Irish Prison records are a key source for tracing family history because they record such a huge volume of prisoners, their relatives and in many cases their victims. This dataset is compiled from the collection housed in the National Archives of Ireland and cover most surviving records for prisons in the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland. In total there are 2.7 million records, with information on over 3.1 million people.
Currently users can search all names appearing in the registers (prisoners, relatives and victims), and can limit this by selecting a specific time frame, or prison. Users should bear in mind that the "county" option, is the county of prison which is not neccessarily where the prisoner lived or was born.
Prisons were originally developed as holding cells until a trial or sentence could be carried out. Until the late 18th Century sentences usually were corporal or capital punishment, or transportation for a term of years or life depending on the seriousness of the crime. The Enlightenment generated radical new ideas about the proper government and rule of society. Amongst the new ideas now put forward was the notion prisoners could be reformed and rehabilitated and then sent back to society as productive members. A leading voice in this process was the English radical Jeremy Bentham who was a strong opponent of the death penalty, and believed a new rehabilitative process for prisoners was in the greater interest of society at large. He advocated a "panopticon" solution for jails, where a small number of warders could oversee a large number of prisoners. His views influenced the design of Kilmainham "new" prison built in 1796 and the Richmond, Grangegorman and Mountjoy penitentiaries in the 19th century. All used a semi-circular model, and became the standard plan for prisons thereafter. Paradoxically it was because of this zeal to "reform" offenders that so many people were imprisoned (rather than whipped, fined or executed), and why we have so many surviving prison records for Ireland from the 1790s onwards.
By 1822 there were 178 prisons in Ireland. The bulk of this vast number were privately run "black holes" or dungeons attached to manorial courts or urban debtors jails. These were a "hang-over" from the medieval system of justice. Prisoners were held in "black holes" until their families or friends paid their bills. In 1823 the newly established Prisons board remarked of these places: "There is no instance of the defective state of the prison system of Ireland more melancholy, or which calls more loudly for the interference of the government, than the case of the debtors confined in these prisons under private charters to individuals."
The remaining prisons were made up of local "bridewells" attached to police stations or court houses for prisoners awaiting trial, or county jails.
Over the course of the 19th century most of the "black holes" were shut down, but the number of state run bridewells increased. By 1849 there were 112 bridewells throughout Ireland processing 88,000 prisoners in the course of one year. The same year (1849) a further 13,000 prisoners went through the county and city jails. It should be noted that in 1849 overall numbers were high as those worst affected by the famine, sought refuge within the prison system.
By 1882 there were only 33 bridewells still open, but 40 "modern" pentitentiaries like Mountjoy, Richmond and the county jails. In total the Irish prison system dealt with 35,000 prisoners during this year.
The reasons for incarceration varied over time, but the principal offences remained fairly consistent throughout the years, being:
The main significant change over the period was the decline in vagrancy. It would appear that a high proportion of the country were "of no fixed abode" in the early 19th century, and there was a concerted drive by the authorities to eradicate this.
Rebellion and seditious activities, from malicious damage to property through to outright rebellion waxed and waned throughout the period, but with a massive increase of prisoners suspected of these crimes during the years of the War of Independence as the country was governed by martial law.
Information varies over time, and depending on the type of prison, with bridewells typically recording less information. The county courts generally recorded:
These are the prisons and covering dates of registers on this site. Please be aware that other prison register may survive locally with county libraries or archives. Furthermore the registers for the prisons now in Northern Ireland are mostly held by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast.
Only one prison was national (it took prisoners from all over the island of Ireland) which was the short lived Reformatory for Alcoholics in Ennis. Some of the principal jails in Dublin had a national character, but on the whole prisons housed inmates on a local basis.
|CORK||SPIKE ISLAND PRISON||1860-1883|
|DUBLIN||GRANGEGORMAN FEMALE PRISON||1831-1897|
|WEXFORD||NEW ROSS (BRIDEWELL)||1846-1905|