Tullamore jail: 1830-1924 the early years to the end of public executions in the 1860s. By Michael Byrne

Undoubtedly, the history of Tullamore jail would make a study in itself for besides the mundane occurrences which are themselves worthy of historical analysis there were a few extraordinary events such as the imprisonment of some of those involved in the Plan of Campaign including William O’Brien and John Mandeville in 1887-88, the women’s suffrage prisoners in 1913, the Tullamore Incident prisoners of 1916 and, of course, the executions, the last being in 1903 and of a woman, Mary Daly. A study of the jail might also involve a study of the pattern and frequency of crime in the nineteenth century and now the law was administered. These questions were raised from time to time as with the death of the Alice Dillon of Geashill, aged 79, imprisoned in Christmas Week 1861 for allegedly begging for alms; again with the botched executions of a brother and sister in 1870; and the treatment of the Plan of Campaign prisoners in 1887-8.

1 The Jail, Front Entrance

Today we are reminded of the jail every time we stop at the lights at the junction with Kilcruttin and Charleville Road and look to the magnificent limestone façade, memorial tablet, jail warders’ cottages and the very fine gates with their Roman fasces to remind us of the symbols of authority back to early times. Then who has not heard of the underground passage (now mostly closed off) that allowed the prisoners to be brought into one of the two semi-circular courts in the old pre-1922 courthouse. None of this accidently happened and the building of the jail from 1826 and the courthouse in 1833-5 were part of the elaborate strategy of Lord Tullamoore to ensure that Tullamore got its county town status over the historic mid-sixteenth century conferral of that status on Philipstown or Daingean. The houses on all sides of the jail and those on the approach near the courthouse were all part of a plan to ensure that these new public buildings were located in an attractive planned setting. In the early 1840s Lord Tullamoore’s daughter even got up a drawing of a crescent of houses in what is now the town park, but somebody realized that nobody wanted to build on soft ground and near a cemetery. Besides demand for such houses had wilted with the declining economy.

Although only the façade of the jail now survives it is one of the most impressive architectural features in Tullamore and makes for a striking and impressive structure as one takes a first view of it coming from the railway station. The building of the jail is recorded on a memorial tablet over the entrance (see photograph):

The first stone of this prison was laid by Charles William Baron Tullamoore on the 13th day of September in the year of our Lord 1826 and in the 7th year of the reign of his Most Gracious Majesty George the Fourth. Commissioners Lord Baron Tullamore M P, Colonel Thomas Bernard M P, William Trench, John Head Drought, Valentine Bennett and Francis Berry Esquires. Engineer John Killay Esq., Contractors Henry, Mullins and MacMahon. John Rafter sculp.

 6 The Tullamore Prison Foundation Stone laid in 1826

Limerick model for Tullamore and based on that of John Howard

The jail at Tullamore was one of a number built in the first half of the nineteenth century as a result of Acts of Parliament of 1810 and 1826.  These acts sought ‘to fix uniform and fairly high standards of prison administration’.  The grand juries were responsible for the erection of county jails but now they had to submit plans for the approval of the lord lieutenant ‘who might on the faith of county presentments advance money for their construction from the consolidated fund’.  Further to this, each county was to appoint a board of superintendence made up of eight to twelve members, half of whom were to be justices of the peace.

The internal construction of the new county jail completed in Tullamore was influenced by then current ideas in prison reform. In 1820 the King’s County Grand Jury appointed a committee ‘to fix upon a site and procure plans for a county jail’.  A report on the Philipstown (Daingean) jail, then the county jail, found it to be out of touch with the reforming spirit: ‘On the whole the establishment seems adapted to further corruption of the prisoners and increase of vice and crime from the want of all power of classification, inspection and employment.’ It was agreed that Philipstown was an unsuitable place in which to build the new county jail because of the boggy terrain. The grand jury’s committee then set about examining the new county jails which had been built in accordance with the new improved prison standards.  The Galway county jail with its crescentic shape and the Roscommon jail which was polygonal in shape and built upon the radiating plan were passed over in favour of that of Limerick which was completed in 1821 at a cost of about £25,000.  This jail was designed by James Pain.

The King’s County Grand Jury adopted the Limerick plan but with some alterations including the lessening of its extent by about two-fifths.

5 - Governor's Residence
The Governor’s house at Tullamore ja

The Tullamore jail of which nothing survives now but its castellated entrance front took four years to complete. The jail was laid out on the radiating principle and had a castellated central tower where the governor lived (see photographs) and who could view all the corridors of the prison. When the jail was demolished in the 1937 only the front wall and gate-house were retained. The gate house has two crenellated towers flanking a lower, machicolated centre. Running away on either wide of the gate-house are high walls. At Cormac Street is a battered wall topped by heavy railings similar to those in front of the courthouse and dating to from its completion in 1835. The entrance gates for both buildings and the warders’ cottages (Jail Lawn) have cast-iron piers in the form of Roman fasces as already noted. While the inspiration may be the work of James Pain on other jails it does seem likely that the local detail was worked out by the noted engineer, John Killaly (not Killay as named on the plaque). Killaly was a well-known canal engineer with business interests in Tullamore where he was resident at least some of the time. He was certainly the overseer for the project and is named as the inspector of the works on a poster notifying the public of the laying of the foundation stone ceremony.

The earl of Charleville leased the site at Cormac Street of over two acres for 999 years with a proviso for a lesser term of years if used for any purpose other than as a county jail. The site for both the jail and courthouse were reserved for that purpose and were on the perimeter of the town, surprisingly on the road to the demesne and not on the Ardan Road where the workhouse was erected in 1841.

