Thursday 20 October 2011

Prison registers are online

For the first time, Ireland's surviving prison registers are online. They're going to be officially launched by at the Back To Our Past show tomorrow, but they are already available for searching.

And what fun they are, too! I've just spent more than two hours happily lost in them and I've already found important detail about some of my ancestors. How about this:

Daniel Santry, aged 19, was taken into custody at Cork prison on 6 March 1867. No minor crime, for Daniel. He was charged with attacking and burning the police barracks and open insurrection against HM The Queen. His home address is recorded and so are some personal details – height 5ft 7½, fresh complexion, grey eyes, brown hair, and two vaccination marks on his left arm. Surprisingly, given the crime, he was bailed after 14 days incarceration and ordered to appear at the Spring Assizes.

Or this: Jerry Santry, aged 20. Held in gaol from 2 August 1849 for stealing clothes from Skibbereen Workhouse, for which he received 1 month's hard labour after nearly one month in prison custody.

In fact there are many, many cases of 'stealing clothes from Workhouse'. And quite a few 'stealing dishes from Workhouse' or 'stealing potatoes' or 'stealing apples' in the 1849 registers. As the notes to the collection explain, the numbers of cases before the courts was very high this year when those worst affected by the famine sought refuge within the prison system. At least there was food and shelter there, no matter how hard the regime.

Perhaps it was this 'refuge' that some other young Santrys were after when they were accused of stealing sheep that summer. Margaret (7), Mary (9) and John (5) were held in custody from 17 July 1849 until 3 August when they were found not guilty and discharged. I can't help wondering if they were pleased with this verdict. I don't know who these kids 'belonged to', nor if they survived the Great Hunger.

I'm going to enjoy pouring over old newspapers to see if I can find any more details in reports of the trials in which my ancestors were involved in. And there's still plenty more to search out.

It's a fascinating collection. It dates from 1790 to 1924 and covers most of the surviving records of the 26 counties of the Republic. A total of 2.7million records are included, with information on over 3.5million names. The latter figure is higher because the collection is searchable not only for the name of prisoners but also victims.

I found one of my maternal ancestors, James Doolittle, recorded as a victim of assault by Peter Reilly, a 35-year-old bachelor labourer from Wicklow who was ordered to pay a fine or be imprisoned for seven days in January 1878.

When searching the registers by county, bear in mind that the registers are indexed according to the county where the prison was located, not where the accused resided. This tip, together with full details of the register dates for each county register, plus a summary of the prison system over the years, can be found on the notes page. It's worth reading before you get stuck in!