Gaol and Gaol-breaking in Early Modern Ireland

Posted by Coleman A. Dennehy, 13 March 2022

Whilst many aspects of the state as we would understand it today were more likely under-developed if they existed at all, the gaol was actually a reasonably prominent and regular feature of the medieval English state in Ireland. Places of strength, designed to hold an individual before their trial or after their trial whilst they awaited punishment, are likely to have been a feature of most English towns, cities, and counties in Ireland since the earliest decades of the development of English law in the early years of the thirteenth century, if not earlier.[1]

However, it is noteworthy that places of incarceration or detention were not a prominent feature of medieval Gaelic law in Ireland. The brehon legal system dealing with what we might today consider crime was one which was primarily a system of torts, whereby those wronged (or their families) could claim an éraic (blood price) as compensation. This is not to say that holding an individual was not unheard of – hostage taking as enforcement for political treaties was a feature, but incarceration was not a part of the pre-Norman Gaelic system in the way we would understand it today.[2]

Extract from the Dublin ‘Chain Book’

With the growth of the common law state in Ireland from the early thirteenth century onwards, we begin to see the emergence of the medieval gaol. Obviously nothing like a modern prison, where incarceration and loss of liberty is the punishment, it was more a holding pen for the accused until itinerant justices on gaol delivery visited to try the prisoners. Whilst the shiring of parts of Ireland under English control led to the growth of a county infrastructure including the medieval gaol, there were also many places of confinement independent of that system, such as gaols in liberties or corporate towns and cities. And indeed they also featured gaol breaks, such as that in 1356 when serial escapees Thomas Lawless and Thomas Coltherd (both clerks convict), escaped on one occasion from the Archbishop of Dublin’s gaol in Swords (ten miles north of Dublin) during the night by way of an underground tunnel.[3]

The flurry of creations of new counties in Ireland between the Marian and Jacobean eras created many new institutions. Whilst it is clear that each new county would require the erection of a county gaol for those without bail to be confined in until the Autumn and Spring assizes could be held, we must not also forget that many smaller, newer jurisdictions also had places of incarceration. For example, as late as 1666, letters patent for the creation of the borough of Portarlington in the midlands accounted for not only the establishment of manorial courts and a court of piepowder, but also the erection of a town gaol for which the patron, Henry Bennet, first earl of Arlington, was to have power to appoint the keeper.[4]

Dublin’s Gaols

Within a relatively small area of the walled city of Dublin (south of the river) there were several places of confinement. Dublin castle was an obvious one that had been prominent since the arrival of the Normans and in it had various types of accommodation such as that of the dungeon-like underground spaces, but also more generous rooms which could be occupied by VIP prisoners, such as John Atherton, Bishop of Waterford & Lismore, in the days immediately before his departure to the afterlife. Directly to the west on Werburgh Street was the Marshalsea of the Four Courts, mostly holding debtors; in the same block was the Tholsel which also contained an ‘upper and lower gaol’, which probably acted as a gaol for the city court, further along the walls was Newgate, holding mostly remand prisoners for both county and city of Dublin; and further north-west again along the city walls was the Black Dog. The latter two institutions became particularly notorious for their squalid conditions and inhumane keepers. It is important to remember that not all gaols have specific functions and whilst Newgate may be generally regarded as remand gaol for those awaiting trial and the Black Dog primarily a debtors’ prison, there was no hard and fast rule as to where prisoners would end up.

The seventeenth century brought a new aspect to the carceral state. This was the development of the house of correction. Legislated for in the Irish parliament of 1634-5, the ‘Act for the erecting of Houses of Correction and for the punishment of rogues, vagabonds, sturdy beggars, and other lewd and idle persons’ sought to create houses of correction in every county in the kingdom.[5] Although they were supposed to be built within eighteen months of the passing of the legislation, we know that even the more established counties were struggling to have theirs up and running even by the early 1640s but most counties probably had a house of correction by the restoration period.

