Sligo Gaol
Photograph courtesy National Library of Ireland

The History of Sligo Gaol

Sligo Gaol, or more correctly the County Prison, was constructed between 1815 and 1818, on a six and a half acre greenfield site to the east of Sligo town. It replaced an earlier,smaller 18 th century ‘house of correction’ at the old county courthouse, on the modern Teeling Street. This older gaol was considered ‘wretched’, and unregulated, holding up to 120 prisoners in just nine cells. Sligo Gaol was one of about five new gaols erected around Ireland during the period 1812 to 1820.

In 1813 three commissioners were appointed by the Grand Jury to supervise the provision of the new County Prison, and a polygonal plan, was designed by the Rev. Beecher, and approved by Francis Johnston, architect for the Office of Public Works. A sum of £22,000 was approved by the Grand Jury for the construction for the gaol, including about £500 for bedsteads and furniture. Construction started in 1815, carried out by the noted local builder, John Lynn, and by the Spring of 1818 about two-thirds of the gaol was completed and ready for occupation. The limestone for the gaol was quarried in Ballisodare. The plans for the new gaol were drawn up in accordance with the reforming attitudes towards prisons and punishment in late-eighteenth century Britain.

Emphasis was placed on the reform of the criminal, and stressed that fair and humane punishment would result in an offender who would not return to his or her ‘bad ways’.

The Gaol’s ‘panopticon’ or ‘all-seeing’ design centred around the Governor’s House, from which the cell block could be observed at all times. Both prisoner and guard were underconstant surveillance. The internal design was intended to allow for air circulation around
the buildings and its inmates, in order to avoid the spread of disease and sickness. There was separate accommodation for men, women, criminals, lunatics and children.

 

The completed prison was to hold 160 prisoners, and had 91 cells and 21 rooms with beds. In 1823 a treadmill and other additions were erected at a cost of £3,300. In 1828 the prison was enlarged and improved. The debtors’ prison on the west side, was converted into
solitary cells and lunatic cells, and new sewer was constructed to the river. The eastern side of the complex was the location of the women’s prison and also the hospital.

 

By the late 1830s there was also a school room, chapel, and doctor’s surgery within its walls. At the height of the Famine the occupancy of the gaol was recorded as 291, the highest number ever reached.

The first governor of Sligo prison was James Beatty, who was a governor for over thirty years. His annual wages in 1832 were £230 per year. In contrast, the assistant ‘Turnkeys’ were paid just £23 per year. There were about ten to fifteen staff running the prison, with
prisoners undertaking much of the physical work of cleaning.

 

Prison life was harsh, and inmates were required to carry out productive labours, such as blanket-making, shoe- making, tailoring and the picking of oakum, a tarred fibre for sealing gaps on sailing ships. Lunatics, the insane, debtors, petty thieves, robbers, sheep stealers and political agitators shared the building with murderers and violent criminals. Many prisoners were thrown into the gaol for minor crimes, for which they were often transported to the Australian colonies. After 1880 there were less imprisonments for petty crimes, but hangings took place in the gaol until 1903.

 

In the early twentieth century many political prisoners were locked up in the gaol; they included Michael Davitt, Charles S. Parnell, and Michael Collins.

Michael Davitt

Michael Colins

By 1944, there were rarely more than 24 prisoners in the gaol, and the average daily occupancy was only about eight; changes in the justice system meant that imprisonment was a last resort. 

 

Finally in June 1956, the government closed Sligo Gaol, and handed the buildings over to
Sligo County Council.

Kindly By Fiona Gallagher, Historian 

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