We interviewed Nick Taylor for this article that featured in today's Sligo Weekender. Nick is doing a wonderful job restoring the windows at the gaol and shares the same vision as us for the conservation of the gaol and the future provision of access to this unique building as a visitor attraction.
Here is the full text of the article, written by Brian McHugh:
Restoration expert says unique gaol should be opened for tours
Sligo gaol was ahead of its time in how it treated prisoners. And now if it were opened for tours it would add a new interesting attraction to Sligo. That’s the view of a man who works on the restoration of windows on the gaol that opened in 1823 and closed in 1956.
Collooney resident Nick Taylor has been employed at the gaol on and off basis for three years, whenever the County Council have funds for it. Nick was speaking as the recently formed Friends of Sligo Gaol group continue with their aim of helping to build community support for the conservation of Sligo Gaol with the eventual aim of opening it to the public.
The group is a voluntary body committed to working in partnership with Sligo County Council and others to achieve their aims while supporting the ongoing conservation work of the Council.
Nick Taylor said: “If the gaol was opened up it would create employment and attract visitors. People could come in to town on trains and buses and take a walking tour of the town, take in the town centre and going eastwards visit Sligo Abbey and the gaol.
“It would add a new interesting attraction to Sligo. You don’t get many buildings left with such history attached that have not been modernised”.
A native of North West London, Nick has lived in Sligo since 1999. Before coming to Sligo, he had lived in East Galway from 1989. A carpenter and joiner, he also holds a degree from the University of London in Social Sciences and he does social work as a hobby.
His work at the gaol involves the repair and conservation of windows.
“I have been working there on and off for three years, whenever the County Council have funds available for it,” he said.
There are 240 windows on the gaol. About 40 of them have been restored so far. “My job is conservation work, putting them back to their original condition without modernising them.
“It is repairing what’s there, sometimes it is repairs that have already been done. It shows the continuity of the building through the ages. Some of the windows were made by prisoners in the gaol as craft work. Obviously they were amateurs. The windows were tarred black. We restored them in black.
“We did the windows in the Governors House, which is in use as council offices. We changed those and draught proofed them”.
Nick said the windows from the 19th century are in better condition than ones where parts of them were replaced over the years.
“The more modern pieces, were not as good as the original ones. There was a better quality of timber used in the originals. The pitch pine timber would have been shipped into Sligo form America. So we try to keep as much of the old originals as possible.
“In the cells, so far we have done windows in the section called the debtors prison. It had larger windows, better cells, a bit more lights and warmer. These cells housed Michael Collins, Michael Davitt among others. And basically professional people who did not pay their debts”.
When Nick first came to the gaol it was winter and he was taken aback by the level of dampness and the cold of the building. “All the windows on the west side were broken. The first task was to stop the rain blowing in from that side, which has made it much drier now.
“About one window in six windows are now done. The remaining ones are smaller. The most exposed and highest part is done,” he said.
When Nick starts on a window, he first takes it apart and strips it. “From the shape of the mouldings you can tell what era it comes from”. He spends about four days restoring each window.
He said it is very time consuming work. “But it gives me time to think about all the other important things that go with the building. You spend time in the building and you get a sense of the history of it and what went on there”.
He said the structure of the building is interesting. “It was quite revolutionary in its time. “It is the only one of its type left standing. The semi-circular shape that was there, half of it is gone for the construction of the fire station.
“The Governor lived in the Governor’s House in the centre. It was an assertion of authority, he could see all that was going on from his house. “It was a form of bringing prisoners back into line. Before the gaol was built they were locked up in the old courthouse building.
“It was a case of throwing them in there, until they served their sentences, or were transported to another prison or were hanged”.
But in the gaol, there was an attempt to have prisoners work, learn something or go through a form of rehabilitation.
Nick said this policy was the brainchild of Jeremy Bentham, a social philosopher from the late 18th century. “It was his style of raional thinking. We have a lot of people who behaved badly, what do we do with them?
“While punishing them, we give them useful work, feed them, give them a relatively clean environment to live in, then some of them might be rehabilitated back into society. “The Governors House in the middle was the focus of that. It is like what you do to a bold child, try to bring it back to the fold”.
Nick said that when he first came to work in Sligo gaol he used to think of it as a grim place. “But now I have come round to regard it as a place where there was something positive about it. “At the time it was ahead of other gaols in how it treated prisoners. If you behaved properly you could be released a better person than when you went in”.
On the efforts to have the gaol opened for tours, Nick said: “As well as the everyday tourists, you could bring people from abroad who as philosophy students are interested in punishment in bygone times. It is a unique building from that time.”