It allowed for the incarceration of what were considered vagabonds and idle poor, putting these people to work and thus ‘solving’ the problem of the idle poor, and it was also felt it would address the issues of particularly urban crime and disease control. However, it is noteworthy that the fragments that remain for both quarter sessions and the assize hearings of the later seventeenth century suggest that the houses of correction were used by judges for incarceration, where the other alternatives would have been a fine, corporal, or perhaps even a capital sentence. As such then, even as early as the seventeenth century, the state was using the prison in the modern sense whereby the loss of liberty for a defined period of time was the punishment, rather than simply using the gaol to hold the prisoner until gaol delivery or subsequent punishment. For example, in Tipperary in April 1663, Catherine Browne was sentenced to three months for the theft of a ‘sheete’ from Thomas Smith.[6] Similarly, William Morryson and Roger Hennesey were both sentenced to a period in the house of correction for ‘plucking cherries in ye orchard of his Grace yt Duke of Ormond’.[7] Indeed, legislation from the 1660s specifically designated periods of confinement as the punishment for breaches of several statutes.[8]

Descriptions of gaol conditions are not plentiful, and sometime those that do exist may have been exaggerated for effect. We can be sure that on occasion, they were not pleasant. An example, found in the annual Jesuit report in 1614 from the head of the mission in Ireland, John Bushlock, to headquarters in Rome, is worth quoting in detail. It copies detail from a petition to the lord deputy by Thomas and Anthony Kearnan, and seven other Catholics, bound in chains in gaol in Cavan for attending Mass, and thus they were not what we might describe as ordinary decent criminals:

…the prison warder is so inhumanely enraged against us that he has confined us all together in the most loathsome prison cell, accommodation that should simply never be assigned to a Christian man. For indeed, besides the droves of swarming vermin there which most horribly infest the cave, the filth that has been left by prisoners over many previous years has grown into such a heap that we fear we may die of the stench. The guard is so far removed from compassion for these misfortunes that instead he is becoming more resistant to our pleas and will not allow the heap of filth either to be brought outside at our expense or (which is more inhumane) to be covered over by straw or some other covering. Then, to the rest of the barbarity he also added this increase in our punishment, that he barred us from any access to the gifts of nature itself. For no sunlight reached this cave apart from what came through the small hole in the door, but when a lath was placed over this on the outside, we were completely shut up within. Meanwhile, surrounded by darkness and almost suffocating, we could not obtain a lamp by any prayer or at any price. But his malevolence towards us is not even contained within these limits. For, following his own impulse as to the extent of our hunger and thirst, he often withholds the food prepared for our necessity, and when we receive food it is according to his will, and it is not let through the closed door intact, but it is broken into small pieces passed through the hole. And he does these things with the intention that, in order to get a lodging a little more desirable, we might each gather every week a payment of thirty pennies, in a free gift of seventy florins, which we have paid out since this last parliament and can by no means be paid back.[9]

It is little wonder that some prisoners were enthusiastic to escape, although in some cases, it may be that the experience of hardship was perhaps something to be endured as part of one’s religious experience and a strong expression of faith. Considering this description of the conditions, perhaps it is no surprise that in early 1592 ‘Red’ Hugh O’Donnell was willing to escape down a silk rope and through the imperfect toilet system of Dublin Castle, perhaps not all that unlike the fictional Shawshank Redemption.[10]

Rev. William Lackey had been involved in the Dublin Plot (sometimes remembered as Blood’s Plot) in the early 1660s, brought to a head in the early summer of 1663, where several of the plotters were captured, tried, and some were executed. Lackey had avoided the noose upon conviction after he had exhibited signs of severe mental illness, having seen the devil in the courtroom at his trial.[11] He was returned to gaol having been found guilty but not yet sentenced. Some months later, in mid-November, he escaped dressed as a woman, having had his iron filed off by two visitors, also supposed to have been his co-conspirators dressed as women. They lodged him not far from the gaol and he was discovered the following day by a servant whom he’d asked to help him down off a wall. After being returned to Newgate gaol, he was asked by Justice Aston if there were any reason why sentence should not be passed, his escape having convinced the judge of his sanity. He replied that he had only escaped because of the miseries and hardships of prison, and thanked God he was in a better condition to answer for himself than when he was last in that place.[12] The comical nature of his execution will be dealt with in a later blog post.

