally under two years. Other punishments included fines or corporal punishments such as whipping, branding, the stocks and even hanging. Such executions were held in public at the Gallows, (hence place names such as Gallows Hill), until 1868. It was thought that such public displays on busy days like Market Day, would act as a deterrent to would be criminals.
Towards the end of the 18th century an English Quaker called John Howard and an Irish gentleman Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick pioneered prison reforms. They advocated for the separation of prisoners and better prison hygiene.
In the 1780’s a nationwide gaol building programme was established by the Grand Juries, who were now in charge of the prison system. They hoped by building a new prison to implement the reforms suggested by Howard and Fitzpatrick. The building of the new Clonmel Gaol was completed c 1790 and was located in modern day Emmett Street, behind the present Garda Station and County Council Offices. By 1818 Clonmel Gaol is recorded as totally inadequate by the prison inspector and a new building programme, including a Governor’s House commences. This prison could accommodate 100 males separately and 40 females.
As a result of laws passed in England in the 1820’s by the 1840’s all prisoners in Clonmel Goal were engaged in some form of education or trade such as carpenters, weavers, smiths, tailors and shoe makers. The female prisoners operated a laundry service for local households. Many of these enterprises turned a profit and the money was invested back into the prison to provide uniforms and buy food. Prisoners received a sum of money for their labour on leaving prison and had acquired skills to enable them to gain employment and turn away from crime. All prisoners were provided with a uniform and bedding.
In 1842 Nenagh Gaol opened following the division of Tipperary into North and South, thus greatly reducing the numbers in Clonmel Gaol. However during the Famine years 1845 – 1849 these figures rose significantly again. 1856 saw an end to the policy of transportation and the introduction of penal servitude in Mount Joy and Spike Island prison – only short sentences of 2 years or less were served in County gaols such as Clonmel. In 1875 it was no longer legal to commit dangerous lunatics to gaol.
Between 1864 and 1869 Clonmel Gaol was once more remodelled to accommodate 120 males and 59 females in single cells. Each cell was 9ft long, 8ft wide and 8ft high. Part of the old gaol was removed and a new Militia Barracks constructed (present day Garda Station). The new goal covered an area of over 4 acres and was surrounded by a sandstone wall 30 feet high with an iron gate, still visible just a few minutes’ walk from the museum today. In 1893/94 six warder’s cottages were built in Emmett Street, opposite the gate.
Prison life was hard. In 1841 the prison was heated by Arnott Stoves. In 1867 cells had gas lights which were extinguished one hour after lock up. Prison registers recorded the name, age, height, weight, eye colour, complexion, distinguishing marks, place of birth, next of kin, occupation, education, offence committed, date of remand, place and length of sentence of each prisoner. They were also photographed; the rules read to them, bathed, given a blanket and prison clothes and their hair cropped before being assigned their prison number and cell. Prisoners were given 1 hour a day in the exercise ring and made to stay five paces apart. Lock up in winter was 5.30pm, summer 6pm and prisoners rose at 7am in winter, 6am in summer time.
The separate or silent system advocated single cells and no communication. Wooden partitions were erected between inmates in the women’s laundry, the school room, chapel and work sheds. It was felt this would allow prisoners time to reflect on their misdeeds and repent. Globally this was felt not to be effective and prisoners disregarded it and so the practice was discontinued. However its use in Clonmel is still in evidence in 1895 when Michael Cleary, husband of Brigid, while awaiting trial for her murder is recorded as guilty of communicating. His punishment was 24 hours in his cell with only bread and water.
In 1877 The General Prison Boards Act was passed which put local prisons under government control. This was to allow for uniformity of discipline. Prisoners were classified according to their moral character, length of time in prison and their behaviour. Work was encouraged. Four grades were introduced with prisoners moving from one grade to another if they obeyed the rules, entitling them to privileges such as better food rations.
In the 1890’s increased prosperity and emigration meant the numbers in prison decreased making commercial activities such as the laundry and farm unviable. In 1910 the last prisoner was committed to Clonmel gaol. Thereafter any prisoners sentenced in Clonmel were transported to Waterford to serve their time.
Pictured below are some of our Gaol related artefacts which are on display. Be sure to check them out when we reopen!