I paid an extremely pleasant, educational visit to Cork City Gaol yesterday.
I did not expect to be provoked to thinking about the role of crime and punishment in Irish, or any, society. But I was as a consequence of a few pieces of information I picked up on my quick tour.
The first fact that set me thinking was that conditions for ordinary people in the Cork and Munster area were so bad in the early nineteenth century that many committed petty crime to be jailed in the new jail in Cork city. At least there they did not have to worry about food and shelter. On the outside, after the failure of the potato crop for the second time, death by starvation was a real possibility.
The second thing that hit me was the central role that punishment such as whipping, the pillory, and rock breaking played in the daily lives of the prisoners. It was not enough that a person was deprived of their liberty and locked in a small, damp cell with only a view of the sky.
They were whipped and humiliated, too, be ingenious methods of inflicting punishment on other human beings.
Thirdly, I encountered a couple of stories of inmates who were children-one a ten year old girl, if memory serves me correctly.
This jail is worth a visit and I think it may prompt a change in your thinking to crime and punishment. For it is plain as a pikestaff that a massive amount of crime is committed out of economic necessity: petty thieving, robbing food or things that can be traded for money or food.
Meanwhile, on the outside in nineteenth century Cork and you were lucky to be born into one of the many families of wealth and privileges such as the Beamish family or Crawford family, or you were lucky to be a well-heeled resident of Sunday’s Well, your only concern with Cork City Gaol was the unseemly, disagreeable public hangings carried on at the front of the jail.
Until they moved all executions inside the jail, lest the sensibilities of ‘decent citizens’ were offended.