Home » The child prisoners of Ireland’s Alcatraz

The child prisoners of Ireland’s Alcatraz

In addition to the incarceration of male adults at Spike Island’s 19th century prison, boys as young as twelve were not spared hard time.  The punishment of what we now call juvenile offenders was standard practice in the decades before the prison opened, with little distinction made between adult and child. 

Those aged seven and below were considered incapable of criminal intent, but age seven to fourteen would be tried and punished as an adult if the prosecution could prove their ability ‘to discern good from evil’.  This was not a difficult task when most children would respond in the affirmative if asked if they knew what they did was wrong. 

For those fifteen and under, minor first offences might result in a single night or two in prison if they encountered a lenient judge.  Anything beyond a first offence was punished to the fullest extent of the law.  They were sentenced to flogging on arrival and before leaving, not being spared this horrific ordeal.  In Ireland of the 1840’s it was not considered that many were orphaned by the famine, as was the case with Edmond Power.  Nor was the boisterous behavior typical of unformed adults given any leeway. 

The Spike Island prison layout in the late 1800’s

For most of the boys arriving, those aged seventeen and under, the recorded crimes were extraordinarily petty.  This includes theft of potatoes, handkerchiefs and other trivial items.  The stories behind the acts gave a clear reasoning for the offending – to please or placate a supervisory adult, to belong, to survive.  They were not violent criminals and today we would blame structural failings in society for their necessity, making efforts at reform. 

The winds of reformatory change were blowing in Britain and Ireland, resulting in constitutional changes in the latter half of the 19th century.  Victorian era society is credited with significant advances and long-standing laws that are the bedrock of modern society.  These changes did not arrive soon enough for the convict children on Spike Island.

Many famine orphaned children ended up at Spike Island Prison

The youngest boy to endure the Spike Island system was twelve years old.  David Doran arrived on April 5th, 1849 on a sentence of ten years transportation.  He was recorded as just four feet three inches tall, making for a sad and sorry sight entering the prison.  He arrived unable to read or write, something he learned at the island prison.  However his experience is anything but a sad indictment of the era. 

There were even younger cases documented in mainland prisons.  Michael Fitzgerald of County Meath was an extraordinary nine years old when he was sentenced to seven years transportation, for his crime of larceny in 1838.  That is to say, a nine-year-old accused of planning and executing the theft of a sheep was taken from his family and locked in a cell with adults, with the intention of sending him several thousand miles overseas to labour in a glorified prison camp. 

In Michael’s case at least, the sentence was commuted to a term of imprisonment in Ireland, sparing him the horrors of a three-month journey overseas and likely permanent separation from any surviving family. 

Children enjoying the area outside the former children’s prison at Spike Island, in much improved circumstances.

Nine-year-old James Lavery of Derry also received seven years transportation, for the audacious crime of stealing eggs.  His mother petitioned for leniency, but mercy was in short supply.  Boys and girls as young as ten appear all too frequently on the official transportation lists between Ireland and Australia.  Dubliner Thomas Walker was ten when he was convicted of stealing a handkerchief in 1842, for which he was sentenced to seven years transportation. 

Mary Eastdone of County Armagh was ten when she was convicted of burglary in 1849, receiving seven years transportation.  While women could not vote or engage in a myriad of societal activities in 19th century Ireland, equal rights was applied on the matter of youth criminality. 

The children’s prison today, showing a replica of a transport ships hull and videos of various incarceration experiences

Ten-year-old William Orford received a seven-year sentence which was appealed by his widowed mother Elizabeth, of No. 47 Mabbott Street, Dublin.  Elizabeth said she was dependant on his support, which may have been the situation that led to his criminality in the first place. 

A boy as young as fifteen was among the very first convict arrivals to Spike Island. Thomas O’Neill had already served over a year of a seven-year transportation sentence before arriving to Spike Island.  His crime was stealing three horse bridles.  Thomas was more of a career criminal than those around him, taking an opportunity on the boat to the island to steal several silk handkerchiefs from the stores.  He used them to barter for snuff from a warder named Lawrence Walsh, an act which got him and the warder into serious trouble.  It was a bad start to the island experience for both parties. 

His crime made O’Neill the first arrival at Spike Island to receive lashes.  He might also have been the very first to see the inside of the solitary cells on Spike Island, which was not an accolade any sane person would seek.  They were initially located dozens of feet under the soil and stone of the fort’s walls to the rear of long dark tunnels, being hastily converted from toilets.  They were no place for the living.

The dark of the ‘tunnels’ beneath the forts walls at Spike Island, where prisoners were held in solitary confinement in the early years of the prison.

His whipping showed the lack of distinction between men and boys as no age restriction applied to the cruel practise.  It took stories like the death in Ireland’s Crumlin Road jail of fourteen-year-old Patrick McGee to lead to criticism, and eventually change. 

Patrick had stolen clothes and was sentenced to three months in prison and flogging, a typical 1850’s punishment.  What he thought of the three months sentence we cannot know, but clearly the thought of flogging terrified him.  The rope used for flogging was often laced with glass, to ease opening of the skin.  Salt was rubbed into the wounds to maximize pain levels, giving us the expression.  This was punishment in its purest form, to be maximized and not sanitized. 

While awaiting his flogging, McGee heard the screams of a grown man writhing in agony from the lash.  His cries echoed around Crumlin jail.  The mind of a petrified Patrick McGee was soon apparent to his jailers, who on fetching him for his turn, found the boy hanged in his cell (83).  Dead by suicide at age fourteen, his life the value of new clothes and the perceived need for punishment in a 19th century prison.

