The Irish prison records provide an interesting glimpse into the crimes that were prevalent throughout County Wexford during the 1800s. Although most of the listed offences are similar to the ones that we read about in the papers today, there are also a sizeable number of incidents that serve to highlight the glaring differences between then and now. More often than not, these differences lie in the types of items that people stole and the light prison sentences that were handed down for petty crimes.
On Tuesday, the 22nd of May, 1883, James Shannon Jnr. assaulted Peter Ahearne of New Ross by throwing a “weight” at him. In this case, the judge ruled that Mr. Shannon had thrown the object with the intent of inflicting grievous bodily harm. He was confined to four days in prison.
A day later, on the 23rd of May, Nicholas Whitty was arrested for threatening the life of John Whitty (New Ross), whom he attempted to assault with a shovel. He was confined to two days in prison.
Later that evening, at 9,15PM, the records show that Elizabeth Kelly was arrested after she was found in possession of a petticoat, which belonged to a woman called Mrs. Baldwin. Although the records do not state that she stole the skirt herself, they do make it clear that Ms. Kelly was aware of the fact that the item had been stolen.
Other crimes from the same record sheet include:
- John Walsh, who was found to be in a drunken state.
- Michael Brien, Michael Nolan and Andrew Treacy were all arrested for stealing whiskey from a storage facility in the New Ross Workhouse.
- A man called Patrick Dooley assaulted Edward Flynn of Mount Garrett, New Ross. For this, he was confined to seven days in Wexford Gaol.
In April, 1807, Peter and Michael Duffin were hanged at Windmill Hill, which is just up past the old Wexford Corporation building on Belvedere Road in Wexford Town. The two men had been convicted of highway robbery.
On the 25th of April, 1882, James Kelly discharged a pistol filled with powder at James Carty and John Byrne, with intent to wound. Kelly, who was noted as being a bailiff’s assistant, was confined to four nights in prison before being bailed and discharged. The records show that Mr. Kelly received four meals throughout his stay in jail.
Patrick Cullen (7), Anne Cullen (40), Andy Cullen (9), Mary Doyle (7), Dennis Doyle (14) and William Day (16) were all detained on suspicion of being “strolling vagrants”, which were homeless people that made their living by begging. They were tried in front of the Wexford Magistrate and confined for 24 hours.
Interestingly enough, the Irish prison records show that the vast majority of inmates were small and slender. On one particular sheet, the heaviest person on record was a man called John Walsh, who was noted as being 12.2 stone (77 KG) in weight and 5 foot 8 in height. Mr. Walsh was arrested in August, 1890 for the crime of “killing and carrying away a rabbit”. He was fined £2 and sentenced to 14 days in prison.
Most of the items that people stole during this period were items that many of us living in modern Ireland have learned to take for granted. Examples include stockings, potatoes, bed sheets and wheat. One particular example involves a man called Patrick Murphy, who was sentenced to seven days in Wexford Gaol after he stole a “tin of ale” from Cherry’s Brewery in New Ross.
A more-serious incident involved a butcher called Edward Brien (30), who “assaulted, stabbed and cut” James Murphy, Edward McGrath and Bridgette McGrath. He was trialled in front of Judge Morris on the 24th of March, 1870 and sentenced to “18 calendar months” in prison. Edward Brien’s height was recorded as being 5 foot 3.
More incidents from the same crime sheet include:
- Patrick Byrne, who attempted to choke a policeman.
- Publican William Furlong (58) from Wexford Town, who sold alcohol on a Sunday during a prohibited hour.
- Patrick Griffin (30), who assaulted his wife.
- Thomas Murphy (14), who was given a 14 day sentence for stealing a Half Sovereign coin.
On the 18th of September, 1880, George Allen (50) and John Doyle (30) were arrested for “endeavouring to intimidate a witness”. According to records, Mr. Allen worked as a “nailourer”, which was a person who maintained the nails on a machine that was used to prepare cotton for weaving. His accomplice, Mr. Doyle, was listed as being a “pedlar” / “hawker”, which was a negatively-viewed occupation that involved peddling goods and items on the street.
In 1879, Patrick Murphy (22) from Rathangan was tried for stealing trousers, a waistcoat and a coat. He was 5 foot 9, and according to records, he had light brown hair and blue eyes. He was employed as a soldier in the 15th regiment and was stationed in Duncannon Fort at the time.
In 1882, Labourer Myles Kelly (32) from Gorey was sentenced to a month in prison for deserting his wife and child. On the same Register of Prisoners, comes the story of Julian Allison (33) from Ballyduff, Wexford, who was trialled for concealing the birth of her female child.
Throughout the period, most of the crimes involved drunkenness, begging, assault, vagrancy and disorderly behaviour. Other, less common reasons for being detained were:
- “Being a suspicious character.”
- “Peeping.” i.e. Being a “Peeping Tom”.
The Irish Petty Sessions Court Registers also list of number of interesting cases:
- In 1895, Thomas Byrne stood accused of threatening John Doyle with “provoking and aggravating language.” According to the case notes, the incident occurred in Enniscorthy and Mr. Doylead had feared for his own well-being.
- In 1901, publican Mary Kehoe received an objection against the renewal of her publican license on the grounds that she was a “person of bad character.” The complainant made the argument that Ms. Kehoe had been convicted of drunkenness three times over the course of the previous twelve months. In this particular case, the judge upheld the complaint by refusing to renew her license. In his notes, he states that the defendant had a habit of being intoxicated on her own premises, during working hours.
- In 1899, William Flynn (Templeshannon, Enniscorthy), John Redmond (Slaney Street, Enniscorthy) and William Black (Clohass, Enniscorthy) were all called before the court because of their decision to ride their bicycles on the footpath. They were all fined for the offence.
- On the 25th of May, 1899, Thomas Kinsella of Templeshannon, Enniscorthy stole five empty sacks from a man called John O’ Reilly. Mr. O’ Reilly later withdrew his complaint, which led to the dismissal of the case.
- 1909: Anne Hogan from Kilrush was brought before the Petty Sessions Court because her two children (Kate and Bridget Hogan) had not been attending school.
- In 1862, John Byrne from Abbeydown, Co. Wexford, was brought before the court because he allowed one of his pigs to wander out on to the public road. He was fined one shilling.
- In the same year, Elizabeth Connors was summoned because of a similar incident, in which she allowed her goat to wander out on to a public road. She was fined one shilling.
- In 1895, Christopher Doyle (Templeshannon) brought Patrick Doyle (Templeshannon) to court because of the damage that he had caused to his timber shed. The cost of the damage was estimated to be 8 shillings.
One of the most humorous crimes is chronicled in Nicky Rossiter’s book, The Little Book of Wexford, in which he tells the tale of Nicholas Kinsella. According to records from the time, Mr. Kinsella was charged with “furious driving of a horse and cart laden with fowl, at Cornmarket, Wexford, causing people to flee for their lives on a public street.” His punishment was a fine of 10 shillings.