Prison for Food

A twelve- year old boy receives seven days of hard labor for stealing a chicken. A fourteen- year old boy receives seven days of hard labor and twenty lashes for stealing two loaves of bread.

These children ended up serving their time in Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, Ireland. Built in1796 for hardened criminals. Murderers and robbers. It was one of the most modern prisons in Ireland. Officially called the County of Dublin Gaol, and run by the Grand Jury for County Dublin.The older prison housed prisoners in individual cells. The prisoners could put their arms through the windows as the people who passed by slipped them drinks, cigarettes, and money.

I am in Dublin, Ireland for seven days before heading to a writer’s workshop in Donegal. I have walked the street for three days retracing the steps of the Irish who were forced to leave their country and suffered under the English regime. I bought a three- day travel card that allows me to use the Green Hop On Hop Off Bus. This is day three. I want to see the places that I missed. Suddenly the driver yells out “There are three tickets available to enter the Kilmainham Gaol. Does anyone want to get off?” At the entrance to the Gaol, there is an agent holding up three fingers indicating the available tickets. I take my chances and jump off the bus. I didn’t know much about the prison. It turned out to be one of the best and worst experiences in Ireland.

Kilmainham Gaol is used in movie scenes and documentaries and is one of the five most visited sites in Dublin.

But, sure, jail is a grand place, if one can forget that one’s in it ( Evelyn Masterson, veteran Civil War prisoner of Kilmainham Jail)

I pay for my ticket, have my bags checked, and begin the tour with five other tourists from Germany and England. The corridors are very dark, harsh, and not very welcoming. It is referred to as the old dungeon fortress by the Irish citizens. Yellow paint is peeling from the walls. The iron bars around the stairs are rusty. The openings in the walls are small and square. I feel an extreme sense of fear. There are no windows and very little light. I am safe. I am on a tour. How did the people who were incarcerated feel? They had no way out.

Kilmainham Gaol located in Dublin, Ireland on Gallows Hill was built in 1796.  Constructed of limestone and granite. The height varies from thirty- fifty feet. The walls are 51/2 ft. thick at the bottom and 31/2 ft thick at the top. There are three iron and wood gates. A prison for hardened criminals. Murderers and robbers. It was touted as one of the most modern prisons in Ireland. In 1821, two women, 19 and 21 years old, were hung for their crimes. The last public execution was in 1865. The prison closed in 1925. It is now one of the five most visited sites in Dublin. The prison is used in movie scenes and documentaries.

The building in not the original Kilmainham Gaol. It was located near St. James hospital, a short distance from Gallow’s Hill in the direction of Dublin City Center. In the Old Kilmainham prison, the incarcerated shared cells in long narrow rooms. The prisoners were able to extend their arms through “grilles” and the people passing by would slip them liquor, cigarettes, and money. The prisoners were always drunk. The conditions of the prison were deemed inhumane by the citizens of Ireland.

The East Wing (This building is often presented in movies)

The East Wing opened officially in 1861and reflected the continuous development of prison reforms. It is the form of a horseshoe so that the prisoners could be constantly observed. The main goals for running the prison effectively were: silence, observation, separation, and light. The enormous skylight in the roof allows the rays of the sun to “pour down over the prisoners souls” and spiritually cleanse them. 

The Jail is divided into three sections: The middle part is the administrative section containing the largest and most comfortable rooms. The top floor is the “Governor’s” quarters.  The ground floor rooms were linked and used in the daytime by women who were in prison because they could not pay off the family debt.

Kilmainham Jail served as a prison for over two centuries. A prison that was supposed to be more humane entered a time period where people were being imprisoned for petty crimes. Crimes they committed so their families could eat. I can’t imagine having to steal a chicken, bread, and grass for consumption because my family is dying of starvation.

1847- Less than 2,500 prisoners, 1848- 4,655 prisoners, 1849-6,888 prisoners, 1850- 9,052 prisoners

Peter Henry- thiry-four years of hard labor for stealing a pair of shoes from a dead man

Michael Donohue-thirty four years for ill-treating a bear in the zoo

Thorman Lynch- eighteen years old- one month for unlawfully milking a cow and stealing a quantity of milk. Two extra months for stealing the bucket.

Martin Walsh- ten years old- fourteen days for stealing grass

We enter the Catholic Chapel. I am surprised at the beauty of the chapel. The windows let in the light and the walls are painted green and red. Everyone on the tour becomes very quiet as we take in the beauty of a room located in a prison. A place with no hope. The altar was built in 1882 by James Lalor. He was from Belfast and was sentenced to seven years for receiving stolen goods. I was a carpenter who was rumored to have completed various projects in other prisons. The altar is well known for the wedding of Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett in May 1916. Joseph Plunkett was scheduled to be executed. He had one hour left to marry. They were not allowed to talk to each other during or after the ceremony. No one was allowed to attend. He was executed the day after.

Our next stop is in front of a jail cell. A jail cell would hold up to 5-6 people, women, men, and children. Food included bread, water, milk, tea, potatoes or rice, oatmeal, Indian meal, and if they were lucky a little meat. The food was not that great, but for many “bad food was better than no food”. Buckets were used as toilets and dumped out in the morning. The stench must have been terrible.

From 1845–1850 the prison filled with men, women, and children charged with begging and stealing. “The Great Famine” referred to by the Irish as “The Great Hunger” began to rise. The jail cells swelled to capacity. There was no segregation of prisoners. Men, women, and children were incarcerated in the same cells. There were up to five people in a cell measuring twenty-eight square meters. Everyone was given a candle. This candle was to last for two weeks. It was their only means of light and heat. Male prisoners slept in iron bed stands. Women and children slept with straw mats on the floor.

