What must it have been like to be held in a prison where the gallows was always visible? Suppose that you had been condemned to hang and would soon be climbing those wooden stairs and feel the hangman put the noose around your neck. The very stones of the place must have smelled of misery and hopelessness – the thoughts jostled through my mind when I visited Downpatrick Gaol, now a museum, in County Down, Northern Ireland.
- The gallows in Downpatrick Gaol
The late 18th century was a period of exceptional violence, both in Ireland, as well as in the rest of Europe and in America. It was also a time of reform and, supposedly, the Age of Enlightenment. There were an increasing number of people, in both America and Ireland, who wanted independence from Britain and were prepared to fight for it.
In March 1798, the Belfast Newsletter announced that the County Grand Jury of Down intended to build a new gaol for the County. It was to follow the recommendations of the great 18th century penal reformer, John Howard, who wanted purpose-built prisons built near the courts they served. They must be well lit and ventilated, with running water and sewerage, and have separate sleeping cells for each prisoner as well as day rooms for different classes of prisoners. This was an innovation, prior to that there was an indiscriminate mix of debtors and criminals, male and female, young and old. Howard also wanted properly paid prison wardens, and for the prison to have its own surgeon or apothecary, and a chaplain with no financial interest in their charges – this was important, the prevailing abuses of the system meant that prisoners were forced to pay if they wanted a single room, or decent food, say.
2. Bird’s eye view of the new Downpatrick gaol
County Down obviously agreed and the new Downpatrick gaol opened in 1796. It was hoped that the new building would have none of the overcrowding associated with the old prison system and would be an important tool in the reformation of society. However, the 1790s in Ireland were times of economic and political turmoil and the consequent rise in crime soon led to the gaol becoming overcrowded and increasingly incapable of working efficiently.
Most prisoners were held for very minor offences, for example, petty theft, or being a public nuisance (which could mean practically anything). It was also a convict gaol which held prisoners sentenced to transportation to New South Wales, who often had to wait months, or even several years, before they were actually transported.
3. Downpatrick Gaol. This building housed the prisoners
Thomas Reid, a naval surgeon, wrote a horrific eye-witness account in Travels in Ireland of conditions in Downpatrick Gaol:
‘About ten we arrived in Downpatrick, after breakfast visited the gaol, which is almost as bad as it is possible for a building of that sort to be…. Females of all descriptions, tried and untried, innocent and guilty, debtors and murderers, are all thrown together in one corrupting mass, and kept in a cell not near large enough. Sick or well there they must remain both night and day. There were twenty one thus confined when I saw it, one of whom had been sick for four months; it would not have surprised me had they all been sick….
‘The smell from some of the felon’s cells was intolerably offensive. The prison is insecure; and so wretchedly constructed, that, although room is much wanting, there is one yard of which no use is made; it is covered with weeds and long grass.’
4. The handsome Thomas Russell (1767-1803) Note his fashionable sideburns – a military touch.
It also held prisoners who fought for Irish independence from Britain in the 1798 rebellion, some of whom were hanged on the Downpatrick Gaol gallows. The most notable gallows’ victim was Thomas Russell, friend of the staunch Irish republican, Wolfe Tone. Russell met Tone in Paris during the French Revolution, together with another Irish revolutionary, Robert Emmet. Russell, Tone and Emmet all suffered violent deaths for their beliefs.
I saw the condemned cell in Downpatrick Gaol. It was tiny, dank, dark and had bare stone walls.
Thomas Russell became a local hero in Downpatrick. He was exceptionally tall and handsome; even the warrant for his arrest in 1803 was complimentary, describing him as ‘a tall, handsome man’ of ‘dark complexion, aquiline nose, large black eyes, with heavy eye-brows, good teeth, full-chested, walking generally fast and upright, and having a military appearance … with a clear distinct voice, and … a good address.’
A lot of interesting people visited Paris during the heady early years of the Revolution. I found myself imagining a dinner party in Revolutionary Paris with Thomas Russell, Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet (sure to be interesting on current affairs); the poet William Wordsworth, (a staunch Republican and he had a way with words) the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, (her views on men and marriage could stir things up a bit) and her American lover, Gilbert Imlay (unreliable – but a charmer). It would have made for a stimulating evening.
