Conor Reidy suggests that the lacunae in studies of juvenile crime in Ireland is the result of a simple ‘lack of awareness of primary sources’¹. I would also suggest that lack of access, mis-cataloguing, and the daunting prospect of finding children in general records have also played a role in stymying research in this area.
Notwithstanding these obstacles the lack of engagement with primary sources has resulted in worrying statements which have not been, and cannot be, verified: ‘[t]he number of young offenders in reformatories decreased from the 1880s, and remained at less than 200 for most of the twentieth century’.² The actual records of reformatories appear to be AWOL, or if they aren’t, there is an inexplicable wall of silence regarding their whereabouts. The assumption is that they are in the archives of the religious orders who ran the original institutions (my enquiries regarding their survival were not successful). But valuable records do survive, and have been made universally accessible through digitisation.
The digitisation and indexation of over three million prison records by Findmypast offers an exciting opportunity to examine the population of juvenile criminals imprisoned in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Ireland. Thousands of juvenile criminals are scattered throughout the general prison registers.
When dealing with originals or microfilms the task of identifying the individual entries relating to children from the general population of the prison was understandably too daunting to consider. With digitisation databases can be created and those recorded as aged 17 or under can be easily extracted. The system is by no means perfect, there are errors, omissions and duplications. But instead of random tantalising glimpses, and taking inspectors at their word, I now have a database of over 65,000 names.
The details transcribed include name, age, birth place, residence, offence and the prison in which they were held. A calculated birth year allows researchers to consider creating cohort studies. Further valuable information can be gleaned from the images. Details recorded include occupation, religion and level of education. The registers also record a physical description of the prisoner including height, hair colour, weight and any distinguishing marks.
Digitisation also revealed hidden treasures obscured by miscataloguing: two specific juvenile registers for Grangegorman and Kilmainham which contain details of over 3000 juveniles, both male and female, aged 16 and younger imprisoned between 1855 and 1881.³ Listed as general registers in the archives catalogue their true value was obscured. These specialised registers contain details about the structure of the childrens’ family not contained in the general registers. The detail in these registers allows researchers to reconstruct something of the family of the juvenile offender. A real boon in Ireland where true life course histories using census records are not possible.
These are exciting times for crime history in Ireland. I will share my findings from these digitised records in future blog posts.
1. Conor Reidy, Ireland’s Moral Hospital: The Irish Borstal System 1906-1956 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2009)
2. Eoin O’Sullivan, Ian O’Donnell (eds) Coercive confinement in Ireland: Patients, prisoners and penitents (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2014), p.23