The Meath Heritage Centre is situated between the river Boyne and Mill Street. Here a Tourism and heritage centre has been developed on the site of the old County Goal. The history of this place dates back to the mists of Celtic Ireland when according to legend the last battle between Queen Maeve of Connaught and King Connor of Ulster over the Brown Bull of Cooley took place at the ford in the river nearby. Saint Loman arrived here in 433 and brought Christianity to the natives of the area. The Mill which gave its name to the neighbouring streets was located a little above Watergate Bridge. The gaol at Trim served as the place of confinement for all the criminals of the county when the gaol fell into disuse two houses were erected on the site and these buildings too had a colourful history but our research is concentrated on the period when the County Gaol was in operation and the street outside was called “Gaol Street”
One of the earliest sources of information relating to the gaol the Meath Grand Jury Reports, give details of how in 1681 £50 was levied on the county towards the erection of a goal in Trim with the Town Corporation granting a plot of land for the site.
The Corporation were also given responsibility for the initial upkeep and security of the buildings and in September 1687 the constables of the corporation were ordered to summons six men with weapons to guard the gaol of Trim.
At the centre of the gaol were two court yards – one for debtors and one for felons – onto which the large cells opened directly. In the corner of one of the courtyards stood a small house which was occupied by the turnkey. The accommodation d in the gaol in the jail consist of thirty six cells, four debtor’s rooms and seven larger cells which were used as day rooms. The high walls gave the gaol a secure appearance but in reality it was easy to escape.
The sum of £80.000 was spent on the reconstruction of the before 1815 yet very little improvement seems to have resulted from this work. Many efforts were made to develop the facilities of the gaol over the years but changes were limited due to original poor construction and the restricted site.
In 1834 a new gaol was constructed on a site opposite Trim Castle and the gaol at Gaol Street was allowed to fall into disrepair.
When John Howard, the prison reformer, visited Trim gaol in 1788 he found the prison consisted of four stories with eighteen cells and three day rooms. In his book, “An Account of the principal lazarrettos in Europe” Howard states that there were thirty prisoners – five debtors and twenty five felons. One of the many attempted escapes from the prison had just been foiled when eleven prisoners cut off there irons and had almost managed to abscond after confining there gaoler.
The reports of the inspector General on the state of prisons are the main source of information on life in the gaol of Trim. By the early 1820’s Trim gaol had expanded to thirty six cells, four debtor rooms and seven larger cells which served as day rooms, hospital and chapel. The prison, if necessary, accommodates one hundred and fifty prisoners at a rate of three to a bed. There were no corridors in the building with the cell doors opening directly onto the yards which resulted in the cells being draughty, damp and cold in winter. There were only two yards for recreation and work whereas the regulations demanded twelve.
All prisoners, tried and untried, felons and petty criminals were allowed to mix. An inspector making a visit in1817 came upon eight prisoners, all convicted of different charges occupying the Judge’s room, from which they could communicate with the felons on the yard.
There were no provisions for female prisoners and when a new section was created the women objected to being locked up by a male turnkey. It was not until 1823 that a matron was appointed to supervise the female side of the prison. All prisoners were required to work for the county allowances they received. A treadmill was introduced in 1823 and used to pump water throughout building and as a form of hard labour for the prisoners though the inspectors thought that the treadmill was not adequately worked and recommended the introduction of stone breaking.
The prisoners lived on a staple and unvarying diet of meat and potatoes could not be introduced. In 1814 James Brady, apothecary, was paid £22-17-11 for broth and gruel while Rev. Mark Wainwright received £400 for supplying bread and other necessities.
Health care for the prisoners was in adequate with no infirmary for the care of victims of fever or epidemic. Two small rooms were allocated to the sick and these were quite unsuitable for the purpose.
Another shortcoming was the education of the prisoners with a schoolmaster being employed for three hours a day but this was insufficient time given the large number of prisoners. In 1821 most of the prisoners were able to read the Bible and those who could not were learning to read. One of the large rooms were used as a chaplains regarded this as unsuitable.
The inspector General’s Reports on the state of Trim Gaol, dating back to the early 1800’s, portray a feeling of despair about the unsuitability of the gaol; each report advocating the building of a new gaol as the only solution.
The inspector’s Reports are filled with details of the gaol employees. The staff in Trim gaol consisted of a gaoler a deputy gaoler, two chaplains, a turnkey, a matron, a schoolmaster, a surgeon and a local inspector. Some positions such as inspector, surgeon and chaplain were not full time positions.
