The Irish Prison Registers collection contains details of people incarcerated in prisons across 26 counties between 1790 and 1924.
The collection has over 3.1 million records and was added to the Ancestry.com online archive in 2020.
This article looks at what you’ll find in this collection on Ancestry.com. We also give you tips on searching for what you need.
What Is In The Irish Prison Registers?
Don’t be surprised if some of your Irish ancestors and relatives turn up in a prison register. This doesn’t mean that they were hardened criminals engaged in violent activities.
You’ll understand more with some familiarity of the history of this period. Times were hard for many ordinary people. Some resorted to robbery of food and goods in order to survive.
Your ancestors may have lived out a peaceful life on a small farm or as city laborer, but with the occasional brush with the law.
These were also turbulent political times with many citizens engaged in protest. Some fell foul of various political offenses introduced by Governments of the day.
Where were the prisons?
These records are from prisons in twenty of the twenty-six counties of modern Ireland. The original records from the six counties of Northern Ireland are held in separate British archives.
It’s important not to assume that people were only imprisoned in a jail in their home county. Some prisons, like Kilmainham in Dublin, served as national incarceration centers.
Spike Island in Cork held prisoners from all over the country before they were deported by ship to Australia.
Here is a breakdown of the number of prisons by county and province.
Cork has an unusually high number of prisons with a total of fifteen. But don’t assume this was due to an unusually high level of lawlessness!
Many of the Cork prisons were small town jails known as bridewells. Prisoners were often held locally while waiting for a trial. After sentencing, they may move to a larger prison.
What Do The Records Tell You?
The record transcripts in the Ancestry.com collection include these details:
- first and last name
- age and birth year
- county of birth
- date and nature of offense
- nature of the offense
- role (prisoner, victim, relative)
- name and location of the prison
Ancestry’s transcript includes the offense which is often the most fascinating piece of information.
Here’s an example of an unfortunate boy of 14 who stole a very specific number of handkerchiefs. I’ve picked this transcript to show you that the birth place can be a long way away from the place of incarceration.
For more details, be sure that you also view the original image.
These are some extra details in the image that aren’t on the record transcript:
- color of eyes and hair
I find that the trade and religion are most useful to evaluate whether this record is for my relative of this name.
How To Browse The Irish Prison Registers On Ancestry.com
When you expand the Search drop-down menu, you can pull up a Catalog search page to look through the entire record collection on the website.
Don’t bother with the Title search box because this has to be an exact match. Instead, enter “Irish prison registers” into the Keyword input box.
You’ll see the collection in the list of results. Now you can click on the collection to get to the specific search page for the collection.
Some record sets are small enough to browse through the entire collection at your leisure. In contrast, the Irish Prison Registers have over 3 million records in the collection.
So, you will want to use additional filters to focus your research. Even just using a surname may have pages of results, so you’ll probably want a further filter on a location.
For the best choice of location, it’s important to understand how these courts were arranged throughout the country. We’ll explain the geography in the next section.
There are two different county locations in the search index. One is the location of the prison and the other is the county of residence of the person.
It’s important to remember that neither may be the county of birth of your relative. People were more likely to be imprisoned close to home for minor offenses. But as I mentioned before, some prisons were depots for the country.
Prisoners could also be moved from a bridewell (small jail) to a larger prison.
So, it’s best to start your search with the name filters. If you are faced with a lot of records, then add a location filter on the county you believe your relative lived in at the time. Then widen that to neighboring counties.
Finally, check the large Dublin prisons like Kilmainham and Grangegorman. If your relative was deported, make sure you review Spike Island in Cork.
Related Collections On Ancestry
When you find an ancestor or relative in the Irish Prison registers, you’ll want to know more about the offence committed.
Ancestry.com has a large archive for the lowest Irish courts (for lesser offenses). Check out our guide to the Irish Petty Court Sessions on Ancestry.com.
Are The Irish Prison Registers On Other Online Sites?
The original ledgers are held by the National Archives of Ireland. They have not put the material online.
There is a free searchable archive on FamilySearch.org. However, their version of this collection has very few details. The transcripts include name, birthplace, and place of imprisonment.
You also can’t view the source images on the FamilySearch website unless you visit one of their family history centers.
Find My Past
The main alternative to Ancestry.com is the subscription site Find My Past. They also hold the searchable transcripts and source images.
You can check out our article on Irish Prison Registers on Find My Past.
All Prisons In the Irish Prison Registers Collection
Below are the prisons in this collection, broken down by county and province. The dates indicate the earliest and most recent record in the collection.
|Connacht||Leitrim||Carrick On Shannon||1849||1901|
|Leinster||Dublin||Grangegorman Female Prison||1831||1897|
|Leinster||Wexford||New Ross (Bridewell)||1846||1905|
|Munster||Cork||Spike Island Prison||1860||1883|