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Journey to Cork City Gaol


99 Years of Imprisonment

Cork City Gaol is an architectural treasure filled with history and tales of horror.

It all began when an Act of Parliament was passed in 1804 to release the funds to build a new prison in Cork. This would replace the longstanding Cork City Gaol that sat near the Northgate Bridge. It was both overcrowded and unhygienic. Initially a site on the distillery fields was chosen.

 They had to abandon this option because the site flooded regularly. A more suitable site was decided on up in Sunday’s Well; a south-facing area on the north side of the River Lee. It was chosen for its scope and altitude. ‘Gaol fever’ was the biggest disease to affect and infect prisons. The powers that be believed the altitude would be a help as the wind could clear the air of infection…

The Building

William Robertson designed the gaol in a Georgian/Gothic style. Robertson, an architect from Kilkenny, supplied his vision and John Hogan was the draughtsman responsible for the drawings. These drawings were used by Sir Thomas Deane as plans to build the gaol.

The building itself is surrounded by an oval-shaped outer wall. This wall was to keep the inmates in and the public out. The gatehouse was the only point of access in this oval wall. The gaol building is H-shaped with the Governor’s House in the centre, the central block. Some  features of this stunning building are the turreted battlements, the circular towers, the dripstones and the fact that it looks more like a castle than any prison. Cork_City_Gaol.jpg

Each end of the Governor’s House has a three-storey gallery. These are lit by central roof lanterns and they are the access points to the cell wings. At the far end of each cell wing sits a circular tower. The West wing was remodelled in 1870 to make it a double-sided wing. This meant both sides of the wing had cells. Some of its features are the high, arched hallway and the catwalks on both sides that provide access to the cells. Both the hospital and the Debtors Prison sit outside, behind the gaol.  

Prison life

There were a variety of reasons for conviction. In many cases being poor rendered people in prison. Poverty led to the theft of bread, clothing, jewellery and livestock. Through the years, the type of crime varied from simple theft to murder, from treason to assault. Prisoners were ranked in order of their crime. The worst sentence was the death penalty. Any misdemeanours committed once an inmate was dealt with by the Governor and his staff.  The repercussions of this included caning, solitude and manual labor. The manual labor was often time on the Threadwheel.


The Threadwheel was a forty-foot-long contraption that was similar in mechanics to a millwheel; basically an engine powered by humans stepping, powering the wheel. In the case of Cork City Gaol, the Threadwheel was used to raise water and also to ground flour. Usually it was operated by rotating shifts of five inmates every twenty minutes. If you were sent to the Threadwheel as extra punishment it may well have been hours you spent on it!

Cork City Gaol

1804 Act of Parliament to build a new gaol in Cork

1824 New Cork City Gaol opens

1828 First execution at Cork City Gaol

1851 3,400 convicts in Cork City Gaol

1870 Remodel the West wing

1878 General Prisons (Ireland) Act made Cork City Gaol the women’s prison in Cork

1900s Prisoners from the Irish War of Independence

1919 Constance Markicvicz was imprisoned in Cork City Gaol for her rebellious speech. She was the first woman ever elected to the British Parliament.

1922-3 Cork City Gaol housed both male and female offenders. Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer, was among them.

1923 In November forty-two inmates escaped the gaol in forty-five minutes, using a rope ladder, bedding and shadows from the moon. Follow Lee Valley Ireland on Pinterest

1927 Cork’s first ever radio station broadcast from the top floor of the Governor’s House. They continued broadcasting from there until 1958.

1993 Cork City Gaol opened as a museum.

2016 It is open as a Heritage Centre all year. 

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  • (Denis Hurley)
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