Female Crimes

Eliza Corty- twenty-seven– five days for using obscene language

Eliza Keenan- forty-seven– one month for knocking on a hall door without lawful excuse

Anne McIntyre– twenty- stealing potatoes- sent to a lunatic asylum

These women were trying to raize families and feed their children. They were desperate. I would steal to feed my family.

We walk past cells that are painted blue and the exterior walls are white. The color makes it seem royal. Royal, it is not. Prisoners were not able to look out to see the sun. It was very bleak.

The beginning of the Famine

How did the famine begin? Was it the fault of the Irish? The English accused the Irish of two things: overpopulation and laziness. Irish families were big Catholic units. Many of the Irish produced children to help on their farms. The women didn’t practice birth control. The Irish are laid back. They like to have fun drinking, dancing, and singing. The English looked at this style of life as wasteful.

The English dominated the Irish. In 1801 The Act of Union brought the country of Ireland under the control of England. The English created “Penal Laws”. The Catholic Church was outlawed. Their native language, Gaelic, was banned. The English forbade any export trade. These new laws destroyed Irish commerce and industry. The Irish could pretend not to be Catholics or leave the church completely. Some of the Irish were forced to practice their religion in secrecy.

In 1600 Protestants owned 10% of Irish land. In 1778 they owned 95%. The Penal laws prevented Catholics from buying land, getting an education, entering a profession, holding political office, and living within five miles of town. They were not allowed to fish or hunt.The only employment left for the Catholics was farming. They were allowed to have small plots owned by landlords. They had to pay rent to absent landlords in England. Many of the tenant farmers had poor living standards, no money for medicine, clothes, nor adequate shelter. Homes were falling apart and landlords were not required to make improvements.

The potato was the only crop to produce a sufficient yield on limited acreage. In 1840, 50% of Ireland was dependent on the potato.

In 1835, 75% of Irish workers were without regular work and turned to begging and stealing.

 

Irish farmers became desperate.  Not getting the help they needed, some of them decided to enter workhouses providing them with shelter and food in exchange for hard labor.  Irish farmers with more than 1/4 of an acre were forced to give up their land before acceptance into a workhouse. No food or shelter would be provided to their wives and children. The only hope was to beg, steal, or runaway.

From 1845-1850 Kilmainham Jail contained the poorest of Ireland’s citizens. 1847 brought a new law: the Vagrancy Act. It was now a crime for hungry people to beg in the streets. They ended up in prison along with the thieves. The last official year of the “Great Hunger”, 1850, Kilmainham Jail Registers recorded 9,052 prisoners living in fewer than two hundred cells.

The Great Potato Famine has been debated for years. Was it the fault of the Irish or the English? Was the potato the root of the problem?

In 1846 the Prime Minister of England, Charles Trevelyan, banned all food distribution to Ireland. The English exported grain-based alcohol, wool, flax, wheat, oats, barley, butter, eggs, and beef from Ireland to England. These were products being produced in Ireland but not available to Irish citizens. Did the English create the Famine? Food was being taken out of Ireland.

 

We enter one of the cells which were lucky enough to have some light. People could do nothing in these cells. Some of them had to stand up all day because they were so crowded. We were five and we could not all fit in the room together and feel comfortable.

 

 

Stonebreakers Yard

There are no windows overlooking this yard. The darker areas around the yard are reminders of the huts that men were placed in. These were the men sentenced to heavy labor. Breaking stones for the construction of roads. The black cross marks the place of the execution of the leaders of 1916 Rising. 

The walls of the prison are 5 1/2 feet thick at the bottom and 3 1/2 feet thick at the top and constructed from limestone and granite. There are three iron and wood gates.The height varies from 30-50 feet. The “death bell” rang after an execution.

On the other side of this wall was the exercise yard for children who were in prison. Children were treated like little adults. Joseph Williams, six years old, traveling with his parents on the Great Southern and Western Railway without a paid fare, sentenced to prison. Children who were caught stealing to provide food for their families were sentenced to prison.

 

Mural of a Madonna painted by Grace Gifford Plunkett while she was held during the Civil War.

After the death of her husband, Grace Gifford threw herself into the Republican activities of Cumann na mBan – Ladies Auxiliary to the IRA – and was herself jailed in the women’s section of the same Kilmainham jail in which her husband had been executed. Like Joseph before her, she left an artistic memento on the stone wall of her dreary cell – it was a sketch of Mary, the mother of God, perhaps in remembrance of Joseph’s middle name. Admired by all the women prisoners, it was dubbed the Kilmainham Madonna. 

Entrance to Kilmainham Gaol, Five Dragons in Chains above Entrance. The five dragons represent five serious felonies: murder, rape, theft, treason, and piracy. Two women Bridget Butterly 19 and Bridget Ennis 20 were hung for a burglary where a woman died.

 

Plaque marking the executions of the leaders of 1916 Rising.

The tour turned out to be one of the best and worst experiences in Ireland.The best because I learned at how hard life can be when people are not cared for and forgotten. Food is important and should be something that everyone has access to. I was aware of the history of Ireland. My ancestors came from Ireland. I realize the tremendous problems they suffered and how other countries such as Australia, Canada, and the USA received them. They were not received well. They arrived sick, poor, and dirty. There were signs everywhere in NY warning people not to hire the Irishman because they were dangerous and dirty. Imagine if the Irish ended up not settling in the US because the government did not want them. It was the worst experience to see how people were treated in times of need. Children and women going to prison because they were caught stealing food to provide for their families. Has history taught us a lesson?

I would like to conclude with my final thoughts. No one should have to go to prison for lack of food. Famine is not brought on by the people, but by governments who control the food and goods going in and out of the country. Could The Great Hunger of Ireland have been avoided? Can this happen again? I leave you with these questions.

 

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