Many of these prisoners were the unfortunates who spent their last night in Ireland in the City Gaol before being transferred to a convict sailing ship at the Cove of Cork, for transportation to the penal settlements of Australia. Few of these ever got a chance of coming back to Ireland. Political prisoners were by no means unknown in the Cork City Gaol in the young Ireland days 1848/49 Denny Lane, Ralph and Isaac Varian, James Mountaine and others were imprisoned in Sunday’s Well during the Summer and Autumn of 1848. Over their doors were the inscriptions “Felon Cells”, and even though they were not maltreated there they have recorded that they had to listen to sounds of sufferings in other cells, including the cries of those being flogged. The esteemed Young Irelander, Terence Bellew MacManus, spent his last night in the City Gaol before being transferred to “Van Diemen’s Land” now Tasmania.
Many of these young Irelanders noted the various happenings in Sunday’s Well, and one individual wrote an account of his confinement there which stated:
“The cells where we slept were narrow and ill-ventilated, connected by a common corridor, which opened on to a room larger than one of the sleeping cells. This room we used as a parlour.”
It was shut off from the rest of the prison by heavy doors with locks, bars, and bolts. The room had a fireplace and here we were permitted to cook our own food. It was often the cleaning of the breakfast table and the washing of the tea-cups overtook the dinner time, especially when the duty devolved upon the largest of the “felons”, who was rather slow at the work, and “polished the saucers within an inch of their lives”.
The little sleeping cells were each one lit by a single slit near the top of the wall. The corridor had a larger window, but this was placed too high to allow any view from it, except the heavens. The strong doors which even the most cunning house-breaker could not fly asunder opened upon a gallery, which ran around inside one of the grim towers. This gallery, upon which sometimes we were permitted to walk, had a large barred window, from which might be seen an extensive view of the hills beyond the city southwards towards the heaving sea.
Here the cry of a rendering heart often met our ears when some unfortunate malefactor was undergoing that portion of his sentence which commanded a whipping upon his bare back. While in my captivity there, Terence Bellew MacManus was put amongst us on his way to transportation. He was a fine athletic man, with a dashing ardent manner.
He quickly set himself to help in our domestic work, taking his turn cheerfully at washing the ware, and other such work. One night we were unexpectedly aroused from sleep by the noise of the creaking of the prison doors and heaving of the prison bars. The government order had arrived for the instant embarkation of poor MacManus on his sentence of transportation.
On parting one of our tee totallers was faithless enough to his pledge to hand a drink of whiskey to MacManus, by way of protection against the chilly influence of the night air. This was looked upon as a touching instance of human frailty on his part as he was stern in his principles, and had often lectured us upon our very moderate drinking habits.
In the debtors side of the prison, in our time was confined one James Morgan, a landscape painter of Cork, of considerable ability, but of very unfortunate drinking habits. While there confined and thus protected from himself, he produced some of his best works, but when the time of confinement expired he returned to his old habits and drank himself to death.
In 1853 penal servitude replaced transportation and this enraged many of the prisoners. A very important event took place in the Gaol in 1850 when steam kitchens were erected which improved diet from bread and milk only, to now include oatmeal, potatoes, and Indian meal.