Of course it was not just Irish gaols that were breakable – even the most famous prison in the islands, the Tower of London, could be broken, and Irish prisoners did on occasion escape. Sir Daniel O’Neill, a prominent royalist and later post-master general for Ireland, broke from the Tower of London after his arrest for involvement in the Army Plot, again allegedly dressed as a woman.[13] At risk of stating the obvious, the disguise seems to have been a popular one amongst Irish men. In 1691 Mark Baggot was taken as a spy, dressed as a woman, and apparently Richard Talbot escaped from the slaughter at Drogheda dressed in a distinctly feminine fashion in 1649.[14]

Whilst those breakers were recaptured or free to cause more mayhem in a celebrated fashion, we rarely see the aftermath of a gaol break in terms of what becomes of those running the gaols. However, we do have some examples. Late in Queen Elizabeth’s time, Jane Hopp, widow to the previous gaol keeper of:

her maties Geole at Molyngare in the countye of Westmeath, to which Jayle ther were comytted emongest others two notorious and knowen traytores of the Sept of Newgents [an Anglo-Norman marcher family, known to go rogue on occasion]. And at a generall Cessions last holden at Molingare the Justices of Assize, finding that the escaping of the saide two Newgents would breeded great danger to the quiet of those borders, gave special chardge unto the said Jane Hopp, neithe regardinge the Comaundement of the said Justices nor the care she outght to have hadd for the saffekepinge of all prysoners comytted to her Chardge, she negligentlie and carelesslye sufferde them to escape, Whereby great trouble and gar’boyle is likelie to happen in that Countie by the escape of so daungerous traytors.[15]

After hearing evidence read and witnesses heard representing both sides, the Court of Castle Chamber adjudged that on 6 May 1597 ‘the said Jane Hopp shall paie to her matie for a fyne the some of two hundred pounds and suffer ymprisonment during the Lo Deputyes pleasure’.

By 1663, Philip Alden, a double-agent who had infiltrated the Dublin Plot and kept government in Dublin well-informed of its development long before it came to a head, had to be escaped from gaol. He had been captured in the roundup in May in order to preserve his cover, and so his escape could allow him to further report on radical activity in both Ireland and England in the years that followed. The timing was important as Vernon, his handler within Dublin Castle, had just gotten the lord lieutenant’s permission to ‘flower the gallows’ the following week. He commented in his letter to London that ‘so subtle was the knave that ’tis not imagined how he broke loose, for the window bar that he broke was upon the top of all the Castle in the highest turret.’[16] In the same letter, Vernon points out that the unfortunate constable of the castle was turned out of his employment for failing to prevent the escape, and the lord lieutenant assured Bennet in London that the escape was due to the negligence of the constable.[17] So strong was the ruse, that the earl of Orrery, a man who prided himself on the quality of his intelligence network, was still referring to Alden as one of ‘two notorious villains of this country’ as late as November 1665.[18]

So whilst the early modern Irish prison was developing in a fashion that was considerably different from its medieval counterpart, both in terms of purpose-built gaols and houses of creation in each county in Ireland and in terms of how they were used, some problems associated with the medieval prison remained. Why was prison so easy to break in early modern Ireland? It is difficult to say with any certainty, but some tentative points could probably be made with some degree of confidence. In the first instance, many of the places of incarceration were not necessarily purpose-built, or were so old that they were no longer entirely fit for purpose. This is certainly the case with many of the medieval structures of buildings such as Dublin Castle or Newgate prison in Dublin – regular complaint was made about the poor accommodations both for prisoners and non-prisoners alike. Secondly, even for the purpose-built institutions, the staff arrangements were not those of a modern prison. Most of those working in the system were obviously not specifically trained for the role, nor were they centrally contracted to a prison service. Their payment was extracted from prisoners directly and gaol security may not have been their primary consideration. Visitors were permitted into the cells, and sometimes were left alone with the prisoners. These and many other reasons conspired to allowed for a more porous system than should have been permitted. It is also especially noteworthy, especially considering just how violent early modern Ireland was, that almost all of the prison breaks that we know of involved guile and deception rather than riot or violence.

Perhaps the situation in seventeenth-century Ireland best shows the relative shortcomings of state power. 1603 had been a watershed year not just for the obvious change from a Tudor to a Stuart era, but also for the fact that it saw the end of independent Gaelic political power, and the final emergence of an island-wide criminal justice system in the years that followed. The gaol system was a somewhat hotchpotch mix of semi-private institutions and unlike the more highly regulated system that is evident in the modern system of imprisonment. With infrastructural funding frequently lacking and staff incomes sometimes unsure, it should not be a surprise that the system had faults and that prisoners did sometimes escape from their confines. The very obvious poor standards of accommodation for the prisoners, particularly those from the lower classes, need not have been problematic for society or the state, as prisoners of the criminal justice system were not usually there for the longer term, as they are today.


