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Irish Prison Registers

This exciting collection of Irish prison records dates from 1790 to 1924.

Irish prison registers

Irish prison registers are a source of fascinating detail about the Ireland our ancestors lived in. Not only do they reflect society, with its sometimes inexplicably peculiar notions of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, they also reveal the overwhelming destitution and desperation of large swathes of the population, especially during the all-too-frequent episodes of famine.

In addition to the tale they tell on society, they can also provide some quite breathtaking genealogical information that you are unlikely to find elsewhere in your family history research

Inside Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin
Kilmainham Gaol: many of this prison's famous and infamous
residents are recorded in the Irish prison registers collection.

Irish prison registers - online

In October 2011, online database provider launched the Irish Prison Registers collection. This newly digitised collection includes the entire record set previously available only in unindexed hard copy at the National Archives of Ireland.

Its summary features:

  • 3.5 million records
  • Registers are from prisons located in the Republic of Ireland only (see right for Northern Irish prison registers).
  • Earliest registers date to 1790; most recent to 1924.
  • Both the accused and the victims of crime can be searched.

With an average population of around 4million during the period this collection covers, few families will not have had some brush with the law. This means that most researchers should be able to find a connection somewhere within.

Details of the collection

The Irish prison registers collection now online covers the full range of detention facilities available from 1790 to 1924. Registers have survived from bridewells, which were cell blocks of varying sizes attached to local police stations or courthouses, to the county or national prisons, and to the specialised 'drying out' Prisons for Inebriates. Which is not to say that the collection is complete. Of course not. This is Irish genealogy, after all.

The collection is made up of a total of 44 registers from 20 of the 26 counties in modern-day Ireland: Clare (1), Cork (15), Dublin (6), Galway (2), Kerry (1), Kildare (2), Kilkenny (1), Laois (2), Lietrim (1), Limerick (1), Longford (1), Louth (1), Mayo (1), Meath (1), Offaly (1), Sligo (1), Tipperary (2), Waterford (1), Wexford (2), Wicklow (1).

Some are relatively recent – the Dundalk register, for example, dates from 1917-1924 – while Dublin's Kilmainham register spans the greater period, having started in 1789 and ended in 1910. Most date from the 1840s to near the end of the 19th century.

All the names that appear in the Irish Prison registers (prisoners, relatives and victims) can be searched. Searches can also be carried out, with a surname, for a specific timeframe or prison.

The "County" field refers to the geographic location of the prison, not the home town or birthplace of the prisoner.

What Irish prison registers reveal

The information noted in the registers varied over time and according to the type of detention facility. Bridewells typically recording less information. The county courts generally recorded:

  • Name
  • Address

    All kinds of reasons

    You might imagine that all your ancestors were perfectly law-abiding and, as such, were unlikely to appear in the Irish prison registers. But you should bear in mind that while they may not have been career criminals, there were all kinds of reasons that they may have had a brush with the law.
  • Place of birth
  • Occupation
  • Religion
  • Education
  • Age
  • Physical description
  • Name and address of next of kin
  • Crime committed (including the name and address of any victim)
  • Sentence or discharge, or date and place of committal.

Examples of entries found in the Irish prison registers collection

For stealing potatoes: John Lane, aged just 10 years, was found guilty of stealing potatoes. He was sentenced to ten days hard labour in August 1849. See section below for more about 1849.

For prostitution: 36-year-old Julia Tobin, aka Julia Ryan, charged with Importuning passers-by for prostitution in December 1870. This was her 14th arrest. She was sentenced to three months imprisonment or a fine of £2 1shilling. Nothing further is recorded.

Neglect of child and habitual drunkeness: Jane Allen, an illiterate 40-year-old born in Dungarvan, Waterford but living in Belfast, was convicted for a fifth time with neglecting her child and habitual drunkeness. She is recorded as just 4ft 10inches tall, with brown hair, grey eyes, a fresh complexion and a small scar on her left eyebrow. Her upper front teeth are also missing. She weighed 157lbs on arrival at Ennis Reformatory on 24 October 1907. After serving her two-year sentence she was released and returned to her husband, Daniel, at 62 Fleet Street, Belfast.

Stealing clothes: Mary Regan, aged 20, was found guilty of possession of stolen clothes at the Spring Assizes in 1826. She was sentenced to 7 years transportation and was sent to Cork Penetentiary to await her ship in September of that year.

For arson and treason: Daniel Santry, aged 19, was taken into custody at Cork prison on 6 March 1867 charged with attacking and burning the police barracks and open insurrection against HM The Queen. His home address is recorded and so are some personal details – height 5ft 7½, fresh complexion, grey eyes, brown hair, and two vaccination marks on his left arm. Surprisingly, given the crime, he was bailed after 14 days incarceration and ordered to appear at the Spring Assizes.

The 'appeal' of the prison in 1849

The Irish prison registers show that the level of incaration leapt by nearly 15% in 1849. Just over 100,000 people went through the prison system in that one year alone as those worst affected by the famine sought refuge within prison.