5. Downpatrick Gaol. The buildings behind the prisoners block
Russell himself comes across as an unworldly man and somewhat naïve. He was convivial, gracious, and thoughtful towards others but he was also deeply religious and introspective and had high moral principles. He was also, alas, the sort of man who found himself constantly in financial distress and he was dependent on the generosity of a number of friends who shared his political views.
He started his career in the army, but that didn’t suit him; several times, he thought of becoming ordained, and later, of trying his fortune in revolutionary France, of which he was a passionate admirer. He was also one of the very few supporters of an independent Ireland with an interest in Gaelic culture, a genuine sympathy for the local people and a supporter of Catholic emancipation..
6. Downpatrick Gaol, the Governor’s House
Together with Wolfe Tone, Russell was one of the founding members of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen. When war broke out between Britain and revolutionary France in February 1793, the Irish authorities clamped down on societies such as the United Irishmen. Russell believed that, with the help of the new Revolutionary France, a Revolution against the British could be successful. In his 1796 pamphlet A Letter to the People of Ireland on the Present Situation of the Country, he openly proclaimed himself one of the United Irishmen, by then a banned seditious organization. He argued that the ordinary people had been betrayed by the Irish gentry who were backed by England, and he championed the cause of the Catholics. The pamphlet was deemed seditious and, in 1796, a warrant was issued for his arrest. He was held until 1802 and then released.
He went to France to try and drum up support for a rising in Ireland against the British – though he distrusted Bonaparte. But the necessary support fizzled away and Russell was captured in September 1803. He was returned to Downpatrick and tried by special commission on 19 October. He high-mindedly refused to offer any defence, but delivered a speech which spoke of his religious feelings, called on the rich to look after the poor, and declared that many gentlemen of the jury had once shared the beliefs for which he was about to die. Russell was executed at Downpatrick Gaol on 21 October.
7. The restored entrance to Downpatrick Gaol, now the Museum
Russell’s memory has been kept alive in Downpatrick as a local hero, celebrated in the poem ‘The Man from God Knows where’ by Florence Wilson, which every local schoolchild knows.
It ends thus:
By Downpatrick gaol I was bound to fare
On a day I’ll remember, feth;
For when I came to the prison square
The people were waiting in hundreds there
An’ you wouldn’t hear stir nor breath!
For the sodgers were standing grim an’ tall
Round a scaffold built there foment the wall,
An’ a man stepped out for death!
I was brave and near to the edge of the throng,
Yet I knowed the face again,
An’ I knowed the set and I knowed the walk
An’ the sound of his strange up-country talk
For he spoke out right and plain.
Then he bowed his head to the swinging rope
Whiles I said ‘Please God’ to his dying hope
And ‘Amen’ to his dying prayer
That the wrong would cease and the right prevail
For the man that they hanged at Downpatrick gaol
Was the Man from God knows where.
Conditions in the prison after Thomas Russell’s death continued to deteriorate and the gaol was eventually demolished in 1830, and a new gaol built on a different site. Some of the site buildings became military barracks, and a temporary cholera hospital. The South Down Militia used it during the late nineteenth century. By 1980 what had once been Downpatrick Gaol was almost derelict and a decision was taken to restore the early prison, as far as was possible, to what it had once been and turn the old Dowmpatrick Gaol into a museum to showcase Downpatrick’s rich history (St Patrick is buried just outside the cathedral) and it aimed to attract both children from local schools, and visitors interested in history.
8. Sean Bean in ‘The Frankenstein Chronicles.’
The museum’s Heritage Manager, Mike King, told us how the gallows returned to the museum. In 2015, the director of The Frankenstein Chronicles (starring Sean Bean) asked to film there – and they wanted to build an exact replica of the scaffold and gallows in its original position in the prison yard – and in a state of readiness. With great presence of mind, Mike offered to waive the fee if the museum could keep it once the filming had ended. A lot of secondary school groups visited the museum and he thought they’d love it. He was right.
Gruesome or not, it’s a very visible reminder of the terror such a construction must have once inspired.
Photos: 1, 3 and 5 by Elizabeth Hawksley; 2, 4, 6, and 7 courtesy of Downpatrick Museum; 8, courtesy of Frankenstein Chronicles.
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