Political Prisoners and the Irish Convict System

From Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government, 1868

By 'An Ulsterman'

THE political prisoners, tried at the November Commission held in Dublin last year, spoke with much asperity of the system of prison discipline to which they were subjected before trial. Serious injury to health was complained of in at least two cases—by Costello and Nagle. Costello said "I am afraid I carry in my bosom the seeds of a disease that will bring me to a premature grave, and that Kilmainham has sown those seeds." Nagle, in his affidavit, stated that, having been arrested in June last, he was confined in Kilmainham, and was removed thence to Mountjoy in consequence of the delicate state of his health, but had, nevertheless, been taken back again to the former prison. The Court, when deciding upon the legal points raised in the affidavit, expressed a conviction that the Crown would humanely comply with any requisition to remove the prisoner from Kilmainham to Mountjoy, if the locality suited his health better. In harsher terms than the others Halpin also denounced the proceedings of the Governor and the disciplinary system adopted in Kilmainham. In view of these complaints, it is worth while to examine the cases of alleged injury to health and of mortality charged against the Irish prison system, with especial reference to the Irish Fenian prisoners.

The first place in which a fatal case occurred was in a Northern prison, the County Antrim Gaol. To this prison a number of Fenian prisoners were removed from Mountjoy Convict Depot, at Dublin; and in a short time after their removal a coroner's jury was called to hold an inquest on one of their number. According to the facts brought out at the investigation and published in a Belfast newspaper, the deceased was a young man named John MacGeogh, twenty-five years of age; he was taken ill on the 20th of March, 1866, and died on the 23rd. The immediate cause of this rather sudden death was given as disease of the kidneys; and the jury found accordingly. The popular papers complained that the investigation, held in the board-room of the gaol, was not a public one open to the representatives of the press. No question as to the severity of the discipline or its bearing upon the case of the deceased appears to have been debated at the inquest. But we find that even sixteen months later, at Fenian trials in Belfast, in August, 1867, an affidavit was made by one prisoner, Francis Rea, and corroborated by two others, William and Philip Harbison, in which it was incidentally stated that from the early weeks of March, they had been kept in solitary confinement "for twenty-four hours out of the twenty-four hours."

We may take it for granted that since this rigorous discipline was at work in 1867, it was carried out with at least as much severity in 1866; for the tendency has been rather to relax the rule than to make it more stringent. Could the disease from which the prisoner died be said with any fairness to have had for its predisposing cause the regulations adopted? This would have been a proper question for solution at the inquest. It is impossible, of course, to say definitely now how far or in what measure the case in question might have been influenced one way or the other by such a cause; but it is known to physicians that "sedentary occupations, indolence, and a neglect of due exercise" predispose very frequently to nephritis. Cold, especially at night, likewise assists in developing the disease; in the present instance, there is evidence of an enforced inaction.

The next case of a death given as resulting from the rigour of Irish prison discipline is that of John Fottrel. This man had originally belonged to the class of tenant-farmers; but for many years he lived in one of our midland manufacturing towns. On the evidence of the informer Pettit, he was arrested, taken to Dublin and confined there in the winter months. He was released; but it is alleged that his constitution had been shaken—that he caught a cold during his imprisonment which made him less able to bear the changes to which his out-door occupation exposed him. He died, on the 1st November, 1866, of a gastric attack. In this case there is an absence of any distinct and decisive testimony to go upon; and where so many agents may have been at work after his return, we cannot accept without further confirmation the mere opinion of friends or relatives.

The circumstances of the next death are more definitely ascertained. In the last month of 1866 the cholera broke out in the prison-wards of Mountjoy, and carried off a Fenian prisoner named William Maher, who had been arrested in Carrick-on-Suir, under the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. It was publicly alleged by a correspondent of one of the Dublin Liberal papers that his death was induced by the bad quality of the food supplied in the prison. Neither the governor nor any of the warders or soldiers on duty appear to have been attacked; and thus a puzzled doctor, writing in the Medical Press, described the outbreak as unaccountable. It did not come by contagion, nor by the clothes, for they had been handled by others who escaped; nor by the water, for it had been used by others; nor, he adds, by the food, for it had been inspected. But inspection is another thing from use; and if to the cold of that unusually harsh month were added bad and insufficient food, the occurrence of cholera is not inexplicable. Bearing on this, take the following extract from the official report of Mountjoy Prison for the early part of the next year.

