Prison for a ‘common criminal’ in the 1880s was a dispiriting and punitive experience. Apart from a lecture from the prison governor when you were leaving, little attempt was made to rehabilitate or offer any educational opportunities. No books or writing materials were allowed except the Bible. Prison clothes did not take into account the rigours of winter in old, draughty buildings. There was compulsory oakum-picking (unravelling a piece of old tarred rope, considered worthy work for idle hands ), and sleeping on bare boards.
Poor Wilfrid Scawn Blunt. An aristocrat of fine taste, an adventurer who had slept on soft desert sands, and bedded many of Britain’s most sensational women, including the Pre-Raphaelite beauty Jane Morris, on, what I must assume, the most comfy of beds, found sleep practically impossible in Galway gaol. He was also cold in his prison clothes of coarse linen and round felt hat; but wrapped in his own long, warm, coat, soft shoes and a small carpet to sit upon, he made the best of his situation. He accepted his sentence of two months in prison as his protest against the appalling behaviour of the marquis of Clanricarde and his ruthless evictions in south Galway. He was delighted when his first visit was from the Bishop of Galway Dr McCormack. He requested a large printed version of the Douay Bible, which was immediately sent to him along with a volume of the Imitatio Christi, and a small parcel of snuff.
But at night he found the plank bed ‘a real instrument of torture’.* He fondly recalled that often on his Eastern travels he had slept soundly on the naked ground:‘ but it was at the end of a long day’s camel ride, and when the nights were warm and comparatively short. But these long January nights in Galway gaol, with their 13 hours of unlighted darkness, insufficiently clothed and covered, were beyond patient endurance, and little by little destroyed my peaceful acquiescence.’ The striking of the prison clock on every hour also bothered him.
Initially the prison governor was friendly. On his daily rounds would stay a while and talk, occasionally leaving his copy of the Freeman’s Journal behind him. But Scawn Blunt could see that his long coat worried the governor. The governor explained that prison regulations did not permit a prisoner to wear his own clothes. At first he politely requested that Scawn Blunt hand over the coat; but on subsequent visits his urging became more strident. Scawn Blunt frankly refused, and became increasingly angry at the governor, and his subsequent requests.
The governor, perhaps wisely, did not want a scene with a prisoner that could bring adverse publicity on his prison. He decided to leave matters rest for a while.
No moral judgments
At recreation Scawn Blunt soon learned that none of his fellow prisoners were in gaol for any serious crime. ‘ They were nearly all of them peasants run in by the police for small agrarian offences, resistance to eviction, stone throwing, and the like, acts for which the law had been far more really in fault than its breakers.’ Some were ‘ habitual offenders through drink, and the worst case we had was of a man who, under the influence of whiskey, had stabbed a sheep at a fair. The warders drank hard themselves, and could not be censorious. ‘The wardens came from the same rural backgrounds as the prisoners themselves, and made no moral judgements on any of them.’
Scawn Blunt was quite cheerful about his oakum-picking. He viewed the the pile of finely-shredded hemp as ‘ hardly less attractive than that of a woman’s golden hair.’ He even made friends with a mouse, and innocently told a warder that his mouse had no fear of him. But the warder pointed out that mice ‘were forbidden by the rules’. Much to his distress the mouse was sought out and destroyed. He also fed two jackdaws from his cell window. But he was later moved to another cell.
A satisfactory meeting
The big problem, however, was his long coat. One evening, Governor Mason with some wardens came into his cell. They told him that unless he handed over his coat, it would be removed by force. Scawn Blunt became furious. He threw his coat at them, and stepped out of his prison clothes. He told the governor that he would not put them on again until he got his coat back. It was exactly the kind of situation that the governor was trying to avoid. Both sides regarded each other, waiting for one or the other to make a move. Scawn Blunt demanded to see the visiting committee to hear his complaint. The governor appeared relieved that the matter might be resolved, and he quickly passed on his request.
This time Scawn Blunt got worried. He was afraid that the committee would be made up of exactly the same class of landlords that he was protesting against. He felt he would not get a fair hearing, and could be further punished.
But the opposite happened. On January 14 ‘half a dozen of the worthy local magistrates made their appearance in my cell’, and listened attentively to the complaint. Without exception they were sympathetic, and clearly delighted to meet the famous Scawn Blunt. Even though they were Unionists to a man, they had little time for Clanricarde and his methods. They felt that Clanricarde gave all landlords a bad name. They viewed Scawn Blunt’s action at Woodford as a youthful ‘eccentricity’. They discussed his stable of Arabian horses with interest. They also told him that Lady Gregory had approached them about his plight. She urged them to be kind. It was a satisfactory meeting for everyone.
A similar coat to the one confiscated by the governor was ordered from Dublin, which Scawn Blunt accepted. He presumedly got back into his prison clothes. A cell with better light was found, and he was allowed writing materials. Even a young spider spun its web along the top of his copy of the prison rules. Scawn Blunt felt it was a good omen.
Scawn Blunt appears to be happy. And he continues to write his poems.
My prison has its pleasures. Every day
At breakfast-time, spare meal of milk and bread,
Sparrows come trooping in familiar way
With head aside beseeching to be fed.
A spider too for me has spun her thread
Across the prison rules....
I see lamps lighted, and upon the blind
A shadow passes all evening through.
It is the gaoler’s daughter fair and kind
And full of pity - so I imagine-
Till the stars rise, and night begins anew.
And lots more...
Next week: Move to Kilmainham, Dublin
NOTES:* All quotes are taken from The land war in Ireland - being a personal narrative of events, by W S Blunt, published in London 1912.