Dr Coleman A. Dennehy is a historian and criminologist based at the Humanities Institute, University College Dublin. He has published many books, articles, and chapters, mostly on Irish parliamentary, legal, constitutional, and criminal justice history. He is currently writing a book on crime and punishment in early modern Ireland to be published by Bloomsbury in their series, ‘History of Crime, Deviance, and Punishment’.


Feature: Anon, Ouer-Throw of an Irish Rebell, in a Late Battaile: Or the Death of Sir Carey Adoughertie Who Murdred Sir George Paulet in Ireland; And for His Rebellion Hath His Head Now Standing Ouer Newgate in Dublin (London, 1608). Wikimedia. Public Domain.

J. Speed, The theatre of the empire of Great Britaine: presenting an exact geography of the kingdomes of England, Scotland, Ireland (London, 1611/12), commonly known as Speed’s Map of Dublin. Stars added by Coleman Dennehy. Wikimedia. Public Domain.

The Chain Book of the City of Dublin, f. 18b; calendared and printed in J.T. Gilbert, Calendar of Ancient Records of Dublin in the possession of the Municipal Corporation of that City (Dublin, 1889), vol. 1, pp. 247-9. Internet Archive. Public Domain.


[1] For a general introduction to the early development of English law in Ireland, see G. Hand, English Law in Ireland, 1290-1324 (Cambridge, 1969).

[2] F. Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law (Dublin, 1991); K. Nicholls, Gaelic and Gaelicized Ireland in the Middle Ages (2nd edn, Dublin, 2003), pp. 50-74.

[3] The National Archives, Patentee Rolls, 15 March 1356, 30 Edward III, pt. 1, m. 15.

[4] C.A. Dennehy, ‘The Earl of Arlington and Restoration Ireland’, in R. Eagles & C.A. Dennehy, Henry Bennet, Earl of Arlington, and His World: Restoration Court, Politics and Diplomacy (New York, 2021), p. 61.

[5] A paper read to the Prisons, Asylums, Workhouses: Institutions in Ireland Conference in Belfast was read in July 2019 by this author.

[6] National Library of Ireland, MS 4,908, April 1663, f. 5v, case no. 46.

[7] National Library of Ireland, MS 11,048-54, 27 July 1674, case no. 11, 12. The page containing the entry is torn at the exact place where the length of the sentence would have been written.

[8] See C.A. Dennehy, ‘Crime, criminal policy, and law reform in seventeenth-century Irish parliaments’, The Journal of Legal History, 44/1 (2023) [forthcoming].

[9] Irish Jesuit annual letters, 1604-1674, ed. V. Moynes (2 vols, Dublin, 2019), vol. 1, pp. 407-8.

[10] Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, ed. J. O’Donovan (7 vols, Dublin, 1856), vol. 6 p. 1912.

[11] The National Archives, SP 63, 314, 2, Vernon to Williamson, 1 July 1663.

[12] The National Archives, SP 63, 315, 25, ‘A relation of the manner of apprehending William Lackey on Sunday, 15 November 1663.

[13] Anon., Oneales escape out of the tower of London on Thursday last being the 5 day of this present May 1642: together with the supposed manner and means of his escape (London, 1642); J.J. Cronin, ‘O’Neill, Daniel’, Dictionary of Irish Biography.

[14] É. Ó Ciardha, ‘Jacobite jail-breakers, jail birds: The Irish fugitive and prisoner in the early modern period‘, Migrants & Minorities, 32/1(2014), p. 5; Anon., The discovery made by Captain Mark Baggot, the person lately taken in woman’s clothes (London, 1691).

[15] British Library, Add. MS 47,172, f. 129. A full transcript of this manuscript can be found in J. Crawford, A star chamber court in Ireland: the court of castle chamber, 1571-1641 (Dublin, 2005), appendix 1.

[16] The National Archives, SP 63, 313, 231, Vernon to Williamson, 19 June 1663.

[17] The National Archives, SP 63, 313, 233, Ormond to Bennet, 20 June 1663.

[18] The National Archives, SP 63, 319, 198, Orrery to Arlington, 8 November 1665.

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