The physician in his report says: "I object on medical grounds to the punishment of prisoners by giving them insufficient clothing, as one not only likely to develop scrofulous disease, but highly likely to give rise to acute disease also. One prisoner had the appearance of a man labouring under serious illness; indeed, the leaden hue of his face and sunken eye looked like that of a patient struck with Asiatic cholera. I enquired what ailed him; he said that he was cold—very cold; that no bed nor bedding, except a single rug, had been allowed him during the night; that he had lain on the floor with no other bed-clothes than a rug to cover him; and that he was cold into his very bones. About the time referred to the weather was exceedingly inclement. The cold was on some nights intense—several degrees below the freezing point. The weight of the rug allowed to the prisoner I ascertained to be not more than four pounds. He had nothing but the floor to lie on—no bed-clothes, mattress, or pillow."

Had cholera been prevalent then, as it was when Maher died, would the prisoner whose symptoms are here described have escaped with his life?

In the month following that in which Maher died, another case of mortality occurs—this time in another Dublin prison, Richmond Gaol. The deceased was William Kennedy, a smith, twenty-eight years of age. On the 2nd of May Acting-Inspector Clifford and some other constables were conveying a party of prisoners to Chancery Lane Police Station in a cab. A crowd collected to see what was taking place, but made no offensive demonstration. However, Clifford got out, and seeing Kennedy pressing in the crowd "made a blow of a stick at him and some others who were crowding about," according to his own account at the trial (27th October, 1866). One witness deposed that Clifford ran through the crowd striking all before him: another stated that he struck Kennedy several times. Kennedy hastened away from the crowd back again into his forge, but the constable pursued, and, according to another witness, struck him severely there; whereupon Kennedy snatched up an iron bar lying near, and returned the blow heavily. The jury took a long time to agree to a verdict, but at last returned one of guilty, recommending the prisoner to mercy on account of the great provocation they considered him to have received. He was sentenced to a year's imprisonment, inclusive of the term he had already undergone before trial. Nine months after his arrest, and four months after his trial, he was dead in prison, having died on the 29th of January, 1867.

The next instance we notice is the complaint of one Patrick Welch, published in a Dublin paper, dated 27th of April, 1867. Having left Liverpool for Drogheda, he was arrested on landing, and removed to Dundalk on the 9th of March. There, he says, he was kept in solitary confinement for twenty-three hours every day; receiving for breakfast a porringer of Indian meal and some milk; for dinner about fourteen ounces of bread and some milk at three o'clock; nothing more for the rest of the day and night. Owing to this treatment, he declares, he fell very sick on the 8th of April. We quote his own words: "I shook from head to foot as if I had been paralyzed; I had a pain in my left breast, and my head ached badly." He adds that he made application for a doctor on the 9th and 11th, but that none came till the 14th. He continued very weak, and having been accustomed to active work at his trade as a shoemaker, found the want of exercise tell severely on his health. After six weeks' imprisonment he was released, and ordered to go back to Liverpool and not to return. As a consequence of the prison discipline he found himself "shaken in health." We have quoted his words with regard to feeling paralyzed, because of the light they throw on a case reported in the British Medical Journal for the 9th of November, 1867.

"Edward M., aged about 26, a farmer's son, of good constitution and athletic build," says the hospital report, "was admitted into the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, 10th of September, 1867. His general appearance indicated excellent health, and all the organic functions were performed perfectly." But it appears "there was complete loss of voluntary motion of the lower extremities, the muscles of which were soft and flaccid, and scarcely responded to the strongest magneto-electric current." He had been arrested "on suspicion," but was discharged after one week's detention. "When arrested he was in perfect health. . . . On being discharged, his lower limbs were found to be completely paralyzed." The report adds that he suffered much on the occasion from the mental shock; but paraplegia or paralysis of the lower extremities arises from an accident or from physical exposure rather than from mental perturbation. Accordingly we find it stated that this prisoner, so young and healthy, suffered much "whilst in prison from the severe cold of February;" and his case is set down as one of "acute paraplegia, arising probably from exposure to cold." Taken in connexion with this, the description of his symptoms given by Welch does not appear exaggerated. "Shaking palsy," to which he compares his case, has been supposed to depend, like the other, on some change in the spinal cord, and tremor is always symptomatic of debility.

