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The History of Cork City Gaol

Cork City Gaol

Cork City Gaol, one of Cork’s foremost visitor attractions, has drawn almost two million people since it opened to the public in 1993. In another age, it was the city’s main prison for almost exactly 100 years. Its past ‘residents’ include Constance Markiewicz, Todd Andrews, the writer Frank O’Connor and a number of prominent Young Irelanders and Fenians from 1848 and 1867.




It was, declared Constance Markiewicz, quite the most comfortable prison she had yet stayed in. The ‘rebel countess’ was entitled to opine, having previously served time in HM’s gaols at Holloway, Aylesbury and Mountjoy. In Cork City Gaol, she enjoyed a fine view of the River Lee from her cell. She could also enjoy a garden that bloomed in magnificent pinkness during the summer months of 1919. Indeed, she built a rock garden for the gaol’s governor who, in turn, permitted her friends to drop off packages of, one assumes, above average food. At night, when the world was quiet, she watched moths dance amid the shadows of the prison bars.




It was always a cut above. The gaol owes its origins to mounting despair amongst the city fathers over the existing Bridewell at Northgate Bridge which, by 1800, was overcrowded, falling down and extremely unhygienic. The bosses were particularly unhappy that ‘convicts and prostitutes’ should be held in ‘a tiny room, about 24 feet square’ alongside ‘married women in for trifling assaults, breaches of the peace, first offences &c’. Worse, ‘ten or twelve children are also inmates of this shocking abode, night and day’. [1] The report called for separate quarters for ‘the worst and most depraved convicts,’ who were otherwise ‘suffered to remain in constant association with untried prisoners, many of them children’.

In 1806, the city bosses secured money for a new gaol by an Act of Parliament. Ten years rolled by before a suitable site was found on a hillside above the booming city, midway between Farranree and the ancient healing spring of Sunday’s Well.

When the architect William Robertson of Kilkenny sent his plans down to Cork, there was a considerable hullabaloo over where to find a competent draughtsman to copy them. At length, a young man called John Hogan worked night and day with a grey goose quill to finish the sketch drawings. Hogan, whose father had been a foreman the Deane family, went on to become one of Ireland’s greatest neo-classical sculptors. [2]


The Deane Family


The architect Sir Thomas Deane.

The building project was carried out by the eminent Cork architectural family firm of Deane and initially overseen by Elizabeth Deane (née Sharpe). She was the widow of Alexander Deane, one of the city’s most eminent architects, who died suddenly in 1806. Alexander Deane’s grandfather emigrated from Ayrshire to Cork via Kinsale, where he held the post of Outdoor Customsman. Alexander’s father David Deane married into the well-established Cork building firm of Kearns.

Mrs. Deane was evidently a very capable woman, running the business as the same time as she raised her eight children under the age of 14, the eldest being the future Sir Thomas Deane (1792-1871). In 1811, 19-year-old Thomas designed his first building, the Cork Commercial Buildings (now the Imperial Hotel), on South Mall, won in competition against William Wilkins (1778-1839). In 1815, aged just 23, he was elected Mayor of Cork. He would serve three terms as Mayor of Cork, the latter two in 1830 (the year he was knighted) and 1851.

Deane would go on design many of Cork’s finest buildings including the superb quadrangle on the University College campus, as well as St Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam. His son Sir Thomas Newenham Deane designed both the National Museum and National Library on Dublin’s Kildare Street, while his grandson Sir Thomas Manly Deane was the architect who designed the Reading Room at Trinity College Dublin.


Construction of the Gaol


The City Gaol project began in 1818 and took six years to complete. While Thomas Deane was engaged as contractor, the actual building work was supervised by his brother-in-law Richard Notter of Goleen who was also a partner in the company.

Its construction coincided with one of the most distinguished periods in Cork’s architectural history. Although its proportions are classical, turreted battlements and dripstones over the barbican entrance gives the gaol a distinctly Gothic vibe. Circular turrets also do much to soften the otherwise austere tone. The red sandstone used in the building was quarried from the surrounding hills.

The main building is shaped like the letter ‘H’, with the Governor’s House forming the central block, and surrounded by an oval wall. The Governor’s House was linked to the cell wings by three-storey high circular drum galleries. The Catholic and Protestant chapels lay in circular towers at the end of each cell wing, while the Infirmary and Debtors Prison (or Marshalsea) lay behind the main block.

