Mayo County Prison after the Battle of Castlebar 1798

Ireland in 98', Hames, Private Collection of Dr Michael O'Connor.

Ireland in 98', Hames, Private Collection of Dr Michael O'Connor.

The sound of artillery and musket fire has died away. Dead combatants and military ordinance are scattered on the Green in Castlebar. Outside the County Prison on the Green, the blood-soaked body of a lone Fraser Fencible lay dead on the steps – bludgeoned to death by French infantrymen.

The English military and local protestant militia have fled the town with the French-Irish Alliance in close pursuit. Those inside the prison await their fate as French officers work their way from cell to cell. Prison governor Henry Moran is nowhere to be seen.

The French-Irish success at Castlebar and the Republic of Connaught did not endure. The town and the prison were quickly retaken. For at least three years after the Battle of Castlebar, the County Prison at Castlebar was at the centre of military operations in Mayo to put down the rebellion and punish those who participated in it.

The historical narrative has focused heavily on the Battle of Castlebar, the celebrations, and the Republic of Connaught's brief existence. Few have ventured inside the prison to explore the rebellion's impact on the prison population or examine the prison's role in suppressing the uprising.

No prison register for the county prison that stood on the Green in Castlebar, where the motor tax office is, has survived. It is therefore ironic that a Calendar of Prisoners held at the prison on 27 February 1799 has survived, notwithstanding the chaos of the post-rebellion period. The original, two large, folded pages in manuscript, is held at the National Archives.

The document is not signed, but the handwriting is similar to Provost Martial William Clavroge's signature at the bottom of two later calendars. The 1799 Calendar is not just a snapshot of the prison on the day Clavroge wrote it up. It is also a window to the events of the preceding months and the court-martials, executions, and banishments that would follow later in 1799. The calendar, combined with several other sources, enabled me to build an extensive list of those held at the prison and Ballinrobe Bridewell while researching Anatomy of a County Gaol (2020 ).

When the British military regained control of the prison after the recapture of Castlebar, the prison was split into two sections – military and civilian. Clavroge controlled the former, Governor Henry Moran the latter.

In prison, that day in February 1799, were several prisoners detained since the summer assizes of 1798, including Richard Purcell, Andrew Monnelly, Patrick Glynn, and Sibby Moran. They did not avail themselves of the opportunity to escape or join the rebellion in the case of the men. They would remain in custody pending the restoration of the civilian courts.

Of the prisoners who did join the Irish-French alliance after the battle of Castlebar, some were back in prison, having been recaptured. Both George Duke and a man named McMillan took the opportunity the rebellion offered but were back in custody some weeks later. McMillan had been sentenced to transportation for life before the arrival of the French. The release of prisoners presented him with an alternative. He joined the rebels at Westport but was back in custody in September.

The confusion and breakdown in law and order that followed the rebellion presented opportunities for some. The number of prisoners held for sheep-stealing, and other crimes not associated with the uprising and committed after the English authorities regained control, is evidence of a continuation of criminal activities notwithstanding the significantly increased military presence in the county. There were also three women in prison. Their detention would seem to have predated the arrival of the French.

John Moore, late President of Connaught, and some men who would be hanged or banished, also appear on the 1799 Calendar. The calendar also gives us the names of those active in rounding up rebels, including William Kirkwood, George Clendenning, the Rev. Dr Thomas Ellison, and the Hon. Denis Browne. Beyond the calendar, there are many documented escapes and reports of those held in prison before court-martials, including those who turned informers and traded information for their lives.


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