by ehistoryadmin on April 12, 2014

Kildare’s Bastille … the rise and fall of the county gaol at Naas

Liam Kenny

Earlier this month our European counterparts, the people of France, celebrated their national day, commonly known as “Bastille Day”, in commemoration of the storming of a prison in Paris during the French revolution.  Closer to home it can be said that Kildare had its very own “Bastille” , the county gaol, which was completed in 1833 in Naas.

Eadestown native and historian Brian Crowley who has a major research interest in Irish jail policy describes the background to the commissioning of the county gaol in Naas: “In 1826 plans were announced for the building of a new Gaol for Naas. The new gaol was located near the canal harbour, where St. Martin’s Avenue now stands. It had a large semi-circular hall containing the prison chapel with four wings radiating out from it.”

He emphasises how the gaol building (completed in 1833) represented what for the time were humane considerations for prisoner accommodation. The new gaol was frequently praised for its cleanliness, discipline and industry. In the report of 1842 the Inspector-General attributed the fall in crime in Kildare to the improvement of discipline in the Gaol. At that stage there were sixty-two cells, five day-rooms, seven yards, six debtors apartments, a hospital and a chapel (divided into six divisions). The average number of prisoners at any one time was sixty-nine. However in just a few short years the entire prison system was completely overwhelmed with the coming of the Famine. Prison numbers soared as people stole food to survive.

Further pressure on the Gaol and its resources was caused by the opening of the Curragh Military Camp in 1855. Soldiers became a major cause of crime in the county. Their presence also led to the growth of a large population of prostitutes, or “camp followers” as they were also known. These women lived in appalling conditions, often camping in the open on the plains of the Curragh. They generally found themselves in prison for petty crime, drunkenness and “trespassing” on the Curragh Camp. In most societies women make up only a tiny percentage of the prison population, but in Naas during this period women prisoners actually outnumbered the men.

Unlike many male prisoners, these women had no opportunity to get honest work once they left the gaol. With no alternative to a life of crime, many women became confirmed recidivists. In 1863 twelve women were responsible for 228 of the committals to Naas Gaol. In a piece of quintessentially Victorian hypocrisy, there seems to have been a tacit acceptance of the need for these women by the military authorities, but they made no real effort to improve the conditions in which the women lived or help them make a better life for themselves.

A major extension was needed to cope with the increase in prisoners, particularly as a decision was made to close Athy Gaol in 1859. Naas Gaol had also become out of date and old-fashioned. A new theory of prison discipline, influenced by prison reformers in the United States, had become official policy in Britain and Ireland. This was the system of “Silence and Separation”. Prisoners were to be kept isolated from each other as much as possible. Any communal activities, such as visits to the chapel or exercise in the yards, were strictly monitored and no communication between prisoners was tolerated. Larger, heated cells were required because that was where prisoners were spending most of their day. In order to meet the demands of this new system, the Gaol authorities awarded a contract for the building of a new wing to the architect John McCurdy. McCurdy was no stranger to Naas, he had already overseen the refurbishment of both the Courthouse and the Town Hall. He also designed the East Wing of Kilmainham Gaol. The cost of this new three-storey wing was £9000 and when it opened in 1859 it added an extra eighty-eight cells to the Gaol.

In 1877 responsibility for the running of gaols passed from the local Grand Juries to a centralised General Prisons Board. This period was also marked by a steady decline in crime throughout Ireland, largely as a result of increased prosperity. Anxious to save money, the General Prisons Board began to dispose of some of the buildings under its care. Attempts to give Naas Gaol to the Army for use as a military prison came to nothing and in 1893 it was up for sale.

It slowly fell into ruin. Some of the stone was removed in 1953 to build a Mortuary Chapel for the Church of Our Lady and St. David. Some of the stone rubble was used by Kildare County Council as foundation material for the new stretch of dual-carriageway from  Dublin to Kill completed fifty years ago this year. The demolition job was thorough and little or no trace remains of Naas gaol, Kildare’s very own “Bastille”, built 130 years ago this year.

Acknowledgement to Brian Crowley, prison historian and curator of St Enda’s (Padraig Pearse’s school) at Rathfarnham, for inspiring this article.

Leinster Leader 30 July 2013, Looking Back, Series no: 342.

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