In 1810 William Smart, the gaoler, Received an annual salary of £120. The Church of Ireland Chaplain was Rev. James Hamilton, the diocesan schoolmaster, while Rev. J. Clarke was the catholic Chaplain. Each received a salary of £50 per annum as did Dr. Whilstone, the physician. By 1824 the gaoler’s salary has risen to £250, the deputy gaoler had£50, the matron £12, Clerk £12, surgeon £80, Turnkey £30 and schoolmaster £18 per annum.
Dean Butler, rector of Trim from 1819 to 1862, was the only member of the prison Board to reside in the town. Tasting the food at the gaol each day he kept a check on all expenditure ensuring that the gaol was run as economically as possible.
With annual checks by the prison inspectors the staff were encouraged in their work and 1824 the inspector general complimented the officers of the prison for their zeal and attention.
Before the 1810 Prison Bill for Ireland the prison did not always run smoothly and there were reports of discontent on the parts of the staff and the prisoners. In 1808 the prison inspector reported that on visiting the gaol he found the prisoners in irons and they complained that their punishment was an effort by the gaoler, explained that he was forced into such actions as his salary was a mere £40 per annum, out of which he had to pay a turnkey. The Inspector was sympathetic that “this paltry stipend encourages and excuses these cruel actions: how can fidelity be expected when such an important job is so meanly remunerated”.
Another attempt to generate income by smart resulted in a letter from the prisoners to Dr Travers, the governor of kilmainham gaol.
We the poor prisoners of Trim Geail begs an our beare knees for God sake of your honour to take pitty on ous for they say that you are a father to the poor prisoners. May the Lord for ever bless you and put a stop to smart and hs wife friom robbing us. sir he is the greatest villion that ever was born and Sir he has pittitoas (potatoes) to cell and we must give him five pence and more for them to her and he will not let us get them in markets where we would get them for half. And likewise, Sir, we must buy her sower butter and give one halfpenny and quart for and we poor creatures would get three quarts and penny in the street …. We would by perished only for the turnkey. He is a very honoust man. It goes thrue his heart to see the way we are used…’’ OFFICAL PAPERS- 1808 (National Archives OP/488/31)
The Gaol confined many different prisoners in its 150 years of existence. The type of prisoner was often dictated by the political currents and social conditions of the time, so incarcerated in TRIM GAOL were rebels, highwaymen, pickpockets, thieves, murderers and debtors.
The 1821 census shows that most common offence of the prisoners in the gaol was for the non payment of debt. Those imprisoned on this charge were drawn from a wide variety of occupations such as farmers, bakers and labourers. Other crimes that featured strongly were theft of cattle, wheat, fowl and pigs, assault, pick-pocketing, burglary and rape. The latter two were punishable by death while the former received more lenient sentences.
Reverend mr. Wainright, the local Inspector, reported in 1818, that he found the demeanour of the prisoners of both sexes worse here than in any other gaol that he had visited. In his report he said the prisoner’s expressions were very offensive and many were old and habitual offenders.
The Catholic Defenders, or Defenders as they were more commonly known, were established as a secret society in the latter half of the eighteenth century to ensure that tenant farmers were treated fairly by the landlords. Outraged by the activities by the activities of the defenders in Meath the landowners and authorities met at Trim in early 1793 and a one hundred pounds reward was offered to any person who would prosecute a defender to conviction and the penalty for being an active Defender was fixed at death while those guilty of administering the defender;s oath would be transported for life. This order supplied the Trim Assizes with many prisoners for trial. On March 9th 1793 Mr. Justice Boyd sentenced to death Christopher Donegan, Patrick Reilly and William Fox remarking, “While it’s a lamented the fate of human beings expiring in such untimely and ignominious manner all will allow it is for their offences”.
While there was no shortage of prisoners to be tried at the Trim Assizes there was often a difficulty in finding a fresh jury for each accused. On one occasion in March 1793 the jury was so drunk that it could not hear the case before it.
A meeting of defenders in Athboy in May 1793 resulted in a riot in which two soldiers were killed. Eight people were arrested, committed to Trim gaol, and put on trial at the July Assizes .The men were acquitted of the murder but found guilty of the riot and sentenced to be publicly whipped at Athboy on August 15th, imprisoned for three years and to give security for their own good behaviour for seven years.
By February 1794 there were 120 prisoners in Trim gaol awaiting trial as Defenders. Some of the Prisoners were offeed the option of serving in the Navy instead of being imprisoned, an offer many accepted gladly.