 2 Old Gaol

Lord Tullamoore’s letter of 1826

The laying of the foundation stone for the jail in September 1826 saw the biggest ever public spectacle in Tullamore up to that time with about 30,000 people gathering for a procession and fireworks to celebrate the occasion. Lord Tullamoore, eldest son of the earl of Charleville, was very much involved in the political maneuverings that was necessary to obtain government and grand jury support for the building of a jail and later a court house at Tullamore.  In a letter to his step-brother, J.T.T. Tisdall in 1826 Tullamoore provided an amusing account of the foundation stone of the jail:

I feel it will give you great pleasure to hear that the first stone is laid, and of my great success. I shall leave others to describe the scene.  I feel it is impossible to do justice to it, and to you it will appear impossible as you did not witness it. The lowest calculation makes the multitude amount to 30,000.

To be fair to Lord Tullamore, not that he needed anyone to speak for him, he did play a major part in having the jail and court house built in Tullamore.  In regard to the number attending the ceremony it should be remembered that prior to the Famine the population of the county was about 150,000 or three times the present figure. The next biggest spectacle in the town was the Daniel O’Connell ‘Monster Meeting’ of 1843.

Breaking stones was part of the punishment for prisoners

Tullamore jail was opened in April 1830, the prisoners having been conveyed by canal barge from Philipstown.  Some months earlier the board of superintendence appointed by the grand jury drew up a code of by-laws for the prison with the assistance of Major Palmer, an inspector general of prisons.  The prisoners were to be classified and separated according to the type of offence, and sex.  The male prisoners were to be employed in breaking stones and at the tread mill, the board being of the opinion that ‘without full and constant employment for every prisoner, no essential good can result in jail discipline as to its two great objects, viz. punishment and reformation’.  Rudimentary education was also to be provided with a schoolmaster and the turnkeys (warders) acting as instructors. A potato diet for the prisoners was recommended on the grounds of economy.

The first report of the board, following on the opening of the prison, noted that ‘as this was the first attempt as jail discipline in the King’s County, the prisoners when ordered to work made violent opposition, some of them refused to obey and became refractory, but steady and cool remonstrance, with a few instances of solitary confinement brought them to a sense of duty’. The female prisoners were employed in spinning,  knitting,  making skirts,  repairing clots and washing for the entire jail,  ‘two hours each day are the time appropriated for school,  so that no time is allowed for idleness, that constant source of vice’. The average numbers of prisoners was 60 in 1831, 75 in 1832 and almost 200 in 1834. This seems to have been unusually high because the figure was down to 122 in 1839. The jail with its 112 cells could accommodate the latter number fairly comfortably. During the famine years the number of prisoners rose dramatically. In 1849 Tullamore jail had 321 inmates, many of whom had committed petty offences in order to get into jail to be fed.

Separate confinement

In building Tullamore jail some attempt was made to introduce separate confinement but with the increasing number of prisoners in the 1840s attempts to achieve the separate system of confinement had to be abandoned. This dropped sharply in the 1850s and in 1854 the board of superintendence was able to report that the average number of prisoners was down to 123. In the meantime eight cells for females designed on the separate system had been constructed in addition to what was already available.

In 1854 eight additional cells were built for female prisoners from plans obtained from Messrs Murray of Dublin. The new cells were planned on the separate system of confinement.

Homicide in the nineteenth century was almost always caused by land trouble and the penalty for it was execution by hanging, until 1868 in public and thereafter in private. From the moment the judge put on the black cap and pronounced the fatal words ordained by statute to the final enactment over the entrance door to the jail it was truly an awful spectacle, generally visited by wails and groans from the onlookers. Executions in Kings County after 1850 were much less frequent that in the decades before or at Daingean prior to 1830 when Norbury was sitting on the bench. In the early 1900s one Tullamore resident of a great age, Tom Pretty (or Prittie) of O’Carroll Street could recall the public hangings of the 1830s and 1840s. The scaffold was erected in front of the prison over the entrance door. Pretty remembered that in 1844 a soldier named George Jubey, belonging to the Fifth Regiment of Fusiliers, for a time stationed in Birr, was hanged for the murder of his adjutant, Captain Robertson Mackay, who was shot while on parade by Jubey on 11 August, 1843. A great crowd witnessed the execution, many of whom had travelled all the way from Birr. Jubey came out on the scaffold with a firm step, and scanned the crowd, which thronged the road and crowded on the railings in front of the jail lawn. The hangman pinioned the condemned man on the scaffold, then adjusted the noose of the rope, and pulled a white cap down over his head. Then he pulled a lever and the unfortunate man disappeared through the trap-door, and the body was seen to dangle from the rope underneath the platform or gallows. A peculiar incident in connection with the tragic affair was caused by a crowd of chimney-sweeps who had assembled and who set up an unearthly wailing as Jubey was launched into eternity.

3 Jail Cottages
Warders’ or turn-keys houses of c. 1889

One of the last public hangings in Ireland took place at Tullamore jail in 1865 when Laurence King was hanged for the murder of Lieutenant Clutterbuck. The case was tried by the eighty-nine-year old Lord Chief Justice Lefroy and was made the basis for a charge of incapacity against the lord chief justice in the House of Commons. Lefroy retired in 1866. Tullamore jail was also the scene of the second last hanging of a woman in Ireland in 1903 (the last being in Limerick in 1924).

It is only from the late 1860s that prison registers survive for Tullamore in a run to its closing in 1921.