Galway City and County gaols were built at the beginning of the 19th century on a large site which took up most of Nuns Island. Construction was conditional on a right of way, the road all around the walls, also being built. James Hardiman, the historian, described it as follows: “The Prison …. Is built in the form of a crescent …. The interior of which is divided into eight wards ….. separated by walls which form so many radii of a circle, and, terminating in the rear of the governor’s house, bringing the whole range within many of his windows, by which means he can, at a single glance, survey the entire.”
On December 27, 1810, prisoners were transferred from the old to the new town gaol. The transfer from the old to the new county gaol took place the following year. The two prisons merged around 1870. In 1925, it was announced at the Urban District Council that the prison was about to close. There were protests, one councillor saying: “The prison was worth £8,000 a year to the local economy”. Mr Young, however, thought closure might be a good idea as “There were only four drunks sent to Galway Gaol in 1924”. In fact there were a lot of complaints about sanitary conditions, occasional overcrowding, and the threat of disease. Clergymen who had been inside the prison declared emphatically that if something was not done to improve the conditions there was a grave danger of zymotic disease. In 1939, the Minister for Justice, Patrick Rutledge, signed an order stating: “The Prison at Galway in the County of Galway shall be closed as on and from the 1st of May, 1939”.
Some of the well-known prisoners who spent time here were William Smith O’Brien, who wrote When We Were Boys while incarcerated here; William Scawen Blunt, an English aristocrat who organised protests against evictions; and Myles Joyce who, though innocent, was hanged for the Maamtrasna murders.
As the successors of the Grand Jury, ownership of the former prison passed over to Galway County Council. In 1940, Bishop Michael Browne made representations to the council suggesting the old gaol would be an ideal site a new cathedral for Galway and that it should be handed over for the nominal sum of £10. Some concern was expressed about the houses located at the back of the jail but councillors were informed that the bishop had “some very nice plans for the area drawn up by an architect”.
On March 15, 1941, 80 years ago next Monday, the chairman of the county council, Eamonn Corbett, formally handed over the keys to the jail to Bishop Michael Browne. Also present at the main gate of the jail were Canon Nestor; Canon Garrahy; Joe Costelloe, Mayor of Galway; Canon Glynn; Martin O’Regan; Canon Davis; and CI O’Flynn, county manager.
Before the end of 1941, the gaol buildings were all demolished with only the external walls and the gate house still left standing. Construction on the new cathedral began in 1958.