Trim Gaol saw the execution of many of the prisoners held within its walls the execution gave rise to a popular rhyme:-
“Kells for brogues
Navan for Rogues
And Trim for hanging the people”
One of the noteworthy executions which took place at Trim was that of Patrick Traynor who was found guilty of high treason for administering the Defender’s oath to more than 500 people. The public execution took place on august 8th 1796 in front of the gaol.
Traynor appeared extremely penitent and called on all to desist from the activities of the defenders. In a very weak state he had not eaten anything for some days prior to his execution. His head was severed from his body and fixed on top of the gaol.
Another member of the Defenders executed at Trim was Laurence O’Connor a school-master from Agher. A large number of members of the Defenders were executed in 1793. In September 1794 four men from Ardbraccan were executed for attempting to murder the protestant Bishop of Meath and Murdering his chaplain.
Executioners were often inmates of the gaol itself who took on the task of executioner in return for special privileges. In 1821 the executioner was Thomas Halpenny who had been convicted of pig stealing. The gaoler received any expenses incurred by him in the execution but only eleven were actually hung, the others had their sentences commuted to transportation for life.
Security at the Trim Gaol was not very good and many prisoners are said to have walked through the roof and escaped to the countryside in pursuit of better quarters. Atkinson, an English travel writer, wrote in 1815 that “nobody stays in that prison but those who stay there from inclination”.
The most successful escape on record occurred in April 1796 when six prisoners – Ambrose Farrell, Christopher Farrell, James Commons, report McDonagh, Henry Bradley and Thomas Dunn, all charged with various acts connected with Defenders, managed to break out of Trim Gaol.
On the evening of their escape they were locked up as usual in the upper tier of cells by the gaoler at 7.00pm. and the break-out was discovered at 11.00pm when the gaoler was doing his rounds. After making a small hole through the wall, the prisoners used a skeleton key to open the door which led to the staircase and used the same key to gain access to the platform at the top of the building. The escapees indented to open all the doors of the upper tier but their key broke after the second lock. On top of the building they cut blankets into strips which they tied together and fastened to a secure point. After climbing down the wall the prisoners swam to freedom. The body of one of the prisoners, Thomas Dunn, was found at the base of the wall, having fallen to his death. An immediate search of the town and surrounding area was made but no trace of the other escapees was ever found.
COLLIER THE ROBBER
Michael Collier’s activities as a highway man made him a folk hero in his own day. Roaming the roads of Louth, Cavan, Meath and North County Dublin he held up robbed every well-to-do traveller that chanced to cross his path.
Born at Bellewstown in 1780 Collier was attracted to the easy life which crime provided. Arrested at Gormanstown Collier was charged with the crime of cattle stealing. The jury at the Trim assizes found guilty and sentenced him to execution. Heavily ironed he was confined in the strongest cell in Trim gaol. Collier appeared resigned to his fate but the night before his execution he removed his chains using a file which had been smuggled in by his friends and made a strong rope from strips torn from his blanket. He then removed the bars from the window of his cell, leaving one to which he tied the rope. Climbing down he escaped to freedom by swimming across the River Boyne. The sentries sounded the alarm but Collier was already being spirted away by his friends.
It was not long before he bagan holding up coaches and rich travellers again. Of those who rode with him fourteen were hanged, six were shot and two were transported. After a long period he was finally recaptured and sent to Trim gaol. Sentenced to 7 years transportation Collier was offered the alternative of enlisting in the West Indian corps, an offer he gladly accepted. Obtaining his discharge in 1815 he became a plantation overseer in South Carolina but eventually came back to Ireland and opened a public house near Ashbourne. However Collier squandered his money and his business perished. Once again he took to the roads and spent his last days storytelling. Collier died of cholera in Drogheda in 1849 and is buried in an unmarked grave in Chord Road cemetery.
Many of the prisoners from Trim Gaol were transported to Australia as punishment for their crimes. The first convict from Meath to land Australia was Felix Owen who arrived at Sydney Cove Penal Settlement in New South Wales on September 26th 1791. Indeed he may well have been the first Irishman to step on Australian soil.
