Mountjoy: the story of a prison

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Winter 2001), Reviews, Volume 9

Tim Carey
(Collins Press)
ISBN 1898256896

Entering Mountjoy jail in 1997, having spent two years researching its history for this book, the author sought to ‘step back in time’ so as to make a connection with Mountjoy’s nineteenth-century past. Peering through the spy hole of a cell in the basement of B wing, one of the cell’s dozen occupants greeted him with a cheery ‘f*** off’. Stopping in the Circle, the engine room around which the prison revolves, as prisoners moved two and fro between visits, or the prison tuck shop, or to workshops, a prison guard assured him, ‘in a crowded pub voice’, that what looked like chaos, was actually quite organised. Another lasting impression was the ‘peculiar smell’ of the prison. It was a ‘cloying smell which lodged in the nostrils’, ‘a curious mixture of decay, cigarettes, piss-pots in cells, daily slop-out, toilets at the end of corridors, underwear changed once a week, hundreds of people working and living at close quarters’, mixed with the smell of ‘food, disinfectant and detergents’.
The story of Mountjoy, as recorded by Tim Carey, is a complex story of human failure on the one hand and human resistance and endurance on the other. We see government ministers and civil servants, private businessmen—speculators in human misery, philosophers, priests and nuns, engineers and architects. With bayonet, wig and gown, bible, chart and brick and mortar, this motley crew of opportunists and ‘do-gooders’ develop theories, often in the name of Christ, to justify the containment of their fellow humans, usually in appalling conditions.
With the ending of transportation to the other outposts of empire in the middle of the nineteenth century, the rich needed somewhere to contain those they feared and despised. Mountjoy would be, as Carey so nicely puts it, ‘the creepy crawly underside of the well-polished stone of Georgian Dublin’. Adopting the model of Pentonville jail in England, Mountjoy would be built in such a way so as to keep prisoners isolated from each other. This ‘separate system’ was an idea ‘strongly influenced by contemplative Quaker religious practice’. It also reflected a prevailing perception of crime. Crime was often understood as a disease, one ‘so virulent and contagious that it could be transmitted through communication’. The theory in place, the engineers would comply, designing the tools of the trade. In advocating the infamous treadmill, or ‘everlasting staircase’, the Association for the Improvement of Prison Discipline proclaimed, ‘in a recommendation reminiscent of a 1950s washing machine commercial’ as the author puts it, that ‘no house of correction should be without it’. A more subtle form of distraction was referred to as ‘stupid oakum picking’. Here prisoners would pull apart the threads of old tarred ropes. Once returned to single strands they could be used again for new ropes or ‘for caulking and sealing joints on ships’. This was likened to ‘placing the mind on a treadmill—where there is motion without progression’. Underlying such work schemes was the obvious financial incentive, as the fruits of prisoners’ labours could be used to pay for their incarceration.
However, the separation of prisoners was criticised from other quarters. One Catholic chaplain feared that the result of separation might be that ‘these poor creatures are not called by God to a contemplative life, and hence their minds [might] soon require to be relieved by other occupations’. Here we see that the emphasis on betterment through separation, central to the design of the prison, clashed with that other Victorian obsession, how to prevent sex. Chapels were designed in such a way that each prisoner was confined in their own booth, but clearly overcome by the sermon, many prisoners obviously found it difficult to resist celebrating with someone they loved. And although this was by its nature a solitary practice, Carey discovers evidence of prisoners offering each other lessons in the art.
Here we begin to get a glimpse of the other side of the prison story. It is one of suffering, adaptation and the arts of resistance. The indefatigable Peadar O’Donnell, who put himself in the way of many a struggle, describes the impact of his first day of incarceration in Mountjoy. When his cell door closed for the first time he writes, ‘I was as full of panic as a child, who, searching nervously in the distant corner of a barn at night time, is trapped by a gust of wind which slams the door and puts out the candle; it was as bad as that’. It is under such circumstances that human survival instincts come to the fore. One inmate, writing in the 1880s, describes the curious behaviour of some prisoners: ‘They make much of the companionship of a mouse or spider, and learn from them the lessons of patience, and hope, and courage’. Another prisoner, Sean Milroy, writing in 1915 in a similar vein, issues a warning to those who enter the ‘palace of bolts and bars’ not to forget to take their imagination with them when they go in or they are in ‘for the devil of a time’.
In terms of political resistance, of course, Mountjoy has seen it all. As Carey puts it, ‘To understand the history of Ireland one should visit its prisons’. Young Irelanders, Fenians, Suffragists, trade unionists, republicans, conscientious objectors, all have entered its gates and many have left by more imaginative exits. Some were born there and never left however. In one year, twelve of the twenty-seven children born in the female wing died within twelve months.
Mountjoy, the story of a prison is well researched, mostly employing primary sources in the telling. However, the author has managed to combine quotations with diagrams, photographs and various pieces of political ephemera and, by weaving all this together with an engaging turn of phrase, he has sought to ensure the book’s accessibility to as wide an audience as possible. Given the contemporary punitive obsession with building more of these monuments to human cruelty the merits of such an approach are obvious.
Johnny Connolly


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