Holidays are a time for relaxation, taking a well needed break from stress and strain. Some people choose to do this on a beach or by going shopping, I do it by visiting prisons, graveyards and old, ruined buildings. So on a recent visit to Cork City, one of my favourite places in Ireland, I decided to finally make the trip up the steep hill to the Cork City Gaol.
Cork City Gaol housed prisoners from the 19th and 20th centuries. It has a fascinating history right from its planning stage to its current day use. Permission was granted in 1806 to build the prison. It was decided to build it on a breezy, site on top of a steep hill, the thought behind this was that the air may help to reduce rampant prison diseases. The gaol opened in 1824 and was heralded as the finest place of incarceration in the existing empire. Women and men were separated in different wings until 1878 when it became an all-women’s prison. Then in the early 1920s men were re-introduced to the prison population due to the Civil War, they had to put them somewhere! The gaol ceased to operate as a prison in 1923.
The story did not end there for the building.RTE decided that the gaol would make an excellent broadcasting house and so it operated as such from 1927 to the 1950s. However RTE had no need for many of the buildings so they fell derelict. Luckily for the public, they were not allowed to fall totally into ruin and were restored to become a visors centre, which opened in 1993. With added wax works!
We braved walking up the hills to reach the gaol and yes, they were very steep hills. So if you tire easy, or have mobility issues, drive or get a taxi. You will not miss the gaol as it is fronted by some ominous looking gates, it is a prison after all. What I didn’t realise at the time, but I know now, is that they used to hang people publicly at those gates. Now they are 100% more creepy.
Once through the death-gates there is a serene court yard. It could almost be the front lawn of a country house, that is until you see the bars on the windows!
We opted to take a guided tour of the prison. While you wait you can view observation galleries with depressing, frightening sketches of hangings, whippings and deportation ships taking Ireland’s poor and troubled to Australia. At the end of the hall was a wax-work set of a court room scene. An audio track played an re-enactment of a trial. Also check out the sketches on the wall from visiting children, some of them have quite the imagination, complete with comic speech bubbles.
As mentioned above the wings were separated by gender back in the day. For the purposes of the display they were mixed. Once in the wing I was very impressed with the refurbishment work. The space was light, airy and totally unlike the conditions that the prisoners actually lived in. Our guide described those conditions for us in detail, including the shudder-inducing lice in the bedroll stories. We also learned about the prison activities in the wings such as Mass and lights-out. Life in the wings was tough due to the code of silence. There was little speaking or socialising and sound was minimised. This drove some prisoners mad if they were incarcerated over long periods. The gaol was tough to live in.
Knowing this made the individual stories described even more poignant. They were based on the real lives of some of the prisoners, we learned their names, about their lives, crimes and punishments. Some were young children, others were mothers, first-time offenders and those with issues relating to poverty, ill-health and lack of opportunity. In each cell there was a wax-work which reflected their features as described on their admissions forms, down to hair and eye colour! It was a very cool addition but was hard to see the young boy being whipped as part of his punishment. It was sad that no records were kept of what happened to many prisoners after they were released I was very curious to know about they but there no probation officers in those days and very little, if any, after-care.
The prison also had some nifty little inventions. I those the gas lighting set up was quite smart. The lamp was positioned in such a way that it shone into two different cells. It was like Lean for the 19th Century.
Cork City Gaol is famous for its graffiti, much of it dating from the Civil War. There were scribbled poems, dedications and epitaphs, as well as plenty of “someone was ere” scrawlings. They are preserved to this day behind a sheet of plastic, so those idle hours scratchings can be read for many more generations. I am amazing that they survived at all. There is also plenty of tourist graffiti but that is just vandalism, so stop that whoever thinks that it is appropriate to write, uninvited, on museums walls.
But the prisoners did not sit around all day sleeping in vermin invested bedrolls and writing on walls. They had a strict work and exercise regime. Do not be fooled, these were not fulfilling past-times. Often the work was tough and futile, other times it was dangerous. Either way you would not make a career out of it. The exercise was walking in a circle, so not a lot of fun. After all that your food was porridge, or bread and water of you were being punished. Cork Gaol was not fun.
That is of course unless you were in the debtors wing of the prison. Here you could have food delivered, bring in your own furniture, and go out if a friend or family member would sit in your cell for a few hours in your place. The idea was that you could hang out in the prison until you got sorted and could pay back your debt. Much better than being whipped or kept in total darkness like so many other prisoners.
There was also a section detailing the lives of the employees of the prison. The prison workers lived on prison grounds in their own large rooms. Their families lived with them, so it was a tight squeeze even for them. Their children had to leave when they came of age so many ended up undertaking employment in the prison.
There are also many famous people associated with the prison including Countess Markievicz, Thomas Deane, Elizabeth Deane, John Hogan, Mary Bowles, and Hannah Reynolds. Many Fenians and Young Irelanders also were incarcerated there during the war.
As you can tell Cork City Gaol is a place rich in history. I would highly recommend visiting so you can see for yourself the places were all those people lived and worked. It is hard to picture just how small the cells are and how strict their lives were until you are standing in the grounds yourself. The tour guides are knowledgeable and the displays cover most of the areas of live that you may be interested in. There is also a small gift shop with books, t-shirts and regularly priced bottled drinks. Recommended!
If you want to learn more about Cork City why not check out “Cork City Through Time” by Kieran McCarthy and Daniel Breen available through Amazon?
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