In the Annual Report of the Directors of Convict Prisons, printed in the early part of last year, Dr. MacDonnell, the medical officer to Mountjoy Prison, made some remarkable statements. Having observed that one of the untried prisoners had died in 1866, he added that all other cases of serious illness were reported to the Government and were discharged from prison "upon its being understood that confinement was likely really to aggravate their disease." This statement has a certain bearing on the case of John Fottrel, whose death was attributed to injury to health received whilst in prison. In this case the evidence, as we said, is insufficient to sustain the charge; but the charge acquires a certain a priori credibility when we discover that bad cases are discharged lest they should become worse in prison. Dr. MacDonnell further adds that, "apart from diseases, the health of a good many of these prisoners has deteriorated from their prolonged confinement." "There are at present," he continues, "thirteen untried political prisoners who have been confined in this prison for eight months or upwards, and who are subjected to a cellular discipline more strict in some respects than that to which a convict is submitted." There were many others in the cells as long, part of whose confinement had been spent in other prisons. On strictly medical grounds the physician strongly recommended that they should be allowed, if possible, some degree of association with their fellows. The necessity for treating the political prisoners in their cells when sick, he adds, instead of admitting them into the hospital wards for treatment, increased the severity of the discipline to which they were submitted.

In consequence of the remonstrance of the medical officer, Lord Naas, replying to a question from Mr. Blake early in May, stated that he had ordered an enquiry to be made, and given directions for a material relaxation of the rules. The amount of exercise was doubled, the prisoners were allowed to smoke while at exercise, and to walk in association, one prisoner with another, during that time. In the recess he had ordered a report to be made, and was informed there had been no case of serious illness amongst the Fenian prisoners. They were permitted to obtain their food from outside; and, if they were unable to do this, the prison dietary was made more liberal in their behalf. Other relaxations had been allowed them; and the object of the Government was to do nothing harsh, but only to adopt those measures that were absolutely necessary. This amelioration has, we believe, been fairly carried out in Mountjoy Prison, where the medical officer had frequently urged it. But it would be a great mistake to suppose that all the Irish prisons have had their rules relaxed in like manner. In Kilmainham the untried prisoners were always subject to almost everything from which they were relieved in Mountjoy; and with regard to other prisons the same rule holds good.

At this period a correspondence was taking place with respect to a prisoner confined in Naas Gaol. On the 15th of April, Sarah Stowell, a widow, memorialized the Viceroy about her son, who having, on the 18th of December, been arrested for having arms without a licence, pleaded guilty, and was condemned to twelve months' imprisonment. The memorial stated that he was twenty-one years of age, and of a constitution so delicate that for several months immediately preceding his arrest he had required the constant attendance of a physician, whose certificate was appended. It further stated that imprisonment "during the four months of an unusually severe winter, together with an insufficiency of nutritious food since, his removal to Naas Gaol, where he is not allowed any flesh-meat, although it is a positive necessity in his debilitated state, have developed his disease from chronic into rapid consumption. Memorialist is authorized to state that Dr. Thornhill, the respected physician of Kilmainham, under whose treatment her son was for a short period of his imprisonment, will, if referred to, certify that longer imprisonment must be fatal to him." Ample bail was promised for his future good behaviour.

The widow wrote again on the 1st of May, stating that she had received no reply, and reminding the Viceroy of her petition. On the 17th of May she wrote to the Under-Secretary, stating that two days before, in conformity with his letter of the 14th, she had gone to Naas Gaol to receive her son on his release. "I bitterly regret to say," she continues, "that starvation had been allowed to do its work too effectually on him before his release. What remained of my child—mere skin and bone— was carried out by two of the warders of the prison, and given to me, and I succeeded in getting him removed to Dublin the same evening. The representations which I made to his Excellency on 16th April, and in my letter on 1st of May—representations fully borne out by the medical authorities therein referred to ... have been terribly verified, for between two and three o'clock on the morning of the 16th instant, about nine hours after I had got him home, he expired.'' She added, that if the Executive desired to have his skeleton—for what remained of him was little more—examined by a medical gentleman or other competent person, they were at liberty to do so. No inquest, however, was held. The concourse of mourners at his funeral was so large as to be a demonstration.

