Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Athy's 19th century prison



An inspector attended the jail located in White’s Castle in 1825.  He was highly critical of the condition he found writing ‘this is, without exception, the worst County Prison I have ever inspected, as there are no yards, pumps, hospital, chapel or proper day rooms’.  The inspector went on to state that he had been assured that the Duke of Leinster was making available ground for the construction of a new jail. 

The Poor Law Commissioners visited the new jail in 1840, primarily in preparing a report for the Houses of Parliament in London, to make comparisons between the diet available to workhouse inmates and those in local prisons.  They noted that the prisoners in the Athy jail received eight ounces of oat meal and one pint of milk for breakfast while their dinner was four pounds of potatoes with a pint of sour milk.  Prisoners did not receive any supper in the evening.  The commissioners noted that meat was rarely ever tasted by the Irish peasant and that the diets provided in prisons and workhouses did not differ greatly from that enjoyed by people living in their own homes.  This was an ominous indication of the extreme dependency of the Irish population on the potato, the loss of which would wreak havoc when blight hit the potato crop in the years following.

The new jail built in 1830 on the Carlow Road was well established by the time prison inspectors visited on the 29th of September, 1848.  On the date there were 34 male and 17 female inmates.  They noted that this was 22 prisoners less than on a previous visit.  Accommodation for the inmates consisted of 22 single cells and 3 solitary cells together with 2 rooms.  They found that the solitary cells were well ventilated and dry but rather narrow.  In the middle section of the jail there were 25 cells with 1 prisoner each and two rooms with 3 prisoners in each room.  They noted the cells had no form of heating and they didn’t seem large enough for their occupants.  The jail generally was very dry, clean and in good repair and the building was in what was described as a 'proper state'.  There was only one bath in the jail which was located in the pump house and was used by the prisoners when they were first admitted or if ordered to be washed by the jail’s physician.  The inspectors complained that the prison chapel was far too small and that prisoners were obliged to stand during the religious services as there were no benches.  They also noted that there wasn’t sufficient accommodation for the prison staff all of whom had to sleep and live in the one room and the erection of a second staff room was recommended.

Prisoners spent their time tailoring, shoe making, painting, carpentry, oakum picking, mat and net making and stone breaking.  One of the prison officers, who was also a tailor acted as an instructor to the prisoners and all the clothing for the prison was made by the prisoners themselves.  Two of the prisoners worked in the kitchen and in return they received 2 hours schooling from one of the prison officers.  This was not a facility available to other prisoners.  The female prisoners were supervised by the Governor’s wife while the assistant Matron was her niece.  The women inmates spent their time sewing, knitting and washing.  There were two children in the women's side of the jail at the time of the inspection.  The prison authorities devoted one hour and a half daily to what was described as ‘moral instruction’ for the female prisoners.  It was noted that the female prisoners had made progress in respect of same.  However the inspectors noted with some concern that there wasn’t sufficient separation between the male and female prisoners and that many prisoners in the adjoining cells could easily communicate with each other. 

There had been changes in the dietary habits of the prisoners since the Great Famine.  Breakfast consisted of four ounces of oatmeal and four ounces of Indian meal with one pint of milk, while dinner consisted of a pound of brown bread and a pint of new milk.  Potatoes had disappeared from the menu.  The inspectors though did note that there had been a brief return to supplying potatoes to prisoners for a period of time but this was discontinued as they were unable to obtain a good supply of potatoes. 

Interestingly the Protestant Chaplain to the jail visited 85 times while the Roman Catholic chaplain did so only 36 times while the surgeon attended on the prisoners 88 times in the previous year.        

The Carlow Road jail closed in 1860 when the prisoners transferred to the Naas jail.  Around the same time Athy lost the Quarter Sessions which had previously alternated between Naas and Athy.  Some of the cells in the White Castle jail are still to be seen, while only a small portion of the 1830 jail is still standing.

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