Review of the Cork City Gaol

By Lisa Marie Griffith

You would want to be living under a rock to have missed that Cork has made it into The Lonely Planet’s ‘Top 10 Place’s to visit’. At Pue’s we were wondering what historical attractions the city has on offer. I was in Cork for the August bank holiday weekend so I made my way to the Cork City Gaol and was impressed at what the Gaol had to offer in terms of local and national history.

The Gaol opened in 1824 and is unusual looking for a gaol for both it’s red colour (the red sandstone used in the building was quarried from the hills surrounding the building) and its Castle like features.  It was initially a Gaol for men and in 1878 it became the women’s prison. During the tour there is even a description of this change being introduced into the prison when one female prisoner recounts the sight of the men filling out under armed guard up the city quays on one side, while women were marched up the other side into their new homes.

The tour itself falls into two parts: the first part is an audio tour of one of the wings where visitors wander and listen at their leisure to a tape (honestly- it was a tape!) which explains the design of the prison, how the wings are laid out and why as well as how the jail functioned for the guards. Wax works are used to re-create scenes of the prisoners in their cells while the narrator quotes from prison records which are used to fill in the details of each of these prisoner’s stories. I enjoyed this section as it provided a lively account of who a typical prisoner would have been, what their crimes and what their daily routine would have been like.

The second section deals with the political and economic history of the gaol. This part of the tour took place inside one of the prison towers. In operation between 1822 and August 1923 the life of the prison covered some pivotal events in Irish history and the inmates reflect this.  Images of former political prisoners including Denny Lane (Young Irelander), James Mountaine (Fenian) and Countess Markievicz (Republican), as well as actors narrating their lives, are projected onto the tower walls while a judge describes their crimes and passes sentences on them. Visually impressive, I will have to admit I had hairs on the back of my neck for this part of the tour in the dark chilly tower. At the end of these testimonies the prisoners sing a republican song and the tour is over. I could hear this song as I walked out of the grounds which left me with a very chilling impression of the gaol!

I often think that historical sites in Ireland can lose a lot because they pander to narratives of great historical figures who were associated (even when the association is very loose!) with an institution just to get some tourists in at the expense of a broader social history. I was pleased to discover that the gaol did not do this. In fact it manages to convey two distinct strands of history very well, that of the ordinary prisoner’s experience and the political history of the gaol. Because of this I think it offers a lot to those who have a good general historical knowledge while offering something new, a history of an Irish gaol and a visit to one of Cork’s most historic buildings. The gaol was the home of Radio Eireann’s Cork operation from 1927 to the 1950s when a radio station operated out of the governor’s apartment.

At 7 euro I would definitely recommend this as an attraction to visit. The Gaol has even started Night tours (although you need a group fo 20 for this). If I have one criticism, it was that the map on the flier was very difficult to follow and I wandered around lost for a half an hour before bumping into a local who provided directions to the gaol. The map online is better so if you are planning a trip stick to this one!

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3 Responses to “Review of the Cork City Gaol”

  1. Justin Says:

    Great review! I will certainly see Cork jail when next in Cork. Thanks Lisa-Marie!

  2. patrick maume Says:

    If I may engage in a little self-advertising: in 2004 I co-edited a previously unpublished memoir by the Cork Fenian John Sarsfield Casey which describes the experiences of Fenians awaiting trial in the jail in 1866; it goes on to give accounts of the much harsher treatment received in other Irish and British prisons in 1866-67. I attach a link for anyone who is interested:
    http://www.ucdpress.ie/display.asp?K=9781904558224&sf1=eh_cat_class&st1=A100&sort=sort_date/d&ds=Classics+of+Irish+History&m=23&dc=43
    The co-editors, Mairead Maume and Mary Casey, are my mother and Casey’s granddaughter respectively. We had a nice launch in the jail, with the Cork GAA star Jimmy Barry Murphy (descended from the fenian-era governor of the jail, who gets a very sympathetic portrayal in the memoir) doing the honours.

  3. Kathleen Cork Says:

    Dear Lisa,

    I am descended from James Mountain’s brother and have visited Cork Gaol on several occassions. I very much enjoyed reading your article about the Gaol. Your description, along with the lovely photgraph has really captured the essence of the place. Thank you.

    Kindest regards,

    Kathleen.

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