Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

13 September 2001 Edition

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In Mountjoy Gaol...

Mountjoy: The Story of a Prison

By Tim Carey

This recently published book by Four Courts Press on the history of Mountjoy Prison is an in-depth account of the institution from its inception in March 1850 to 1962. It deals with all aspects of the prison, from the various penal reforms that led to its construction. It also covers its role in society in dealing with crime and punishment. But what makes this book worthwhile for any political activist is that it deals with Mountjoy's history as a political prison as part of its overall history. This clearly illustrates its role in curtailing political discontent as well as imprisoning criminals.

The first two chapters of the book cover the era when prison reform came to be regarded as a crucial measure to improve on the previously appalling conditions that existed in prisons of the 18th and early 19th centuries. While these reforms did have some genuine humanitarian motives, it had mostly to do with creating a more efficient prison system, which the prison authorities demanded for easier control of inmates. Mountjoy was conceived as a progressive concept in its day, with good order and measured punishments as its guiding principle. It was built as the model Victorian prison, to replace the decaying, corrupt and ramshackle institution that was Newgate Prison (now Green Street courthouse, which houses the Special Criminal Court!).

The next chapters deal with how the new prison dealt with crime and punishment and how the regime was organised within. One of the first tasks of the new prison was to separate the various categories of prisoners, the most obvious being men and women, and then by different offences. The new prison was designed with a centre block (containing prison administration and warders' quarters) with four wing blocks radiating from it where the inmates were held. The yards and outlying sheds were designated for varying degrees of hard labour as part of the punishment regime. Life for all the inmates in Mountjoy was harsh, despite most of the Victorian idealism associated with penal reforms. Incarceration in the new model prisons became the preferred option, as opposed to transportation. Mountjoy was to be the limit of penal reform.

The last two chapters refer to Mountjoy as being the Irish Bastille as a result of its role as a political prison. Those incarcerated within it included those convicted of membership of secret agrarian societies and of the various agrarian ``outrages''; members of the IRB or Fenians involved in the risings of 1865 and 1867, most of whom were transferred to English gaols. Fenians were arrested and convicted during the 1870s, as well as Land League campaigners in 1880s, and Invincibles were imprisoned here as the 19th century drew to a close.

The 20th century was to be its busiest period as a political prison beginning with the Suffragettes; and then the 1913 Lockout, when strikers and agitators were easily convicted. Following the Larne arms shipment and the creation of the Irish Volunteers, a new political situation emerged. In the aftermath of 1916, Mountjoy was used to incarcerate Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army people and those involved in the anti-conscription campaign in 1917. Later on during the Tan War, IRA Volunteers were held here, as they were during the Civil War when the Free State regime took over this institution and many executions took place.

By and large, this is a very good book and should be of interest to those who are historically or sociologically minded. It is a comprehensive work but is also very readable for laypersons and not in any way overburdened with academic jargon, though with footnotes and references if one wants. The only weakness is the period of political prisoners in the 1940s, which is not covered, particularly when de Valera and the Fianna Fáil government used this institution against the IRA, executions included.


Revisiting Gibraltar

Fatal Encounter

By Nicholas Eckert

On 6 March 1988, three unarmed IRA Volunteers were shot down by the SAS in Gibraltar. This book, written by Nicholas Eckert, explores the lead up to the killings and provides an in-depth analysis of the subsequent controversy. This is a well researched work and it clearly exposes the murky depths to which the British goverment will go to cover any atrocity carried out under its name. Eckert reveals in detail the many contradications of the case and highlights the collaboration between the British, Gibraltar and Spanish goverments.

He also exposes the sick mentality of the British ratpack press and the continuing intimidation of witnesses. This is well worth a read, especially for young republicans who may not be overfamiliar with this case.


An Phoblacht
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Dublin 1