findmypast.ie has launched the Irish Prison Registers 1790-1920 online for the first time, an untapped resource for those tracing their Irish roots.
The original Prison Registers, held at the National Archives of Ireland, cover all types of custodial institutions, from bridewells, to county prisons, to sanatoriums for alcoholics. They contain over 3.5 million entries, spread over 130,000 pages, with most records giving comprehensive details of the prisoner, including the name, address, place of birth, occupation, religion, education, age, physical description, name and address of next of kin, the crime committed, the sentence, dates of committal and release/decease.
The registers offer a real insight into 18th – 19th century Ireland and present evidence of a society of rebellion and social confrontation, where rioting and assault of police officers were everyday occurrences. They also reveal the rampant poverty and destitution that many faced, with the theft of everything from handkerchiefs to turnips.
The reasons for incarceration cover all types of crime but the most common offence was drunkenness, which accounted for over 30% of all crimes reported and over 25% of incarcerations. The top five offences recorded in the registers are:
– Drunkenness – 25%
– Theft – 16%
– Assault – 12%
– Vagrancy – 8%
– Rioting – 4%
The nature of these crimes was significantly different from those in England. Figures show that the rate of conviction for drunkenness and tax evasion was 3 times greater, and the rate of both destruction of property and prostitution were double what they were for the same time period in England.
The records are full of individuals who were arrested for very minor offences. For example, a record from the Cork City Gaol Court Book lists an arrest for Giles O’Sullivan (26), with no education and no previous convictions, on the 30th of March 1848 for being “a dangerous and suspicious character”. Other examples of the heavy hand of the law can be seen in the case of John Cunningham from Finglas (21) who was arrested for “Washing a car on a thoroughfare” and young Christopher Doyle (14) arrested “for being an idle, disorderly rogue and vagabond”.
With the Irish population averaging 4.08 million each year for this time period and over 3.5 million names in the records, it would suffice to say that almost every family in Ireland was touched by these records, as offenders, their relatives or victims of crime.
Brian Donovan, Director of findmypast Ireland, commented: “These records provide an invaluable resource for anyone tracing their Irish ancestors as during the period covered almost every household in Ireland had a convict in their family. These records provide such a wealth of information that they are sure to shock and surprise almost anyone looking for the missing links in their Irish family tree.”