The arrival of Owen in Australia was preceded by a six month voyage on board the “Queen”, the first ship to transport convicts from Ireland to Australia. Owen, who had been sentenced to transportation for life at the spring assizes at Trim during March 1788, was subjected to great brutality, as were the other convicts, at the hands of the master and the crew of the “Queen”. At the official enquiry it emerged that many of the convicts starved to death as the Master denied them food so that he could sell it in Sydney. Convict records in Australia show that of the 123 male convicts and 23 female convicts who landed in Australia, 70 died within the first six months of their arrival but Felix Owen was one of the survivors, he was still alive and residing near Sydney in February 1811. Living near him were forty one other convicts from Co. Meath who had been tried at Trim.
In February 1796 five Trim convicts arrived aboard the “Marquis Cornwallis” after eventful voyage from Cork. The convicts had a vain attempt to overcome the crew and sail to France. Eight lost their lives in the ensuing gun battle while an informer was strangled to death.
Nine Trim convicts travelled on the “Britannia which sailed in 1797. Its voyage in May 1797 was one of the most brutal in the history of transportation. The 144 men and 44 women on board were kept in chains for the 6 months of the journey and at least 6 men were flogged to death. Many more died of starvation and mistreatment.
Following the closure of the gaol in 1834 the buildings were converted into private houses. The houses incorporated sections of the old gaol within their new structures.
The houses were occupied by Thomas Blake, a butcher and cattle dealer until his death in 1873. At this point the houses fell into ownership of his sons – Peter and James. Peter expanded the family business into cattle exporting.
One of the houses was later purchased by Patrick Canty, a Limerick man who had married into the Blake family. A long succession of tenants occupied the house while under the ownership of the Cantys. In fact the house remained the property of the Canty family until its sale to the County Council in 1982.
The other house passed through the Blake and Brogan families to the lalors and then to the Anderson family.
In 1901 Thomas King, an assistant supervisor in the Inland Revenue, and his family occupied one of the houses. In that year his daughter, Marian, was born. An artist and radio presenter of children’s programmes, Marian, exhibited in Ireland, Britain, France and America. As a broadcaster on Radio Eireann, Marion was involved in the Caltex (now Texaco) Children’s Art Competition.
The houses were used as a post office for a short period at the turn of the century. A loft in an outhouse was used as a dance hall in the early 1930’s and there was a sweetshop in existence in the 1940s. But perhaps the most exciting period was when the houses were occupied by British forces during the War of independence.
During the war of independence Trim police barracks were burned by the I.R.A. This incident sparked off a barrage of reprisals by British forces including the wounding of two young men, the burning of a number of houses and the town hall. At this time the house in Mill Street on the site of the old gaol, owned by Patrick Canty was occupied by Michael Blake and his family. According to local reports the family were told they had one hour to leave as the police wanted to use the house as a base. The family moved to a house in High Street. The force which occupied the house included a Head Constable and a District Inspector. Six of this garrison were ambushed in Haggard Street while returning from patrol in January 1921. Three men were wounded in the attack with one of these later dying from a head wound. The house was occupied for over a year and quite a lot of damage was done to the house for which the family were later compensated.
A NEW LIFE
The two houses were purchased by Meath County Council in the early 1980’s. Following the designation of Trim as a Heritage Town by Bord Failte in 1990, the Council decided to locate a Visitor Centre and Tourist Office in the buildings. Grants were allocated to the project under the National Tourism Programme and reconstruction was completed in 1992.
In August 1993 the Meath Heritage Centre re – located to Mill Street with Monsignor Kenny performing the official opening in November of that year. The visitor Centre with its exhibition entitled “The Power and Glory – Medieval Trim” opened to the public in June 1994. A new Life for old buildings.
The Irish Tourist
Butler, Dean Richard
Politics and War in County Meath 1913-1923
Inside Information acted on efficiently led to fall of the Trim Barracks
General Valuation of Ireland 1854
An Account of the Principal Lazarettos in Europe.
Mc Dowell, R.B.
The Irish Administration
Parliamentary Prison Reports
Piggot’s Directory of Ireland 1824
Report of the inspector General on the State of Prisons
1818, 1819, 1821, 1824, 1826, 1827, 1828.
A life By The Boyne
National Commercial Directory of Ireland
1846, 1856, 1870, 1881.
Tried at Trim.
Meath Chronicle 27th January 1990
O’ Loingsigh, Seamus
The Rebellion of 1798 in Meath
Riocht Na Midhe
Meath Chronicle May 4th 1968
Census Material 1821, 1901, 1911
The Life and Adventures of Michael Collier
Corporation Minute Book Trim
Meath Grand Jury Presentments
Official Papers and Prisoner Petitions National Archives