Monday, March 11, 2013

Incarcerated in Kilmainham Gaol: A little girl with a familiar name

Inside a cell in Kilmainham Gaol.
A photograph I shot in the bright light of mid-day.
Sometimes when conducting research for my own family history, I come across individuals with whom I am not connected, but who bear exactly the same name as an ancestor. Often, I find myself drawn to find out more about them, despite the lack of a familial connection. Such was the case when I was looking at the Kilmainham Gaol Registers. Within the index to the register for 1872, I found a record for a little girl named Margaret Toole. This particular Margaret Toole bears the same name as my paternal great-grandmother, and was born in County Dublin in 1861, just a year after my great-grandmother Margaret Toole was born in County Mayo.

When I came across her name, I was struck by the fact that the lives of these two girls each named Margaret Toole were probably very different, and I just had to find out more about the Margaret Toole listed in the index to the register.

The information about Margaret Toole is recorded in the "Kilmainham Registry of Female Juveniles At and Under Sixteen Years". The title alone might make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Given 21st century ideas about dealing with juvenile delinquency, it is difficult to imagine that children at and under the age of 16 years would have been incarcerated in Kilmainham. Unfortunately, given 19th century ideas about crime and punishment, internment at Kilmainham of young children was not as unusual as we might hope.

There are twenty-four Kilmainham Gaol registers held at the National Archives Ireland, offering details of internments from the late 18th century (1796), when the prison opened, to February 1910 when the prison was closed for the first time. Within those registers is included the history of the imprisonment of children at Kilmainham. Up until 1859, children were interned in Kilmainham to serve sentences which could range from days to months, and included such punishments as "seven days imprisonment and twenty lashes for stealing a loaf of bread". In 1859, Reform Schools were opened in Ireland, so in addition to their imprisonment in Kilmainham, children would also receive years long sentences in Reform School. In 1868, a ten year old child named Patrick Duff served two weeks in Kilmainham, and then five years in Reform School, for stealing two leather straps.

Although some female prisoners had their babies with them while their served out their sentences, the youngest child ever convicted and imprisoned in Kilmainham was five year old Catherine Lyons. In 1855 Catherine and her parents, Alan and Anne, were sentenced to seven days in Kilmainham for riding a train without tickets.

The presumed links between crime, poverty, parentage and moral degradation, which mark the 19th century, are very clear from the column headings of the register entries.  Under the following headings, which are recorded here exactly as they appear in the register, the registrant adds details about the prisoner:

"If he has been in Workhouse"
"If parents or either of them in Workhouse"
"If parents or either of them have been in gaol"
"Without parents"
"Abandoned by parents"
"Absconded from parents"
"Without Father"
"Without Mother"
"Step Child"

The entry in the gaol register for Margaret Toole offers a wealth of information.  It tells us that Margaret, aged 11 years, is a stepchild without a father. Margaret lived with her mother and stepfather in Ballsbridge, County Dublin. On 22 July 1872, Margaret was imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol for a period of 14 days after she was charged with, and convicted of, "Larceny of Money", specifically the theft of £3/-6.  Further, the record states that she is Roman Catholic and illiterate.  Also, in the index to the register it is noted that this is her first time in prison.

Having been in Kilmainham Gaol on several occasions, both as a researcher and as a tourist, I can tell you that the oldest section of the gaol is a dark, damp and forbidding place.  In 1881, one of my relatives, Andrew J. Kettle, secretary of the Irish Land League, was incarcerated in Kilmainham for a period of just over six months, having been convicted of "inciting persons unlawfully to assemble". In his memoirs he noted that the dampness of the place never left him. His son Laurence believed it had contributed to the decline of his father's health. I cannot even begin to imagine what it was like for an 11 year child to spend 14 days incarcerated here in 1872. Given that Margaret Toole was a stepchild, I wonder if she did in fact steal the £3/-6, or if the accusation which led to her subsequent incarceration was a punishment meted out by her mother and stepfather over some other perceived infraction.

Main Entrance of Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin
References for further reading and research:

O'Sullivan, Niamh. Every Dark Hour: A History of Kilmainham Jail, Liberties Press, Dublin, 2007.

Some of the Kilmainham Gaol Registers are available for online research through Find My Past Ireland at Searching is free, but subscription is required to view documents.

Click on photographs to view larger version.
(Originally posted 4 January 2011).


  1. Sad to think children or adults for that matter were imprisoned for such small transgressions.

    1. Hi Bill,

      Thanks for your comment. It is sad to think such a punishment for such small transgressions. Times certainly have changed.


  2. Sad and shocking, when you think about how lax things are these days. I remember when you first posted the photo from inside the prison. Margaret must have felt abandoned when she was there. Thanks for revisiting this post.

    1. Thanks for your comments Charlotte. As you say, Margaret must have felt abandoned. I often wonder how life worked out for her after all was said and done, and whether or not she returned to the home of her parents.


  3. Oh Jennifer... as I've been reading, and researching, the "Magdalene Laundries" I couldn't but help wonder if Margaret Toole was being abused by her step-father and "sent away" to be punished as were many of the young girls incarcerated in the Laundries... sometimes for life :-( ... Best regards, Catherine.

    1. Hi Catherine,

      Thanks for your comments. In your research have you come across Frances Finnegan's seminal work, Do Penance or Perish: Magdalen Asylums in Ireland?
      It is quite an extraordinary book for which she conducted in-depth research never before done on life in the Asylums, or Laundries as they came to be known. It details the original 19th century purpose of the laundries, which was to reform prostitutes, and which evolved (or rather devolved) by the 20th century to house unwed mothers. Dr. Finnegan also discusses the industrial schools which were run alongside many of the laundries and housed not only 'unruly' children who were, as you say 'sent away', but also children who were orphaned, or had a father, but no mother.

      After the death of my own maternal grandmother, who died when my mother was only four, my grandfather was pressured by his church and members of that community to send his motherless children to these industrial schools. His sons and his daughters would be sent to separate schools in which he was assured they would be well cared for. Thank goodness, he steadfastly refused. My mother used to tell me about how she remembered the visits of the nuns in the months after her mother died, and how they would tell the girls they would soon be leaving their father and coming to live with them at the school. Even though she was 81 when she died, my mom could still remember the fear she felt over the nun's visits, and how she used to keep her hands behind her back when they were in the house, so the nuns couldn't take her by the hand to leave. Eventually my grandfather refused the nuns access to the house, and the problem was completely solved by the presence of my mother's grand-aunt Alice, who at 75 years of age moved in to take care of the children.



Comments on this blog are always deeply appreciated; however, in the spirit of true collegiality, I ask that you do not write something you would not say to me in person.

This blog is CAPTCHA free, but because of spammers, comments moderation is in operation for posts older than two days.

Any comments that are mean-spirited, include URLs which are not connected to the post topic, contain misinformation, or in any way resemble advertising, will be removed.

Cheers, Jennifer

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...