IT is no wonder that many of ‘the ould stock’ of Castlebar have tales about ghostly happenings around the county town’s historic Mall. The ascendancy glamour of the one-time cricket lawn for local landlords, the Lords and Ladies Lucan, quickly fades when reminders of the Hanging Tree are exhumed.
Add in the fact there was once a notorious bridewell gaol with tales of an underground tunnel across the road to the courthouse with under-ground footsteps being heard by some long after it was closed and there is no need to even refer to the fact that the Land League was co-founded by Michael Davitt and James Daly in one of these surviving edifices, the former Imperial Hotel.
Opposite this grand hotel, now empty but owned by Mayo County Council, the hanging tree stood until a great storm felled it in 1918, not before it had facilitated the execution of many poor souls, including the famous Fighting Fitzgerald or George Robert, of Turlough House, a famous duelist. The story goes that the rope broke on the first attempt to hang him over a charge of murder due to a row over a woman.
In ‘Anatomy of a County Gaol, A History of Imprisonment, Capital Punishment and Transportation’, Michael O’Connor (pictured) devotes an entire chapter to the history of hanging in Co Mayo, confirming that this recently published tome is not for the faint-hearted or, indeed, those with a mere passing interest in the narrative of this subject.
This forensically researched book – with pictures and illustrations, maps and appendices – puts a microscopic lens on the unmitigated brutality of the penal system during the 18th and 19th centuries in Co Mayo. It reveals a litany of shocking punishments meted out to inmates who found themselves on the wrong side of the law – for petty to major misdemeanours and crimes – and inside the gaols and bridewells of Castlebar, Ballinrobe, Prizon and Cong.
Surprisingly, much of this harrowing and shocking story was largely untold until the publication of Michael O’Connor’s book, a study that involved two years of research and writing.
During the period of study, there were three gaols and bridewells in the county town: on the aforementioned Mall, in Ellison Street and Spencer Park, an area known locally as Madhouse Hill, while the small town of Ballinrobe had two gaols. Interestingly, there was also one at Prizon, near Balla, whose ruins are the only structural reminder of this time.
This was a time when human rights were subjugated by a penal system that left people in these overcrowded dungeons. There are accounts of whippings and burning of limbs, barbarous methods of capital punishments and hangings a spectator sport. These jails were particularly horrendous for women prisoners, with no segregation or sanitary facilities and often up to 20 people incarcerated in one cell.
Significantly, more people were jailed for debt and illicit distilling than for any other crime, showing, one imagines, a desperation for escapism from the drudgery of impoverishment and medieval landlordism.
Dr O’Connor’s study reveals 413 people were convicted of illegal distilling in Co Mayo between 1814 and 1823, despite the fact the Distilling Act of 1799 had outlawed small stills and imposed a duty on distilling.
“In 1829 Edmond Gibbons of Tourglass, Erris, submitted a petition to the Lord Lieutenant Hugh Percy seeking leniency and relief for his family following his imprisonment at the Old Gaol for illicit distillation and failure to pay a fine of £100.” A pretty hefty fine? It is the equivalent of €2,358.80 in today’s money.
WHILST the period under study was one dominated by political turmoil and unrest and of course the ravages endured by a congested peasant population by the Great Famine, the detail extrapolated from the many sources used by the author shows a society driven to petty crime out of desperation.
For example, O’Connor writes: “The vast majority of women detained at the Old Gaol and the Old Bridewell were not there because they were concerned with rebellion or secret societies.
“Though women were convicted of and indeed sentenced to death for serious crimes, such outcomes were rare. Only six women were sentenced to death in Mayo between 1805 and 1919. Of these, only one was hanged, four had their sentences commuted, and the fate of one is unknown. Women imprisoned at the Old Gaol and the Old Bridewell were, for the most part, imprisoned for minor offences, such as petty larceny, minor assaults, vagrancy and prostitution.”
But, of course, there were the secret societies too, such as the Whiteboys, Ribbon Men and the Threshers who carried out all sorts of deeds against their ascendancy landlords.
“In the winter of 1805, disturbances broke out in north Mayo in the barony of Tyrawley….. At the heart of the disturbances was the threshers, an illicit association that had its origins in opposition to tithes and priests’ dues (amounts paid to priests for weddings, baptisms and funerals), but quickly expanded its objectives and activities in the direction of broader social and economic protests.”
The author continues: “Those who failed to comply were warned that they could expect a visit from the threshers; that the priests might have their coffins prepared; and that the flesh would be torn off their bones.”
It is important to note though that often the actions of these members of secret societies – sheep-stealing, to take one example – were underpinned by simple starvation and the lack of resources to feed their large families. This was at a time when ships full of grain were being exported, it is worth remembering.
Ironically, what may resonate most for readers, in light of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, is the chapter entitled ‘The Great Cholera Outbreak’ of 1832. There are many parallels, albeit in very different and more desperate circumstances for the people of Co Mayo.
‘Anatomy of a County Gaol: County Mayo – A History of Imprisonment, Capital Punishment & Transportation, Part 1’ is on sale in Castle Bookshop, Castlebar; The Bookshop, Westport; Rare and Recent, Cong; Easons; and online at mayobooks.ie.