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It can be frustrating looking for a female ancestor. Unless you know her last name before marriage it can be hard to find her birth record. In so many records she won’t even be recorded. This is an inconvenience in 20th century records but it’s when you get back to the 19th century that it can really become a problem. With so few Irish censuses surviving for the period most researchers have to rely on census substitutes like Griffiths Valuation or professional directories like Slater’s, Thom’s or Oulton’s but often it’s only the male heads of household who are recorded.

If your female ancestor didn’t fall into the small group of female heads of household, invariably widows of some means, then all too often she will have lived her life unmarked by any official note takers. That’s what makes a place like the Grangegorman Women’s Penitentiary in Dublin so vital, and exciting, from a research point of view. The first exclusively female prison in the British Isles Grangegorman was set up on the principal of moral reform, with the belief that inmates could be reformed into productive members of society. There are thousands of women listed in the prison registers on Findmypast dating from the prison’s establishment in 1826 until the first decades of the twentieth century. Women who would often be forgotten elsewhere.

The women who found themselves in the Grangegorman penitentiary were desperate. Many had been sentenced for theft, many others for prostitution. Some were convicted for fighting others or abandoning a child. There’s an entire register from 1830 of women sentenced for public drunkenness. Sentences were usually short but conditions could actually be better than the workhouse – the prison was a model penitentiary. Some women went out of their way to get arrested, using it a safety net when they could no longer survive on the streets. Some women were readmitted multiple times, some were regulars. Children were often sent to gaol with their mothers and there was a regular doctor on site for pregnant inmates.

Life in the prison wasn’t easy. Many inmates were sentenced to hard labour, which would have included scutching (beating flax to remove the straw) or cloving which was splitting flax fibres by hand. The work was considered so onerous that it had to be approved by a doctor for the weaker vagrants. There was a strict code of conduct and efforts were made to keep the hardened criminals away from those sentenced for the first time. For those that didn’t obey the rules, punishments included being locked in solitude or in the dark with rations reduced to bread and water.

Grangegorman was also a convict depot, holding women due to be transported for more serious crimes.

There was no formal system for dealing with the destitute poor in Ireland until the Poor Relief Act of 1832. Numbers of inmates peaked during the Famine years in the 1840s and after legislation was introduced to punish vagrancy in 1847 the number of vagrants unsurprisingly increased.

Thousands of women passed through the prison over the years. For some it was a way of life but for many others it was a dark point in a long life. Many followed the exodus to America and a new life.

For more stories on tracing your Irish heritage from Findmypast click here.

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