At least there was food and shelter in prison, no matter how hard the regime. Often the food was better than in the workhouse, so people deliberately set out to be arrested.

Kilmainham Gaol cell.

There are many, many cases of 'stealing clothes from Workhouse' or stealing dishes from Workhouse. These are topped only by the incidences of petty theft for stealing potatoes, apples or turnips. Some examples:

  • Margaret (7), Mary (9) and John (5) Santry were held in custody from 17 July to 3 August 1849 when they were found not guilty of stealing sheep and discharged.

  • Patrick (14), Mary (12) and Daniel (6) McCarthy were arrested for vagrancy on 17 July 1849. The magistrate sentenced them to 14 days. Patrick was released a day later than his siblings because he was sick on the official discharge date.

  • Ellen Carthy was sentenced to one month's hard labour, or a fine of 1shilling, for breaking a window at Skibbereen Workhouse in September 1849. She was aged 15.

    What the registers say about the Irish stereotype

    Like ir or not, the stereotype of the drunken Irish is borne out by the Irish prison registers. Drunkeness is the most common crime reported across the 130 years covered by the online collection and accounts for 25% of all incarcerations.

    The top five offences recorded were:

    • Drunkeness – 25%
    • Theft – 16%
    • Assault – 12%
    • Vagrancy – 8%
    • Rioting – 4%

    Where next?

    If you've found an entry for one of your ancestors in the Irish prison registers, a sensible next port of call would be one of the growing collections of historical newspapers, where you may find more details about their appearance before the beak.

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  • A brief history of prisons in Ireland

    The notion of prisons as places to hold or punish criminals after they've been tried and convicted is relatively modern. At the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, prisons were set up to hold people before and until their trial.

    There wasn't a need for a cell after a guilty verdict because the sentence was usually corporal – whipping, execution – or involved transportation. There simply weren't any alternatives. Only debtors were held in prison for any length of time, until their families or friends rounded up the money to repay the debt.

    As a place of pre-trial detention, early prisons in Ireland ranged from the local bridewell, a small building made up of cells typically attached to a local police station or courthouse, to full blown gaols in large towns and cities. They had one thing in common: they were ghastly, usually little more than a rat-infested black hole.

    Over time, the idea of reform started to enter the debate. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham (a pretty cool guy for his time... he believed in gender equality, animal rights, the separation of church and state, the abolition of slavery and corporal punishment, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality) was one of the most important figures in this radical shift. He believed that if criminals were given hard work and education in prison they would become productive members of society, and he designed prisons to accommodate his methods.

    The first of the new progressive prisons opened as Richmond General Penitentiary in 1820 in Grangegorman, Dublin. It was intended as an alternative to transportation and to specialise in reform rather than punishment. Although it had its problems and was fairly quickly closed as a prison and turned into an asylum, the movement against unproductive punishment had taken hold. Standards of bedding, clothing and food were improved, but would hardly be considered humane nowardays.

    Despite these improvements in conditions, transportation continued to be widely used as a sentence. More than 27,258 people were transported to Western Australia between 1837 and 1846, and just shy of 12,000 between 1847 and 1856.

    it would be nice to think that the decline in numbers was due to greater acceptance of the reformist approach; in fact, it had more to do with the number of complaints from the colony about the calibre of prisoners sent to it.

    In 1853, the sentence of transportation was replaced with penal servitude and, for the first time, criminals started to serve long sentences in Irish prisons. Problem was, the capacity of Irish prisons at this time was about 2,900 while the immediate number of offenders incarcerated totalled more than 3,500.

    A year later, the Convict Prisons Board was set up and introduced a completely new system which saw a prisoner progess through increasing levels of freedom within the detention facility. For the first nine to twelve months of sentence, a prisoner was held in solitary confinement and a focus was made on moral and religious instruction. Transfer to a public work prison followed, according to physical condition, where a reward/privilege system operated with the ultimate aim of moving into the third stage of the sentence, which was unique to the Irish system.

    Prisoners received little supervision, and were held in small communities in portable huts. Subject to satisfactory conduct, they were released on licence.

    By 1877, when legislation replaced the Convict Prisons Board with the General Prisons Board, there were four national convict prisons, 38 county prisons and 98 bridewells. The following year, more than 45,000 served sentences in the county prisons alone, and one in three was a woman.

    Thereafter, the prison population fell in line with the general exodus from Ireland as emigration of young people and families became the norm.

    Northern Irish prison registers

    The only prison records for Ireland to have made their way online are for institutions in the 26 counties that make up the Republic.

    Registers for prisons in Northern Ireland are not yet online. They are held by the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) and hard copy can be accessed there.

    However, if you have ancestors from Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh or Tyrone you may still find them in the online registers if they had a brush with the law outside those counties. It's important to understand that the registers were kept to record the details and crimes of prisoners held in a particular prison. Those prisoners were not necessarily local.

    They could have been en route to another destination, far from home, or they may have settled in a county far from their birthplace for any number of reasons – work, food, marriage...

    So, even though your ancestors hailed from counties now within Northern Ireland, you should still give the online Irish prison registers a thorough search before heading to Belfast.

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