Throwing away the key

The closure of Mountjoy will mean a break with a large slice of social and political history, writes Carol Coulter , Legal Affairs…

The closure of Mountjoy will mean a break with a large slice of social and political history, writes Carol Coulter, Legal Affairs Correspondent

It has been described as a disgrace in 21st century Ireland. Now, following years of criticisms of physical conditions in Mountjoy Prison, the Cabinet has decided to close it, and look for a greenfield site for a new prison.

But Mountjoy was once a model prison. Built in 1850, Mountjoy was the product of decades of penal reform, and a growth in the demand for imprisonment as the practice of transportation to the colonies came to an end. As the demand for a convict prison grew, the then superintendent of prisons, Major Cottingham, went on a fact-finding mission to England. He came back with the news that Ireland needed its own Model Prison, similar to Pentonville Gaol, which had just been built in London, and was itself inspired by the latest ideas about imprisonment.

It was based on the idea that silence and segregation enabled prisoners to contemplate their misdeeds, and kept them from being corrupted by each other. So, unlike earlier prisons, Mountjoy had individual cells, 496 in all, on four wings radiating off the "circle", or central hub of the prison.


It was stipulated in the Irish Prison Act of 1840 that each cell be lighted, warmed, ventilated and fitted up in a manner to promote the health of each prisoner, and allow him communicate with a prison officer. Each cell had a series of ducts and air-vents, and each prisoner could use them to control the temperature of the cell.

Although Mountjoy is now notorious for the "slopping out" system of prisoners removing the pots of their own waste that accumulates overnight, each cell then had a ceramic flushing toilet and copper wash-basin, for which water was supplied by a crank-pump. This modern sanitation was removed in the 1860s because the sewage system sometimes malfunctioned and caused the cells to smell.

Each door had - and still has - a spy-hole through which the prisoner could be observed, and a hatch through which the prisoner's meal was passed. In that early regime prisoners spent a considerable part of their day working in their cells. There was also provision for education, and for one-hour's exercise a day in caged exercise rings.

It is interesting to see how much of the debate about crime and punishment still resonates today. The historian of Mountjoy, Tim Carey, wrote in his book, Mountjoy: The Story of a Prison: "Throughout the prison registers and the Convict Reference Files there is a seemingly endless list of petty and pathetic crimes, broken only by the rare exception." Poverty was the common denominator among all Mountjoy's inhabitants, though, he says, the finger was also pointed at alcohol, and in the 1860s the General Prisons Board wrote: "Many among the illiterate classes turn to drink as the only means of passing their unoccupied time," with this often leading to crime.

Before the establishment of reformatories, Mountjoy also housed child prisoners, and the records include the case of William Dwyer, convicted of burglary. He was 12 years old and just three feet, 11-and-a-quarter inches tall. Owen O'Sullivan was 15 years old when sentenced to 14 years for felony of a plate.

Mountjoy also has a place in collective political memory. Between 1865 and June 1866, over 60 Fenians convicted of treason felony passed through it, on their way to penal servitude in England. They included O'Donovan Rossa and John O'Leary. When, in 1915, O'Donovan Rossa's body was returned to Ireland for burial the cortege passed Mountjoy, which at the time contained republicans Sean Milroy, Sean MacDermott and Liam Mellows.

In 1910 Jim Larkin was also sent to Mountjoy on a trumped-up charge of attempting to defraud dock workers in Cork, and during the 1913 lockout, scores of trade unionists, including James Connolly, were jailed there. In 1912 it also housed suffragettes Kathleen Houston, Margaret Hasler, Hilda Webb and Maul Lloyd. There they embarked on hunger strike, sparking the first demonstrations to take place outside the prison.

Following the 1916 Rising, Mountjoy again acted as a clearing house for republican prisoners on their way to jail in England. However, by 1917 they returned and it was in Mountjoy that Thomas Ashe died while being forcibly fed on hunger strike.

Later it was the scene for the first campaign of prisoners' disturbances aimed at securing recognition of the special status of republican prisoners. Kevin Barry was among those executed there, and during the Civil War, Mountjoy held 300 republican prisoners, including Seán MacBride.

Apart from republican prisoners, "ordinary" prisoners were also hanged, or sometimes died from disease, within its walls. Their graves are unmarked and, according to the governor, John Lonergan, no-one knows precisely where they are buried.

"People were dumped around the grounds," he said. "No one knows precisely where they are, they are buried along by the canal wall." At least it is known where republicans were buried, and there is a monument to them in the prison.

This is one of the many challenges that will be posed for any potential developer. What will the public reaction be to a proposal to build flats or office blocks over the graves of national heroes? Quite apart from its place in Irish history, Mountjoy also has for a long time played a role in the lives of the communities of the inner city and poorer suburbs. Lonergan estimates that about 90 per cent of prisoners come from within an arc described by Dolphin's Barn, Crumlin, Ballyfermot, and Ballymun, with a high proportion from the inner city. Mountjoy has the great advantage of being accessible to their families. Most bus routes bring people to O'Connell Street, and the prison is only a short walk. "These people regard Wheatfield as out the country," he said.

He said that there is also a close link between the men's prison in Mountjoy and the women's prison, the Dochas Centre, next door. This prison is a new, widely-admired unit that is the flagship project of the Irish Prison Service (IPS). Many of the women have partners, or brothers, in Mountjoy, and relatives visiting with their children can take in a visit to both at the same time.

He is concerned about the future of the Dochas centre, as it provides the only clear access to the site. Without it access for a developer would be very limited, as would the scope for developing the site. "You can't build flats up against the women's prison," he said. The director of the IPS, Seán Aylward, confirmed to The Irish Times this week that the closure of the Dochas Centre, opened only a few years ago at a cost of more than £30 million, is also under consideration, as part of the relocation of the whole Mountjoy complex.

Lonergan is also worried that something indefinable about Mountjoy, perhaps embedded in its inception as a "Model Prison", will be lost if and when it is demolished and the prison moved. "The physical conditions are appalling. But a lot of the prisoners want to be here because of the atmosphere, its capacity to facilitate any kind of unfortunate that comes in, that has been built up over 150 years." A new prison on a green-field site, inevitably many miles from the city centre and from the homes that most of its inmates come from, could seem a very alien place to those sent there.