Law and Order in 19th Century Galway by Ronan Killeen

A specialised area of study of mine is in criminality and law and order in Ireland. In 2011 I completed my thesis on 'Three cases of capital punishment in Galway, 1885-1923'. In this article I am focusing on the prisons. I would like to thank the South East Galway Archeological and Historical Society for putting it into their previous newsletter publication. I am very proud of this piece of work.

Galway Jail photo courtesy of Tom Kenny.


 Law & Order and Crime in Galway and Irish Prisons 1700-1900

 In the 18th century each county had its own prison located in the chief town of that county and would save on the cost by using town and county jails jointly. The law also stated that every county would have a house of correction called a bridewell; where drunkards, petty thieves, rioters and vagrants were held before their trail albeit this could extend to years in exceptional circumstances.

Lunatics were also sometimes kept in bridewells. As well as jails for criminals and those accused of criminal acts, there were also jails for debtors i.e. for anyone who could not pay their debts and were liable for imprisonment. These were actually quite a large proportion of the prison population with many imprisoned for owing small sums. The debtors’ prison was known as a ‘Marshalea’; the ward was called the Marshall. According to Joseph Starr (1995) in History Ireland, the overcrowding prisons report in 1796 lists 51 jails throughout the kingdom which would appear to have been more than enough for the population of about five million.

Starr asserts that: ‘The crowded jails and marshaleas grew out of the custom paying fees to prisons officials. No inmate was allowed to leave without paying fees to the local sheriff; warden or marshal and their assistants. This custom led to great hardships. Jailers and marshals received very little in the way of salary.

Parliament legislated on the subject for the first time in 1635 when it empowered justices of the peace to appoint the salary of the keeper of the local house of correction’. A serious problem from the outset was alcohol. Given the condition of jails it was natural that many prisoners turned to alcohol which was inexpensive and easy to obtain.

It was pointed out that ‘a noggin or gill of…whiskey, is sold in Dublin so cheap as one-and-a-half pence or two pence, and half a pint for three pence or four pence’. On one occasion, in 1741, sloppy jailing allowed an escape (below). The quickest way to obtain the necessary money for contraband substances was extortion. All attempts to stop the selling of liquor in prisons were usually frustrated by jailers who usually kept a tap in the prison.

Three times Parliament tried to make alcohol free in the years 1763, 1783, 1786, unfortunately the acts remained inoperative. Due to the modest salaries and the want of regulation, serious complaints of corruption, cruelty and neglect were being levelled against jailers and marshals throughout the eighteenth century. Many of these changes were by no means groundless. In 1698, parliament discovered that a great number of prisoners were starved to death and for this reason parliament required every parish to levy a reasonable sum of support for local prisons. And there was evidence that some good was done, but it was very much haphazard.

Prison Reform

During the 18th century prison reform came in the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ - a period where many intellectuals firmly believed that men were perfectible and that, having achieved that state, an era of peace and progress would emerge. With these ideas, some ‘men of standing’ set-out to reform every aspect of life ranging from education, through to politics and social life, and to prisons. The common view remained that those in the jail were wicked and deserved their punishment. The reformer, John Howard, was not one of those.

He made his first trip to Ireland in 1775 and over the next 13 years returned five times describing the situation ‘as savage as the inland parts of Russia’. The Country Journal, 12 Nov 1741. Howard also railed against corruption and, in the jails, he declared that he never saw prisons or abuses as bad as Ireland. Positively, in 1786, perhaps the greatest of all prison reform bills was passed. What this new act did was create new regulation of prisons with many laudable articles. Inspectors, were to visit prisons at least once a week and forward reports to the officer who was to be the apex of the system. The inspector-general was required to visit every prison once every two years.

During 1787-1788 Howard was delighted to discover that the grand juries had spent money liberally to supply prisoners’ medication for health but regrettably there were still some abuses including dirty prisons, negligence, and dishonesty.

 Galway Jail 1400-1892

The earliest known record of a jail in Galway goes as far back as 1496 on Mainguard Street. The Galway Town Gaol was located under the Old Thosel (sketch right from James Hardiman’s History of Galway) but was transferred to Mainguard Street in the 1650s.

