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Armagh Gaol open to public before transformation into luxury hotel

By Linda Stewart

It could be your last chance to see Armagh Gaol’s echoing corridors and cells in their unadorned condition. This summer the historic gaol will throw open its gates on a number of occasions so people can explore the Grade B listed building before plans to transform the building get under way.

It will be the perfect location for Northern Ireland’s newest — and most unusual — luxury hotel, overlooking the city’s famous Mall to the courthouse and the distinctive Georgian houses. It will be a far cry from the days when prisoners walked the treadmill, were hanged on the scaffold outside, or even the 1970s when C Wing housed female political prisoners like the Price sisters who were serving life for London car bombings.

The gaol attracted attention across the UK a few years ago when it competed in the BBC Restoration programme. It will open as part of the Armagh Planet Earth Festival from noon to 5pm on Sunday, August 1, Saturday, September 11 and Sunday, September 12.

Osborne Property Group, in conjunction with the Prince’s Regeneration Trust, has been appointed the preferred developer to regenerate the prison by Armagh City and District Council, proposing a mixed-use scheme of hotel and spa, restaurants, retail, heritage centre and residential development.

The prison was built on the site of a military barracks, replacing the ‘Hole In The Wall’ gaol, and designed by architect Thomas Cooley, who also designed the nearby Palace and Stables. The building was then nine bays and three storeys high — one set of four bays was for women, while the other set of four was for men, with the entrance bay in the centre.

B wing was completed in 1846 at the height of the famine and in the following year Armagh Gaol held its greatest ever prisoner population of 339.

With up to 10 prisoners per cell, diseases like typhus were rife, passed by lice from person to person, and 33 inmates died that year.

However, conditions must have been better than Newry Workhouse, where boys as young as 12 were deliberately stealing in order to be sent to the gaol. When A wing was finished in 1852 it was used for female prisoners — in 1920 the gaol became a women’s prison.

In the early days of the prison women were kept busy cleaning and washing clothes while men whitewashed walls and broke stones for road mending. A prison report in 1825 said prisoners were to be taught more useful skills — spinning, knitting and sewing for the women and weaving, painting, tailoring and boot-making for the men.

From 1832 to 1852 male prisoners could be punished on the treadwheel. It held 16 prisoners and had steps only wide enough for their toes. The steps were eight inches high and prisoners had to take 48 steps a minute.

After 1852 men could be punished by the birch or confined in the dark punishment cells on bread and water. Women were punished by being confined to the punishment cells.

Hangings were held in public up to 1866, attracting large crowds to Gaol Square and along the Mall, where in the late 1770s local beauty Catherine McGlone, from Castle Street, was hanged.

She had many male admirers and bore an illegitimate son.

She fell in love with a soldier from the local barracks. Hoping to marry him, she saw the boy as a nuisance and drowned him in the nearby Callan River.

After 1866 executions took place inside the prison.

The last execution in the gaol was of Joseph Fee (22) from Clones, Co Monaghan, in 1904.

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