City Jail of Cork

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter XV (3) | Start of Chapter

Thursday.—Mrs. Danker treated me with a visit to the city and county jails, which were so entirely novel and intricate in their windings, that I could not describe them to a stranger. Perfect order and cleanliness prevail. From ten to five a school is kept open for men and boys, whether criminals or debtors; and from twelve to two for women. In the county jail we found but one chapel for Catholics and Protestants, where all assemble and hear a Protestant sermon. In the city jail is a chapel for each. The exterior of the city jail is beautiful, built of stone tastefully arranged. The panes of the windows were small, and concealed the dismal appearance of the iron grates within. The governor was a man of sense and feeling, and said he often felt it his duty to mitigate the punishment of prisoners, when he found good conduct, and granted them what little indulgences were in his power. When he first took charge of the institution, he found many boys in a room, quite happy with their lot; but putting them in separate cells soon sobered them, and had the most salutary effect; for the Irish, he observed, have a great fondness for society, and a superstitious horror of ghosts and fairies. The number of boys, he added, had quite diminished since he made this regulation; but he remarked that solitary confinement for adults was a dangerous and in many cases a fatal punishment; the minds of very few, if any, could bear it with safety. They had sent him one, he said, to be confined in a solitary cell for a fortnight, prohibiting any one to speak to him in the time. He stayed a week, but so injured was his intellect, that he had no doubt another week would have made him an idiot. Where they are ignorant and untutored, they had the most dismal forebodings and dread; the mind having nothing on which to feed, but what was of the most gloomy if not of the most frightful kind. A celebrated and experienced English judge has declared, that he should never sentence any to solitary confinement.

The prisoners in this prison, when not at study, are at work at various mechanical trades; the women washing, spinning, and sewing. They have gardens and beautiful walks, where they are allowed at stated times to go and recreate themselves. The ridiculous treadmill, too, is a part of the punishment, where three hours a day they must step to no available purpose. When man takes punishment into his own hand, he has so little of the wisdom of God in the distribution, in the quantity as well as the quality, that he makes serious and irreparable mistakes. The barbarous relic of a treadmill is a standing testimony, that Christian nations who practise it need to learn the first principles of civilization.

Ireland’s Welome to the Stranger is one of the best accounts of Irish social conditions, customs, quirks and habits that you could wish for. The author, Mrs Asenath Nicholson, was an American widow who travelled extensively in Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine and meticulously observed the Irish peasantry at work and play, as well as noting their living conditions and diet. The book is also available from Kindle.