The entire complex is accessible by a study, nail-studded Irish oak door. Lest anyone forget this is a prison, ‘the fatal drop’ still stands directly above the doorway. That said, a visitor in 1849 noted that the hangman’s noose was ‘happily but very rarely employed’. [3]

A description by William Shaw Mason from 1819 notes:

‘The new city gaol is at present building its site is at Sunday’s well, a beautiful and healthy outlet. The building, if finished according to the intended plan, will be very ornamental and both secure and commodious; the old city gaol is partly in this parish and partly in that of the Holy Trinity’. [4]

When it opened on 3 June 1824, Cork City Gaol was variously hailed as ‘the finest gaol in the three Kingdoms’ and ‘a model of prison discipline’. Two years later, the Inspectors General of Prisons wrote that Cork boasted the worthiest example of ‘internal management’ in Ireland. They applauded the Rev Dr Quarry, the local inspector, for his ‘clear views of prison discipline’ and his ‘indefatigable exertions’ to ensure ‘the order which prevails’. They were less impressed by the matron of the female wards who, though ‘anxious to do her duty’, lacked the necessary qualifications.

The first inmates were prisoners, male and female, who were destined to sail for Australia on the convict ships that anchored off Cobh (Queenstown). By the 1830s, over 40,000 such luckless souls had been shipped out. [5]

The gaol was initially divided into two equal sections, one male, one female. However, by 1837, the prison had been divided into 32 wards – 8 for male and 1 for female debtors, 9 for male and 8 for female culprits, with the remaining 6 set aside as hospital wards. There were also 102 prison cells – 54 housing 162 males, and 48 for 96 females. In 1835, there were 851 male and 283 female prisoners. [6]

Rebel Stronghold


John Sarsfield Casey

Brian Dillon, who was held in Cork Gaol in 1867.

James Mountaine

Cork City Gaol inevitably played host to leaders from all the major rebellions against British rule in the 19th and early 20th century. In August 1848, for instance, its occupants included a number of Young Irelanders, mostly radical barristers who dabbled in nationalist poetry and song-writing. They were imprisoned for four months under the Habeas Corpus (Suspension) Act of 1848.

Amongst these were Denny Lane (owner of the Glynstown Distillery at Riverstown, County Cork, who wrote the ballad ‘Carrigdhoun’), M. J. Barry (‘The Witch of Kilkenny’) and Ralph Varian (“Mo Bouchailín Bán / My White-headed Boy”), as well as Ralph’s brother Isaac Varian and Felix Mullan. [7]

There is also an, as yet, unproven tradition that Terence Bellew McManus spent his last night in the gaol before transportation. [8] He was the man who reasoned that he took up arms ‘not because I loved England less, but because I loved Ireland more’.

After the Cork antiquarian John Windele visited the gaol during this period, he wrote:

‘About midway in Sunday’s Well stands the City Gaol, a recent construction, with some abortive efforts at castellation. The entrance is a barbican flanked with towers, and over the door way is the fatal drop – happily but very rarely employed. The centre of the Prison contains the Governor’s lodgings, at either side of which are the chapels within large circular towers. The prisons branch off from these and terminate in similar towers. The cost of its erection was £60,000. The Inspectors General on the state of Irish prisons have reported favourably of the Cork Goal as respects its good order, cleanliness and interior arrangement. It possesses a tread wheel to execute the sentence to hard labour and a school in which considerable attention is paid to moral reformation.’ [9]

In 1863, extensive riots in Cork led to the incarceration of another generation of radicals including the white-haired James Mountaine, a boot and shoe shop owner who is regarded as Cork’s first Fenian. Mountaine was interned in the gaol again during the ill-fated Fenian Rising of 1867 and died soon after his release the following year. Also detailed in 1867 was ‘Little Dillon,’ aka Brian Dillon, the second Corkman after Mountaine to take the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) oath.

John Sarsfield Casey, another Fenian, was also held in the gaol before he was deported to Australia in 1867. He described his prison experiences in ‘The Galtee Boy- A Fenian Prison Narrative’, claiming it was a good deal nicer than other prisons he stayed, and applauding the leniency of the elderly Governor, John B Murphy, an ancestor of Cork GAA legend Jimmy Barry Murphy. Born in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork, in 1846, Casey had become involved with the IRB while still at school. After his release on ticket-of-leave, he returned to Ireland in 1869, became active in nationalist politics and the Land League and was elected coroner for East Limerick in 1878.  [10]

Whilst there were nearly 30 instances of a prisoner being sentenced to solitary confinement in 1869-1870, this generally meant the prisoners were confined to their own bedroom rather than a specific punishment cell. There were also only two instances of whipping during that period.



