Zero-tolerance approach to ‘rogues’ and turnip robbers

PLANNING to be a “disorderly rogue”, steal a turnip or even just wash your car this weekend? It might be worth thinking twice.

Not so long ago, these seemingly innocent acts could have landed you in an Irish jail cell.

The offences are detailed on new website www.findmypast.ie. Site creators say this offers the most comprehensive online list of historic prison sentences ever produced for this country.

The website, which will be officially launched at the RDS this weekend as part of the Back to our Past exhibition, provides a list of jail terms in Ireland between 1790 and 1920.

During this period, Find My Past director Brian Donovan said “almost every household had a convict in their family” — meaning the vast majority of Irish people have the chance to double-check if their ancestors’ past really was as clean as claimed.

Specific records within the 3.5 million entries can be found by searching for a person’s name, their location and the year of their incarceration, if known.

All court, legal system and prison records detailing why they were sentenced to time behind bars — compiled from the National Archives of Ireland, the Central Statistics Office and parish records — are then made available.

Considering the poor conditions and even poorer job prospects across the country during the 130-year period, it is perhaps inevitable that a significant amount of cases relate to alcohol.

Of the cases available on the website, 25% of prison sentences relate to various levels of drunkenness, far ahead of other high-ranking categories such as theft (16%), assault (12%) and vagrancy (8%).

The statistics also show that the rate of conviction for drunkenness and tax evasion was three times higher in Ireland than Britain during the timeframe examined, while prostitution and the destruction of property were double that of our nearest neighbour.

There are a fair few bizarre cases also apparent in the records.

These include 14-year-old Christopher Doyle who was imprisoned for “being an idle, disorderly rogue and vagabond” — a description which could arguably sum up most teenagers.

Among other eye-catching cases — which also include the stealing of a turnip and a handkerchief — is that of John Cunningham from Finglas in north Dublin, who aged 21 was charged with “washing a car on a thoroughfare”.

*www.findmypast.ie

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