For the next fatal instance we turn again to the Antrim County Gaol. We mentioned the name of William Harbison as having been attached, in the first week of August in the present year, to an affidavit in which it was incidentally stated that from early in March he and his fellows had been in solitary confinement for "twenty-four hours out of the twenty-four hours in the northern gaol and twenty-three out of the twenty-four in Mountjoy. On the 9th of the next month he was found dead in his cell. His relatives withdrew from the inquest, his wife giving as a reason that she would not consent to having it held in the gaol, the place where her husband was killed. To judge from the evidence given, the deceased—a quiet, delicate man—had been treated with some consideration immediately before his death. He died from the bursting of the great artery at the heart. The manner in which he had been shifted about from Belfast to Dublin, and to and fro again and again, so as to have been three times in the custody of the Governor of Antrim Gaol since the early part of 1866, could not have been of advantage to a person with any such constitutional tendency as his.

Another fatal case, that of John Kelly, whose funeral, like that of Stowell and Harbison, was an immense one, took place in Limerick on the 6th of October. He had been arrested "on suspicion " in November, 1865, and released after six months' imprisonment. It has been alleged, and has not been denied, that he went into prison robust and athletic, and returned from it with hopelessly bad health. Let us turn to other cases, in which the effects of the discipline were in some respects worse than fatal. On the 20th June, 1867, two prisoners out of those confined at Mountjoy were removed to Richmond District Lunatic Asylum, after an imprisonment of not many months. It appears that these are not the only prisoners on whose mind the rigorous discipline has told with evil effect. It is an unpleasant fact to know that there were other similar victims of this harsh system; the public became cognizant of two cases only, and that by an accident.

The amount of injury inflicted by officials, virtually irresponsible, on prisoners who were never tried, who were never brought up before a magistrate, never allowed to know the terms of the charge against them, nor to confront their accusers, is simply shocking. This extract from the medical officer's protest, addressed to the governor of Mountjoy prison (but not published in the official reports), proves this only too well:—" I must beg of you," he says, "to draw both Mr. Murray's and Captain Barlow's attention to the present state of things which is, in my opinion, becoming serious. Thomas Bourke is showing undoubted symptoms of insanity. Finnigan has lately given way to one of those paroxysms brought on by long confinement. Sweeny is very unsettled in his mind. Whyte (lately discharged) was considered unfit for cellular discipline. Barry (also lately discharged) was considered unfit, from his mental state, to go away from the prison without some one in charge of him. I have not the slightest doubt that the prolonged confinement and severe discipline is the chief cause of all this. Apart from considerations of humanity, it would be a very grave matter if any of those untried prisoners (particularly any one like Bourke or Sweeny, the former of whom has been twelve, the latter seventeen, months in confinement) should commit suicide. I beg leave, therefore, to impress on you, as well as the inspector and director, the necessity of advocating a relaxed system of treatment for the untried prisoners."

Unfortunately, of this terrible state of things within the prison the public outside were in complete ignorance, and it seems too probable that had the medical officer been a resident official, living among officials, with no other means of support than his salary, and shut off from constant communication with the outer world, the public would still be in ignorance of it. Yet there cannot be a doubt that if these things, which were done at our doors, had been committed in Naples, or Jamaica, the public ear would have heard of them and the voice of our philanthropists would have denounced them to the indignation of the civilized world.[1]

Perhaps the most remarkable fact of any, next to the fatal list we have enumerated, is that the medical officer of Mountjoy, to whom humanity owes so much, whose repeated remonstrances have availed to spare us an increase of these cases, has been removed from his functions. A resident doctor has been appointed — a prison official with no connection out of doors. The Medical Press says of this unfortunate alteration: "We cannot but think that the removing the connection between the inmates of the prison and the external world, and the removal of that safe-guard for the compassionate treatment of the prisoners, which the inspection of the extern medical officer ensures, must prove injurious not only to the efficiency of the prison, but also to the confidence which the public should feel in its administration. It cannot be forgotten that more than one proof has been afforded that governors are not infallible, and that the wholesome restraint of supervision is required to protect the prisoners against the despotic power which is placed at the disposal of the officers."

Notwithstanding the complaints urged against Portland and Pentonville, they have a cleaner bill of health to show than these singularly severe Irish prisons, the condition of which certainly requires investigation.

[1] See Appendix.