In 1870, the west wing was remodelled into a spacious, double-sided cell wing, with the cells now accessed by a high arched hallway. The following year, prison inspector Charles Bourke gave a somewhat critical review of the gaol. He noted that while 37 prisoners were engaged in punitive labour (cleaning the prison, breaking stones, working the treadmill and washing), there were now 22 males and 39 females industriously employed in spinning and carding, mat-making, clog-making and binding, tailoring, sewing, weaving, carpentry, tin work and picking oakum by unravelling old tarry ropes and cordage. [11]


Women’s Gaol


Constance Markiewicz

Under the terms of the General Prisons (Ireland) Act 1878, Cork City Gaol became women only. One of the first women incarcerated here was 21-year-old Hannah Reynolds, a lynchpin of the short-lived Ladies Land League, who was charged at Berehaven with inciting one of the Earl of Bantry’s tenants to refuse to pay rent. She was offered bail in exchange for good behaviour but declined and was thus given a four-week sentence. [12]

During the War of Independence, many women from Cumann na mBan were sent to Cork City Gaol. In April 1919, de Valera formed his new government in Ireland and appointed Constance Markievicz to be the new Minister of Labour. She was arrested a few weeks later, while travelling between Mallow and Newmarket, and sentenced to four months in Cork City Gaol. This was the time of pink gardens and dancing moths that she later spoke so favourably of, although her incarceration also coincided with a strike by the prisoners in protest at having to wear a prison uniform. The authorities relented and the women were allowed to wear their own clothes.

Another inmate was Mary Bowles, a 13-year-old from Cork City who was arrested by the Black and Tans for hiding a Lewis gun. She became a cause célèbre in the city when, following rumours that she was being tortured for information, the Bishop of Cork intervened and secured her release.


Civil War Gaol


During the Civil War, the Free State government interned some 12,000 opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Amongst them was the prolific short story writer Frank O’Connor who was briefly held in Cork City Gaol, during which time his disillusionment with nationalism began to surface. On one of the cell walls today, you can see the signature of a ‘Michael O’Donovan’ beside a small sketch. Although it has yet to be proven that this was O’Connor, his real name was Michael O’Donovan.

Frank O’Connor

Other Civil War prisoners include Todd Andrews, who co-founded Fianna Fail in 1926, and Jim Hurley, who had led the Third Cork Brigade’s flying column in the War of Independence and went on to play both hurling and football for Cork.

Cork City Gaol closed in August 1923, three months after the end of the Civil War and 99 years after it first opened. Its inmates were either released or transferred elsewhere.


Transformation of the Gaol

While the top floor of the Governor’s House served as a broadcasting station for Radio Eireann (now RTE) from 1927 until 1958, the remainder of the prison was abandoned. In 1934 all the gaol fittings were disposed of at auction. An Post used the site as a training and storage facility during the 1980s but by 1992, the prison was a roofless and derelict ruin.

In the late 1980s, Cork businessman Diarmuid Keneally secured a 300-year lease on the property. Together with his late wife Mary and Mary’s sister Elizabeth Kearns, he launched an innovative restoration. The gaol reopened as a public visitor attraction on 2 June 1993, complete with wax models, furnished cells and appealing audio-visual exhibitions.

In 2012, the game makers Winning Moves assigned the 19th century prison one of the most prestigious squares on the Monopoly board for a special ‘County Cork’ edition of the classic game.

Open from Monday to Sunday, 7 days a week, 9.30am to 5pm.




With thanks to Dr. Hilary Lennon (School of English, University College Cork), Noelle Moran (Executive Editor, UCD Press), Patrick Maume (editor of ‘The Galtee Boy – A Fenian Prison Narrative’), Tommy Mullane (General Manager, Cork City Gaol), Paul O’Regan (Assistant Librarian, Local Studies Dept, Cork City Libraries) and Ros Dee (Irish Daily Mail).


Further Reading


Appendix 1

Cork Gaol, Fourth Report upon the Prisons of Ireland, House of Commons papers, Volume 23, HMSO, 1826, p. 41-42.

