Much of the eastern area of Emmet Street in Clonmel is now occupied by municipal buildings, Garda Station, County Council, Post Office, Library, Swimming Pool, Museum. This was the site of the County Gaol, the construction of which started in 1788, in the street that was then called Richmond Street.
Michael Ahern tells the story of that gaol in his comprehensively researched, attractively presented and recently published book: "Clonmel County Gaol." In an introductory note, he explains the use of the spelling "gaol" in preference to the modern "jail" which, he says, only came into common currency towards the end of the 19th century.
While his book is essentially about that century, he does refer back to older prisons in Clonmel; the small jail of later medieval times, which was situated in Middle Row, a terrace of buildings which ran from the West Gate to Mary Street in Main Street, now O'Connell Street.
That gaol was superseded by a prison on a site just across the street from the location of the "new gaol" in Emmet Street, approximating to the recently developed Market Place exiting on to Gladstone Street/Johnson Street.
A section of the County Gaol, the subject of Michael Ahern's book, has now been re-named Mick Delahunty Square, to commemorate Clonmel's famed dance band leader. The musical theme has been complemented by a large statue of the equally famous Clonmel tenor, Frank Patterson. The grim realities of the site have now been replaced by the busyness of a modern town. The only fragments of the gaol that remain above ground are sections of the high walls and the gate. Underground, in small areas of the site, lie the bones of some of those who were executed within the prison complex.
Michael Ahern takes his readers through those grim realities: the raggle taggle of humanity - the murderers, robbers, con-men and women, the unfortunates, the poets, patriots and honoured citizens who found themselves "guests of the nation," especially from Fenian times onwards.
Amongst these latter was James J. Long, a former editor of "The Nationalist," who in 1891, was prosecuted at a special court, under the provisions of the Crimes Act, and was found guilty "of using the paper to attack a Thurles cattle dealer for buying a farm from which the tenants had been evicted."
He refused to sign a bond to be of good behaviour for 12 months, saying "I don't see my way to giving further guarantee for doing my duty than I have already given."
In the heady days of land agitation, yet another honoured citizen, Thomas J. Condon, found himself inside the gaol of his own town. As a supporter of the Plan of Campaign, he had been found guilty of making "seditious speeches." Such was the fate of a man who had been Mayor of Clonmel, was elected to the House of Comons, and was the last Nationalist MP for County Tipperary.
In a narrative which is very accessibly sectioned, Michael Ahern traces the developments of popular attitudes towards crime and punishment, and the changes advocated by the social reformers, such as John Howard in England and Jeremiah Fitzpatrick in Ireland and notably the Quaker Elizabeth Fry. They advocated a more humane treatment of prisoners, especially in the standard of accommodation, the provision of facilities for cleanliness and in the availability of useful work.
The medieval punish-ments which involved the pillory, public whipping, branding and the treadmill, survived well into the 19th century. The ultimate punishment of hanging survived for another hundred years. Michael Ahern records the incidence of public hangings associated with the County Gaol, a grotesque procedure which was often a feature of market days and staged as a deterrent, a spectacle and an entertainment.
He takes his readers through the evolution of the modern prison, the separate system, the improved diet, the concept of remission, treatment of women prisoners, transportation as an alternative to capital punishment. All of these changes, as part of national policy, were reflected in the gaol in Clonmel.
A particularly interesting section of this book is that devoted to "Notable Inmates," the now nationally famous people associated with our history: the Young Irelanders, the Fenians, William O'Brien (commemmorated in a street in Old Bridge), an advocate and worker for land reform. There was J.J. Callinan who loosely translated "Priosn Cluain Meala" into English, Darby Ryan who wrote "The Peeler and the Goat," and the hopelessly love-stricken John Rutter Carden who tried to kidnap Eleanor Arbuthnot at Rathronan.
"Clonmel County Gaol" is illustrated with many photographs and contemporary drawings. Significantly, and fortuna-tely, amongst these, there are photographs of the last days of the buildings, taken by Donal Wylde, as these were being demolished by Clonmel Corporation in 1972.
Following the closure of the gaol, the first and only Borstal institution in Ireland was opened in the old buildings in 1906 and with some periods of interruption, continued there until 1956. The story of this method of dealing with juvenile crime is recorded in "Ireland's Moral Hospital" by Conor Reidy.
Michael Ahern is already the author of two books on local history, meticulously researched and easy to read: "Characters in a Clonmel Landscape" and "The Quakers of County Tipperary 1655-1924." His most recent book "Clonmel County Gaol," is in the same most valuable and welcome genre.
"Clonmel County Gaol" by Michael Ahern is now available in bookshops.
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