The Four Courts Marshalsea Debtors Prison

The Main Courtyard of the Four Courts Marshalsea (Debtors) Prison, Thomas Street, Dublin in 1860.

About one-third of the prison population in early nineteenth-century Ireland was made up of persons imprisoned by their creditors for debt. In 1818, 13,000 people were sent to prison with 6,600 being imprisoned for debt. The majority paid rent for their accommodation but increasing rates for rooms and food dashed their hopes of freedom and many spent the rest of their lives in prison.

City of Dublin 1847 held by Ordnance Survey Ireland. © Public domain. Digital content: © Ordnance Survey Ireland, published by UCD Library, University College Dublin.

The most important debtors prison in Ireland – the Four Courts Marshalsea – dated from the 1770s and was located off Marshal Lane (now Robert Emmet Close), off Bridgefoot Street, off Thomas Street in Dublin. Originally a remand prison for criminal trials in the Four Courts, it became a debtors prison for cases brought to the Court of King/Queen’s Bench (one of the Four Courts) from all over Ireland.

An 1809 plan of the prison.

The building was laid out around two courtyards which housed the prisoners’ rooms, guard room, tap room, a chapel and an infirmary. The prison Marshal’s house was in the upper yard along with accommodation for his deputy.

A ground plan of the prison.

The Pauper Building consisted of six rooms, each to contain eight persons. They were furnished with bedding for the reception of debtors unable to pay rent to the Marshal or provide furniture for themselves. In 1848, food for pauper debtors, as laid down by the rules of the court of Queen’s Bench, was 2 lbs (0.9 kg) of bread and 1 (UK) quart (2 pints or 1.13 litres) of new milk per day.

Marshalsea Barracks. National Library of Ireland on The Commons.

The Four Courts Marshalsea was abolished by the Four Courts Marshalsea Discontinuance Act 1874, due to “the very small and diminishing number of persons in that prison, and to the very large prison staff in proportion to the number of prisoners.” It was then used as a barracks by the Dublin Militia. After 1922, it became a tenement until it fell into disuse. It was demolished in 1975 and some of the stone was used to repair the city wall at Cook Street.

Dublin, Ireland, October 1885. The fragile peace within the Fitzgerald family is threatened when Dr Jacob Smythe becomes one of Will’s patients, angering his mother. But in attending to the elderly gentleman’s needs, Will inadvertently reunites Sarah with an old adversary and Isobel discovers she and Dr Smythe have an unexpected and tragic connection.  

When Alfie receives a card on his twenty-ninth birthday, the recognisable handwriting and cryptic message shatters his hard-won personal contentment. Has a figure hoped long gone from his life returned to Dublin to wreak a cruel mischief on all those who banished him? Is Alfie’s ambition of becoming a doctor about to be derailed when he has less than a year left at Trinity College?

Read a spoiler-free snippet from Chapter Six…

“[He] was a general merchant and sugar broker with a premises on Thomas Street. His father had also leased the property as had his grandfather. [He], however, had a bad head for business and after the non-repayment of a bank loan, a writ known as a capias ad satisfaciondum was issued which enabled the manager of the bank to have [him] gaoled until the debt was paid.”

“Where?” Isobel asked.

“He was brought to the city gaol at Newgate in Green Street but because he was classed as a pauper debtor, he was transferred to the Pauper Building in the Four Courts Marshalsea which stands off Bridgefoot Street which is off Thomas Street. He shared one of six rooms with seven other men and he managed to survive for the best part of a year on a diet of bread and milk.”

“Who ran the business while he was in gaol?”

“His mother. She sold or pawned whatever she could and took in boarders. She paid off the debt but it broke her health. Less than a month after [he] was released, she was dead and he was bent on revenge.”

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