Categories: DownGaolmuseum

When it opened in 1796, Downpatrick’s Old Gaol was designed to house a growing prison population and to improve on the previous prison by embodying the ideas of reformer, John Howard. However, it soon became overcrowded, its 18 cells holding more than 300 prisoners and conditions deteriorating dramatically.

In his book Travels Around Ireland, Prison reformer Thomas Reid, wrote of visiting the Gaol in 1822. He described it as ‘almost as bad as it is possible for a building of that sort to be.’ Female prisoners of all sorts, ‘debtors and murderers, [were] all thrown together in one corrupting mass, and kept in a cell not near large enough,’ Despite the ‘intolerably offensive,’ smell from the cells, the prisoners were to remain in them day and night. The Old Gaol was ‘so wretchedly constructed,’ that the yard could not be used for fear of escape. Reid stated that the building could not be fixed, and that a new one was needed . The Grand Jury agreed, and a new Gaol was built nearby, opening in 1830. The last prisoners were moved from the Old Gaol in January 1831.

The Old Gaol did not lie unused for long. By 1832 it was being used as a cholera hospital to cope with the first cholera epidemic in Great Britain and Ireland. On the island of Ireland, more than 50,000 people were to die over the following two years.

The Old Gaol then became a barracks for South Down Militia who stayed until the early 20th century. The “South Downs” were mobilised from Downpatrick for the Crimean War (1855), the Indian Mutiny (1857), and the Second Boer War (1899). In 1881, the South Downs became 5th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles and remained in the Gaol until August 1914.

During the Second World War, the Gaol was home to the Welsh Fusiliers and to the First Armored Division of the U.S. The “Old Ironsides” set up their headquarters in Castlewellan Castle and troops were stationed across the county, including Ballykinlar, Seaforde, and the Old Gaol.

The Gaol’s military role ended, and it began to fall into disrepair while continuing to serve the community as a sorting office for Royal Mail, and accommodation for Downpatrick’s Technical College. The courtyard’s Nissen huts, once housing American GIs, instead hosted Brownie meetings. It was used as an auction site, a butcher’s cold store, an Ordnance Survey office, and PSV test centre. By the 1980s, the former Cellblock had been fitted with a petrol pump – having been used by the Department of the Environment’s Road Service, and to store Down High School’s minibus.

The Old Gaol’s usefulness waned, and it fell entirely into disuse and decay. For the first time in almost 200 years, the site was completely lifeless, awaiting a decision as to its fate. With the threat of levelling the Gaol to build a car park, the local community campaigned for a better use for the site. Eventually, in 1981, Down District Council purchased the site, promising to raise it from the ruins to serve as a new Down County Museum.

The Museum’s first director, Dr Brian Turner stated, ‘we will be able to illustrate the history of County Down to its people first and to its visitors second.’ Since the first school visit in 1987, and the visit of President of Ireland in 1993, the Old Gaol has been transformed into a thriving community site to educate and entertain. Preserving the diverse culture of County Down, the Museum has hosted St Patrick’s day events, Irish dance performances, and celebrated medieval, Viking, and GI history. 1981 breathed new life into the Old Gaol and Down County Museum continues to preserve and promote our past, enrich our present and build our future together.