The remote location of Spike Island, with the nearest outcrop of land owned by the Navy so unsuitable for escape.

Change did come with the Act for the Better Care and Reformation of Youthful Offenders in 1854 a step in the right direction.  Children aged 12 – 16 were pardoned from prison time if they agreed to attend a reformatory school, where they could remain until they were nineteen.  Here they received more appropriate education in reading and writing, and applicable skills for the outside world. 

They were separated from adult males, in of itself a form of protection and a method to avoid further crime by association.  They were still tough places in which to exist, and in the decades between then and now, shocking cases of abuse have emerged from some industrial schools in Ireland and Britain.  They were conceived by the authorities of the day with nobler intent. 

The prison and fortress as it looks today, little changes from the time of its child prisoners. The square building in the center bottom is the former children’s prison.

On Spike Island, some adaptations were at least made to separate the boys from the adults.  A large shell store building that was originally designed to hold gunpowder as part of the fort’s arsenal was converted when the prison opened in 1847, first to a hospital then into prisoner accommodation.  Its four adjoining rooms were turned into a dedicated children’s prison.  It held up to 100 boys.

To maximise the limited floor space the shell store saw the installation of chains hanging from the roof.  From these, hammocks were placed down its length, making full use of the building’s height.  The boys had to climb up to their respective bunk to bed down for an evening, and presumably the lower bunks were considered prime real estate.  Rolling in your sleep from a top bunk would have had painful consequences, as the hammocks were stacked one on top of another in rows of threes and fours.  It was hardly ideal, but any separation from incarcerated adults was an improvement.  

The modern children’s prison holds interactive games for kids, a far cry and improvement on its former use

Despite the separation efforts, many young boys sent to Spike Island never left.  For some it was the back breaking labour, for others the lack of sanitation.  It is a jarring experience to review the Ireland – Australia Transportation records and consistently see the record end ‘died at Spike Island’.  For many the island was to be their graveyard, as cheap pine coffins were lowered into the islands soil with unacceptable frequency.  The often small coffin dimensions was equally unacceptable.

Edward Breen was sixteen when he was sentenced for receiving stolen goods in 1852.  He never saw out his ten year transportation sentence, dying on Spike Island in 1854 (84).  Sixteen year old John Fahy was tried in Galway and survived two years in the penal system before dying on Spike in 1853 (85).  Patrick Flynn was just fourteen when he was sentenced to fourteen years for having stolen goods, the extraordinary length of his sentence matching his age.  He died on Spike Island four years into his sentence. 

The former Spike Island village school for the island villagers, now abandoned. There were little efforts at schooling for the Victorian child prisoners, although the first island school opened in 1846.

Patrick Kennelly was fourteen when he was tried in Tipperary, surviving five years of a ten year sentence before dying in Spike Island in 1854.   Fifteen year old John Keane was tried in Kerry and survived less than three years in the system, dying on Spike Island in 1854. 

John McGanly was just fourteen when he was convicted of stealing flour and sentenced to ten years transportation at Galway, 29th July 1852.  His young body could only cope with more than nine months of prison treatment and he died on Spike Island April 01st, 1853.  Thomas O’Neill was just thirteen when convicted of burglary, receiving fifteen years.  He died nine days shy of having served three years, on Spike Island in February 1853.

Inside of cell with view out window – Spike Island

Older than these boys and notable for the triviality of their crimes were young men like John Kennedy, who died on Spike Island in 1854.  This was less than five years after his sentence was passed aged eighteen.  The crime which led to his death while incarcerated was stealing a rope.  Twenty year old Michael McLaughlin was tried in Sligo and lasted less than two years in prison, dying on Spike in 1852.  His crime was stealing two rolls of tobacco.

The dedicated children’s prison was open barely a year before it was closed.  The decision was made to move all infirm and juvenile prisoners to other locations a few years later. 

Given the awful death rates of the early prison years, this change in situation was to their benefit, as were the growing reforms in juvenile treatment. 

For many on Spike Island, it was too little too late.

Learn the story of one young Spike Island arrivals journey from famine era child convict to convicted murderer here –


This author first encountered the child prisoners of Spike Island and their experience in Cal McCarthy, Barra O’Donnobhain Too beautiful for thieves and pickpockets. s.l. : Cork County Council Library, 2016.

Innocence and Experience: The Evolution of the Concept of Juvenile Delinquency in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. May, Margaret. Sept, s.l. : Victorian Studies, 1973, Vols. 17 – 1.

Convict register of [Spike Island Government Prison] . Dublin : National Archives Ireland. Call number MS 3016.

National Archives of Ireland. Ireland-Australia Transportation Records. TR 2, p 128.

Ireland, National Archives of. Ireland-Australia Transportation Records. Lavery, James. CRF 1845 L 16.

Irish-Australia Transportation records. TR 4, p 62.

Irish-Australian Transportation records. TR 9, p 5(f).

Ireland – Australia Transportation records. CRF 1837 O 46.

Newsletter, Belfast. Inquest – suicide at the County Prison . Belfast News-Letter – Thursday 29 April 1858. April 29th, 1858.

Ireland, National Archives. Ireland – Australia Transportation records. TR 12 p 164;.

Ireland – Australia Transportation records. TR 11, p 67.

Ireland – Australia Transportation records. TR 9, p 156.

Ireland – Australia Transportation records. TR 11, p 73.

Ireland – Australia transportation records. TR 12, p 61.

Ireland – Australia Transporation records. TR 9, p 31.

Ireland – Australia Transportation records. TR 10, p 224.