Brief History of Cork City Gaol: (Opened 1824, Closed 1923)
The Cork City Gaol in Sunday’s well, was designed to replace the old Gaol at the Northgate Bridge in the heart of the city. The old Gaol was nearly 100 years old on a confined site, Overcrowded & Unhygienic.
In 1806 an Act of Parliament was passed and monies levied locally to allow the building of the new City Gaol. The first site chosen was at distillery fields-an area prone to frequent flooding!! This fact and enlightened thinking that hilly airy sites were best for containing Gaol fever probably influenced the change to the present site.
In 1816 red sandstone was quarried from the hill approach roads constructed and outside security walls built. By 1818 planning of the interior building could commence and Mrs Deane and her son, Thomas Deane, won the building contract. John Hogan later to become Ireland’s greatest neo-classical sculptor, developed sketch drawings from the plans of architect, William Robertson of Kilkenny.
The new Cork City Gaol opened in 1824 & was reported as being “the finest in 3 kingdoms”.
In 1870 the west wing was remodelled into a double sided cell wing & in 1878 under the General Prisons (Ireland) Act, The Gaol became an all female prison which it remained until male anti-treaty supporters were incarcerated in 1922/1923
The Gaol closed in August 1923 with all remaining prisoners either released or transferred to other Gaols.
The Women’s Gaol
To the older generation around Sunday’s Well the place with the “big high walls” is often referred to as the “Women’s Gaol”. This is because in the early years its use was for a time confined to female prisoners. It became the “Women’s Gaol” in 1878 and on that particular day the men were marched out of Sunday’s Well Prison and over to the County Gaol off Western Road, while the women were marched in the opposite direction into Sunday’s Well. When the prison was originally built in the 1820’s it housed both male and female prisoners, whose crimes were committed within the city boundary. Anyone committing a crime outside that boundary were committed to the County Gaol, across the river from the City Gaol, of which only the preserved facade now remains, where University College Cork now stands. During the latter years of British occupation, a number of harmless female convicts were detained in the Women’s Gaol, and these were often taken for walks along the Blarney Road under the supervision of their wardresses. Republican women prisoners during the war of independence and the civil war were also imprisoned there. These included many leading members of Cumann na mBan, the prominent patriotic northside lady, Mary Bowles, and possibly the greatest Republican woman of them all, Countess Constance Markievicz. She became the first woman to be elected to the British Parliament in 1918, and was also Minister for Labour in the first Dail in 1919.
The top floor of the Governors house was used as a radio broadcasting station by the national radio station- Radio Eireann (now RTE) from 1927 until the 1950’s.
From 1923 to 1993, apart from the foregoing, and some storage use of the exterior grounds by the Dept, Posts & Telegraphs, The Gaol complex was allowed to become totally derelict until its innovative restoration and reopening to the public as a visitor attraction in 1993.
The Great Escape
A spectacular escape was made from the Women’s Gaol in November 1923. Its inmates then were not those suggested by the name, but a collection of hardened I.R.A. veterans who were singled out on specific charges and were dealt with later, at the convenience of the Government. Among other charges, this group were caught boring a tunnel, had been on hunger strike and were sent to the Women’s Gaol as “being the safest place to hold them”. John Reen and his brother Denny from Rathmore in Co. Kerry were among those who escaped from there. A rope ladder was made to scale the outer wall, and bed clothes were used to descend to the ground by night. The success of the break depended on good timing and a bit of luck. The men had feigned illness on the preceding night. After the prisoners had lowered themselves to the ground inside the wall, they had to huddle in its shadow in sight of a sentry. The position of the moon at a certain hour had to be estimated in order to conceal the movements of the men in the shadows. They went in batches of fourteen as that was the number that could fit in the shadow of the wall, the most wanted men being given preference in order of the serious nature of their charges. All the men in the first batch were liable to the death penalty and cast lots for the order in line. When number nine went over the wall some noise attracted the sentry, and he made movements which caused the prisoner to balk. After a few moments silence, the action was resumed, and three batches amounting to forty two men, escaped with a lapse of fifteen minutes between each batch. It was a frosty night and they had to travel in stockinged feet. Some of those who escaped were natives of Cork City and got clear of there before daylight, but others in the last few batches were recaptured later in the day. It took two weeks for the Reens to reach home in Kerry in easy stages, and even though these escapes touched another wave of searches, the Reen boys were never caught again.