A Brief History of Armagh Gaol


Sean Barden


Curator, Armagh County Museum
Before the construction of the building we now know as Armagh Gaol, Armagh’s old prison had stood in Market Street beneath the sessions house since the 1600s. Journalist and historian James Stuart wrote about its dark history in 1819 and compared it to Avernus, the entrance to the underworld in classical Rome. (Stuart, 1819)

The architectural transformation of Armagh after 1770, during the primacy of Archbishop Richard Robinson, included a new county gaol at the north end of the common. The new Armagh Gaol was built around 1780 to a design by Thomas Cooley, who had previously designed Newgate prison in Dublin. (Butler, 2020) The new Armagh Gaol, a long and narrow building, was extended around 1818 to stretch some sixty-seven metres, but at just over eight metres deep there was little space behind its imposing façade.
James Black’s painting ‘Armagh City, 1810’ shows the rear of Armagh Gaol in its original state.
This detail from James Black’s painting ‘Armagh City, 1810’ shows the rear of Armagh Gaol in its original state. The courthouse can be seen at the opposite end of the Mall. Reproduced courtesy of Armagh County Museum.
A wave of prison reform led to a spate of new gaols being built during the last decade of the 1700s. This was unfortunate for Armagh Gaol – improving standards left it looking old-fashioned very quickly. The body responsible for maintaining the gaol was the county grand jury but over the next sixty years they made few improvements. The grand jury was an unelected body funded by a property tax called the grand jury cess; constant opposition from members representing the cess payers meant they frequently vetoed proposed improvements.

New buildings were needed in order to impose segregation. This system was designed to keep the sexes apart and make sure criminals did not mix with debtors (bankrupts); young inmates should not be imprisoned with older offenders and middle-class master debtors should be kept apart from pauper debtors. Armagh Gaol struggled for decades to live up to this ideal and the 1818 prison inspectors’ report noted that the gaol was “in a deplorable state.” (Prisons of Ireland: Report of Inspectors General, 1818) In 1824 four or five men were sleeping in a single cell, which the inspectors emphasised was “destructive to the moral government of the prisoners.” (Inspectors’ Reports, 1824, 1826)

The inspectors’ reports universally condemned the facilities at Armagh Gaol but also praised staff who made the most of limited resources. In 1826 plans by William Farrell to build a £9,000 enlargement behind the gaol were rejected by the grand jury and five years later they failed to act when the inspectors urged them to construct an extension on the “large yard recently purchased.” (Inspectors’ Reports, 1826, 1831) The only substantial building in the yard was the prison hospital dating from 1817 which had been built to the design of Francis Johnston.

Despite several proposals, such as William Murray’s 1837 plan that included four new wings, all that was produced were handsome drawings. By 1842 Armagh was the only remaining gaol in Ireland that had not been extended. (Inspectors’ Report, 1842) It would be 1846 before the grand jury was finally persuaded to act and Murray designed a single wing of sixty-one cells.

With building work underway in 1847 at the height of the Great Famine, the soaring crime rates and burgeoning prison population meant that the gaol was once again denounced by the inspectors, who described it as “the most miserable of all the ones visited that year.” (Inspectors’ Report, 1847)
“In 1847, the gaol was once again denounced by the inspectors, who described it as ‘the most miserable of all the ones visited that year’…”
By 1848 Murray’s extension – consisting of a male cell block and a new chapel, all lit by gas – was finally in use. However, with debtors and female prisoners still confined in the old building there was an urgent need for another new wing. Progress was faster with this project. Belfast architect John Boyd was appointed, and local contractors McCullough and Ross began work in March of 1853. (Armagh Guardian, 25 March 1853) By 1855 the new block, with thirty-eight cells for female prisoners, was ready. The following year the old Georgian building received some much-needed attention, getting a new hall, board room and offices. (Inspectors’ Report, 1856)

Segregation of prisoners was now possible, and it was easier to enforce the ‘separate’ system that isolated prisoners at night and banned any communication during daytime activities. Gas lighting was introduced into the cells in 1864 and those prisoners who were engaged in shoemaking and tailoring had light for two hours after lockup.

By 1866 the governor’s residence in the old building was completely renovated and the old Georgian exterior had been transformed too, including new windows and the removal of the gallows, giving the façade a less foreboding appearance. (Inspectors’ Report, 1865)

The only recurring complaint in the inspectors’ reports was the poor accommodation for debtors but this became a moot point when in 1869 an Act of Parliament ended the practice of indefinitely imprisoning debtors.
OS plan 1/500 Sheet 16 Armagh section showing jail.
This detail from the Town Plan of 1862 shows the original long narrow building at the top, the male and female wings below right and left respectively and the hospital standing separate on the left. Also visible are the radiating exercise yards and row of stone breaking sheds on the right. Reproduced from the Ordnance Survey 1/500 Armagh Town Plan (1862), courtesy of Armagh County Museum.
Aerial view of Armagh Gaol.
Aerial view of Armagh Gaol in 1975. The original building is to the right, Murray’s male wing bottom centre and the female wing on the left with the prison hospital just above. From the collection of the Northern Ireland Prisons Museum.
By 1920, Armagh Gaol had evolved into a female prison. The number of female political prisoners in Armagh Gaol grew exponentially in the early years of the conflict. Due to the growing prison population during this period, Armagh also housed some male internees and remand prisoners until 1973. In response to overcrowded conditions, the gaol was altered and its accommodation expanded. A third wing was added in 1975, although this has since been demolished. Temporary portacabins were built in the complex to facilitate visits and prison education.

Armagh Gaol closed in 1986, at which point all remaining prisoners were transferred to Maghaberry Prison. At the time of writing, in 2020, the site and buildings are still awaiting a new purpose.
Food and Hard Work

Prison food in the 1800s was meagre and plain. In 1843 a limit of 2½ pence was spent per prisoner per day on food. By 1849 diets were different for men, women and children but all were based on bread, milk and oatmeal stirabout. Dinner for men was fourteen ounces of bread and a pint of milk while women got twelve ounces of bread and three-quarters of a pint of milk. (Inspectors’ Report, 1849)

Those criminals whose sentence included hard labour were engaged at breaking stones for road metal. In 1872 a man was expected to break six hundred-weight of hard whinstone in an eight-hour day. (Inspectors’ Report, 1872) A treadmill had been introduced in 1831; this tiring and useless activity was particularly popular in prisons at the time. Meanwhile the women prisoners spun, sewed, worked in the prison laundry and cleaned the building.

Butler, Richard J. (2020). Building the Irish Courthouse and Prison: A Political History, 1750-1850. Cork University Press.

Corcoran, Mary (2006). Out of Order: The Political Imprisonment of Women in Northern Ireland, 1972-1998. Devon: Willan Publishing.

Prisons of Ireland: Reports of Inspectors General for the years 1818, 1824, 1826, 1831, 1842, 1847, 1849, 1856, 1865, 1872.

Stuart, James (1819). Historical Memoirs of the City of Armagh. Newry: Alexander Wilkinson.