In 1674 it was used as a temporary county jail, a makeshift arrangement that continued for twelve years. In 1686 Blake’s Castle was acquired by the Grand Jury and was used as a county jail until both prisons were transferred to Nun’s Island. In the following century, in 1788, Howard visited both prisons. He noted that an exercise yard had been provided in Blake’s Castle, but not Mainguard Street. In the years 1791 and 1792 the County Galway Grand Jury passed presentments for the construction of a more spacious prison and the necessary Act of Parliament was finally passed in 1802. Between 1804 and 1810 two jails were built on adjacent sides of Nun’s Island.

One was the county jail, and the other serviced the town.

Management, Staff & Labourers of Galway Jail 1878-1892 

Curtin’s The Women of Galway Jail: Female Criminality in Nineteenth Century Ireland describes to use the running of the prisons: ‘Between the years 1878 and 1892, there were between fifteen and twenty-four people employed in the prison. This included a Governor, a chief warder, two chaplains, a surgeon/apothecary, a clerk, and a schoolmaster/schoolmistress. The warders were all male, and the only female staff members were either matron’s assistant; matrons; or servants.’

 Elizabeth Fry, another prison reformer, emphasised the need for female staff, unfortunately this remained largely unchanged in Galway. The statistics show that while there had been two-to-four female employees working in the prison during this period, in many years there were only two members of staff who were women.

At 6.30am in 1882 - the winter timetable of Galway prison - the warders would summon the prisoners out of their cells by calling ‘All out’. A routine, in which exercise, eating, labour and schooling was scheduled was set out by the General Prisons Board (GPB). There was no schooling of women prisoners between 1877 and 1888, despite the fact that school was scheduled. Most able-bodied prisoners, both men and women, were sentenced to hard labour. The GPB had been strongly influenced by the prison reformers of the nineteenth century. Prisoners were classed by their ‘moral character’, the length of time they had spent in prison, and their behaviour.

This system, reformers believed, encouraged prisoners to work and to reform.

Prison Life 

As an incentive, prisoners would be awarded ‘marks’ which were accumulated in order to progress from one class to another and which could also be translated into money. The Governor of the jail was obliged to submit a yearly return detailing work engaged in by prisoners. Much of the work done by the prisoners was done for the upkeep of the prison. Prisoners were engaged in the following labours such as tailoring, tin-smithing, whitewashing, sewing and washing clothes and bedding, cooking, knitting, and nursing sick prisoners.

The more traditional types of prison labour such as mat-making and the picking of coir and oakum also occupied prisoners of both sexes. Prisoners were paid for these labours and on their release could claim wages. Unruly prisoners would be punished by four categories of punishment permitted by the prison authorities – iron handcuffs; corporal punishment; punishment cells; and dietary punishment. The offences which led to such punishment were in four groups; violence; escapes and attempts to escape; idleness, and ‘other breeches of regulations’.

Whipping and leg irons had been abolished in the 1860s, and the corporal punishment appears to have been in place for men only. From 1884, irons and cuffs were no longer used.

Prisons and Courthouses in Galway

An architect from Westminster, Mr Hardwick drew up plans for a new prison modelled on that of Gloucester Jail. Richard Morrison was the supervising architect of the new construction which was to cost £27,000.

An area of three acres and eleven and half perches were purchased on Nun’s Island for a cost of £664.37, on the understanding that a roadway would be provided outside of a prison. During ‘The Night of the Big Wind’ (6 Jan 1839), the roof was stripped of the county courthouse and most of the windows were propelled in. Little seems to be known of the earlier county court-houses but at least one was located in Courthouse Lane (known today as Druid Lane), left off Quay Street in the 1600s.

This is now the location of the ‘Hall of the Red Earl’ run by Galway Civic Trust. The town courthouse was designed by Alexander Hayes who submitted his plans to the Town Grand Jury after the body decided to abandon the Old Thosel in 1820. Work started on the building of the new town courthouse in August 1825 and the building was constructed opposite the County Court-house.

The two separate and distancing courthouses operated separately but eventually merged in the latter half of the nineteenth century when the Town Grand Jury agreed to pay a portion of the County Courthouses upkeep.

 Sources Curtain,

Geraldine, The Women of Galway Jail: Female Criminality in nineteenth century Ireland, (Arlene House, 2001).

Vaughan, W. E., Murder Trials in Ireland 1836-1914, (Four Courts Press in association with the Irish Legal History Society, 2009).


Starr, Joseph, ‘Prison Reform in Ireland in the Age of Enlightenment’, History Ireland, Issue 2, Vol.3 (Summer, 1995) .

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