Mountjoy Prison has stood in its current location on the North Circular Road, near the Grand Canal in Dublin since 1850. I have visited the prison many times, bringing groups of Criminology students from Trinity College and Dublin Institute of Technology to see ‘life on the inside’. Conditions inside are now probably worse than they were when the prison closed its doors for the first time, given the high levels of overcrowding, drug use amongst prisoners and the ongoing practice of slopping out. While many of Mountjoy’s prisoners have personal stories of tragedy, damage and chaos, the prison itself has been a temporary home to a variety of individuals from the entire spectrum of Irish life.
Each time I visit Mountjoy, I can’t help but marvel at the amount of history which has taken place inside its stout Victorian walls. I often reflect on how the prison, in which some of the most deprived and difficult now reside, has housed some of Ireland’s heroes of the past.
During the Civil War, some of Ireland’s political and literary leading lights were concentrated in the small cells of a prison then in its seventh decade. Men such as Ernie O’Malley, Peadar O’Donnell, Liam Mellows and Seán MacBride spent time there. Gerard Boland, Oscar Traynor who later went on to become Ministers for Justice in Fianna Fáil Governments were both held in a prison they would later be responsible for.
Being seriously overcrowded at that time as well, conditions in Mountjoy were rather chaotic and often difficult. Attempts at escape, for example, took place almost daily. Peadar O’Donnell recalls that prisoners in Mountjoy spent inordinate amounts burrowing through the walls of their cells in ‘D’ wing making both discipline for the Free State authorities and privacy for the imprisoned, impossible. One imaginative and elaborate attempt at escape was carried out in the prison during 1923. Over thirty prisoners became involved and a conveyor belt system was established to remove the dirt created. Prisoners worked on rotation day and night, with meticulous cleaning operations for clothes used in the operation.
Resistance through ridicule was also evident in the amusements and diversions participated in by the prisoners. Ernie O’Malley in The Singing Flame recounts that a carnival was organised in ‘C’ wing in August of 1923. The cells and landing were decorated and the prisoners wore festive costume. Fortune-tellers, gamblers, tricksters plied their trade, plays were staged and a procession was held. Never missing an opportunity to make a political statement, this procession included “Representatives from the British Empire and other uncivilised countries’”. In the evening the prisoners even held a dance with some of the men donning handkerchiefs on their heads to take the role of women.
Other more serious activities were also pursued. Classes were held daily in subjects such as wood-carving, macramé and the making of replica Tara brooches, examples of which can be seen at the National Museum at Collins Barracks. Joseph Campbell recalled that items were even procured from Mountjoy Chapel for this purpose. Greek was taught in Ernie O’Malley’s cell in ‘A’ wing. Several talks were held during detention on topics as diverse as the military situation, the ordination of women into the Catholic Church and the position of women in industry. In fact, Peadar O’Donnell had attended a debate in Mountjoy on ‘Women in Industry – Equal Pay for Equal Work’ on the night before the infamous executions of Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey, Rory O’Connor and Dick Barrett.
Some of the prisoners turned their attention to writing. Peadar O’Donnell and Ernie O’Malley produced the wonderfully entitled ‘Book of Cells’ while in prison, lampooning Free State Ministers and carrying caricatures of both a written and illustrated nature. In fact, O’Donnell made his writing debut in this publication.
O’Donnell and Liam Mellows also wrote a number of publications on social and political matters while imprisoned in Mountjoy. One such was ‘Notes from Mountjoy’ which was a political programme for a Republican Government. It was smuggled out in ‘comms’ by instalments to supporters on the outside.
Mountjoy is far from the hive of activity it had been during the Civil War and its future is somewhat uncertain. It is unclear whether the prison will be demolished and replaced by a large complex at Thornton Hall in North County Dublin. While the current conditions and reality of life in Mountjoy mean that its demise should not be mourned, a living site of history in Dublin’s North Inner City will be lost forever.