‘This new gaol is, at length, fully occupied; and I had great satisfaction in seeing the regularity with which all the details have been arranged: the best classification I have met with in any gaol has been established. The prisoners were almost all clothed; and from their demeanour and cleanliness evinced the care of the board of superintendence, and the zeal and efficiency of the working officers. The whole system reflects great credit on the city of Cork and it is a tribute due to the local inspector, the Rev Dr Quarry, to say that his clear views of prison discipline, and his indefatigable exertions, have mainly contributed to establish the order which prevails. The gaol is erected on a good plan, though not the most modern, providing no cells and 13 classes completely separated; and so soon as employment shall be procured for all those not sentenced to the tread mill (which the board are about to arrange) and the schooling more extensively applied to all prisoners I should not hesitate to say I know of no gaol system in Ireland, on the whole, more worthy of example for internal management. Work for every inmate of a prison is so great a desideratum in moral government that it cannot long exist without it, and I take this opportunity of urging it strongly on the consideration of the board of superintendence.
The female department will require much attention, as the matron does not possess all the high qualifications of this important office; however, she is anxious to do her duty, and the classes were clean, orderly, and at work; she should visit the county gaol and get instruction from the matron there, who is highly qualified in every particular.
I met the board of superintendence, and communicated with them on these subjects. The infirmary and debtors class should be immediately furnished and occupied.
Machinery for pounding hemp, or other useful labour, should be applied to the treadmill.
The governor’s house and some of the walls are very wet, from a defect in the roof, I believe, and should be attended to, and a pavement channel should be made to convey the water from the hill.
The accommodation this gaol affords consists of 14 yards, 8 day rooms, 110 cells with infirmary, chapel and marshalsea.’



[1] ‘Report of the committee: With an appendix, Volumes 1-5, by Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline and for the Reformation of Juvenile Offenders’ (London, England), p. 77.

[2] The Dublin university magazine: Volume 35 – Page 76, 1850.

[3] Historical and descriptive notices of the City of Cork and its vicinity, John Windele, 1849, p. 44.

[4] p. 371, ‘A Statistical Account, Or Parochial Survey of Ireland: Drawn Up from the Communications of the Clergy,’ Volume 3, William Shaw Mason (Graisberry and Campbell, 1819).

[5] In 1832, the governor was John Welsh [Walsh], the Inspector and Chaplain was the Rev John Quarry LLD, the Catholic priest was the Rev William Delany and the prison physician was Surgeon B. Evans MD. (The Treble Almanack, 1832, by John Watson Stewart).

[6] According to Samuel Lewis’s ‘Topographical Dictionary of Ireland’ in 1837: ‘The city gaol is a castellated building, situated on an eminence near Sunday-well. It was at first divided into two equal compartments, one for males and the other for females; but the original arrangement has been altered, and the prison is now divided into 32 wards, 8 for male and 1 for female debtors, 9 for male and 8 for female culprits; the remaining 6 are hospital wards. There are 54 cells, affording accommodation for 162 male culprits; and 48 for females, accommodating 96. Each ward has a day room and airing-yard, and in one of these is a treadmill used to raise water for the supply of the prison. Separate places of worship are fitted up for Protestants and Roman Catholics: the number of prisoners committed, in 1835, was 263 male and 153 female criminals; 245 male and 99 female misdemeanants; 29 soldiers; 314 male and 31 female debtors, making a total of 851 males and 283 females. The expenditure for that year was £2557. 3. 6.’

[7] One wonders whether Denny Lane was related to Margaret Lane who was married in 1837 to Richard Notter, the man who originally built the jail.

[8] As Cork City librarian Paul O’Regan explained, this comes from the most complete history of the prison, Cork City Gaol, by John L. O’Sullivan (Litho Press, Midleton, 1996). However, while T. F. O’Sullivan in The Young Irelanders confirms that McManus was arrested in Cork Harbour, he does not specify where he was imprisoned. Amongst the entries in the Cork Constitution at the time of the trial in Clonmel is a notification that Terence B McManus was sick in Richmond Bridewell (Dublin). As yet there seems to be no firm conformation that he was in Cork Prison.

[9] ‘Historical and descriptive notices of the City of Cork and its vicinity,’ John Windele, 1849, p. 44 & 45.

[10] See ‘The Galtee Boy – A Fenian Prison Narrative’ (UCD Press, 2004), by John Sarsfield Casey, with Mairead Maume, Patrick Maume and Mary Casey as editors.

[11] See Reports from Commissioners, Great Britain. Parliament. House of Commons, 1871.

[12] Jane Cote claimed she was charged under an ancient statute from the reign of Edward III specifically designed to keep prostitutes off the streets and imprisoned in December 1881. However, this does not seem to add up. [Fanny and Anna Parnell: Ireland’s patriot sisters, Jane McL. Côté (Macmillan, 1991), p. 207.