An insight into old Castlebar gaol

THERE were a number of old prisons in Castlebar, writes Tom Gillespie. The earliest, prior to 1785, was on the junction of Ellison Street and Castle Street - where Dever’s grocery was, and next to Egan's jewellers.

The next jail, built around 1785, was on the Mall - now site of the Motor Tax Office. In recent years when road works were being carried out there a tunnel was discovered linking the gaol to the courthouse.

The old gaol, as featured in the original cover photograph in the Old Castlebar Photos Facebook page, was on the site of Mayo University Hospital. It was opened in 1835 and used up until 1935.

A sign erected by Lord Lucan outside the Gaol read:

‘Outside Beware, Within Amend’.

‘Without Beware, Within Amend’

In the 2015 Castlebar Parish Magazine, Hubert Glynn, originally from Mons Terrace, Castlebar, with the assistance of Ivor Hamrock, now retired from Castlebar Library, historian Noel Campbell and Westport Historical Society, wrote an article on the Westport Road gaol.

He wrote: I remember when I was about two or three years being taken for a walk by my grandfather up the Westport Road and stopping to watch some people playing tennis in front of a dark building. The year was 1932.

Later I learned that the building was the county gaol. The entrance to the gaol would have been opposite the Travellers Friend Hotel.

The building of the gaol started in 1830 and it took five years to complete. It was demolished in 1932 to make way for the hospital, which opened two years later.

The Westport Road gaol replaced the old gaol on the Mall, which could hold 158 prisoners. The population of Castlebar in 1830 was just over 6,000. There were many ‘illicit stills’ in operation making poteen, which led to a lot of drinking and subsequent trouble.

The old gaol was in disrepair, letting in rain, and was very overcrowded.

While the business class and land owners were making a decent living, many of the native Irish lived in wretched conditions. The land, once their own, had been taken from them and they now had to pay rent on their own property to a British landlord.

A Grand Jury run by the landlords, leading land owners and sheriffs ran the local government system. Only landowners, predominantly Protestant, had the right to vote.

The Lord Lieutenant or High Sheriff at the time was Lord Howe Brown, 2nd Marquis of Sligo, who held office from 1831 to 1845. He was followed by Lord George, 3rd Earl of Lucan - 1845 to 1888. They made the political appointments - grant juries and magistrates. The landless natives had no say in justice or the making of laws.

The Westport Road site was bought from Lord Lucan and the building was designed by Mr. Frederick Darley of Dublin. The gaol was built by Mr. Dennis Clarke, contractor, who also built the military barracks. Work started on the building, which had a most unusual design, in 1830.

The Governor’s house, three storeys high, was in the middle of a circle of prison units. Six separate buildings radiated out from the Governor’s house. Four of these, each two storeys high, were male prisoner buildings, and each of the four contained 128 cells.

Two other separate buildings were service units. Separate to this was a woman’s and children’s enclosure which contained three prison buildings and the female warden’s house, all surrounded by a 20-foot high wall.

The Governor’s house included a chapel on the top storey and there was also an enclosed hospital. There was also two sets of three solitary cell units.

The main entrance (pictured) was a massive stone building with four imposing towers and heavy double gates.

Within was a treadmill used for raising water from a well - also used for punishment - and a stone breaking yard.

At the entrance to the gaol stood an iron structure - the gallows.

The staff included the governor, deputy governor, matron, assistant matron, visiting surgeon, nurse, gate porter, eight turn-keys (guards) and three chaplains.

In 1842 there were 96 male prisoners, 44 of them working at trades, 19 were stone breaking, 26 on the treadmill and nine on other duties.

There were 45 male debtors, 105 male criminals, 12 untried female criminals, two male and three female lunatics.

In 1859, as well as the normal number of male and female prisoners, there were 49 child prisoners, of which four were under 11 years.

Each prison cell measured 4 foot 6 inches wide and 14 foot long. All were well ventilated. There was a peer-hole in each door but there is no mention of windows - it is presumed there was a barred window on the outer walls. Each cell contained a bed of bare planks - with no pillow for new arrivals, a small wooden table, a form shaped stool, a wooden salt cellar and a horn spoon. The beds were 30 inches wide and one could use their boots as a pillow.

Breakfast (7.30 a.m.) consisted of 8 ozs. of oatmeal and buttermilk. Dinner (12 noon to 1 p.m.) 8 ozs. of bread and vegetable soup. The evening meal could be potatoes and milk or bread and soup. It is presumed water was always available.

Those not working or on permanent remand were ordered to the exercise yard to walk around in single file for one hour or more in complete silence. Anyone who spoke, whistled or sang was put on punishment duty which could be the treadmill or stone breaking.

The guards (turn-keys) were instructed to be kind but firm and to maintain order and discipline. Public hangings, which ceased in 1868, were carried out at the main gate.

* Read Tom Gillespie's County Town column in our print edition every Tuesday.

* Pictured, Castlebar gaol, which opened in 1835.

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