Discover your incarcerated Irish ancestors


21 October 2011
AwaitingImage-26535.jpg Awaiting Image has launched online for the first time the Irish Prison Registers 1790-1920.If you have Irish roots, these records has launched online for the first time the Irish Prison Registers 1790-1920.

If you have Irish roots, these records are well worth checking out as they contain more than 3.5 million entries, spread over 130,000 pages, at a time when the Irish population averaged 4.08 million. It is clear to see how almost every family in Ireland was affected somehow.

What’s included?

The original Prison Registers, held at the National Archives of Ireland, cover all types of custodial institutions, from bridewells, to county prisons, to sanatoriums for alcoholics. Most of the records give comprehensive details of the prisoner, including: name, address, place of birth, occupation, religion, education, age, physical description, name and address of next of kin, crime committed, sentence, dates of committal and release/decease.

What were the crimes?

The reasons for incarceration cover all types of crime, and the records are full of individuals who were arrested for very minor offences. The most common offence was drunkenness, which accounted for more than 30% of all crimes reported and more than 25% of incarcerations.

The top five offences recorded in the registers are:

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  • Drunkenness - 25%
  • Theft - 16%
  • Assault - 12%
  • Vagrancy - 8%
  • Rioting - 4%
Social history

As well as possibly finding your Irish ancestors, you can also gain a fascinating insight into 18th-19th century Ireland with these records. They present evidence of a society of rebellion and social confrontation, where rioting and assault of police officers were everyday occurrences, and of rampant poverty and destitution, with the theft of everything from handkerchiefs to turnips.

It’s also possible to spot differences between the UK and Ireland at this time. The nature of the crimes recorded in the prison registers was significantly different from those recorded in the UK. The rate of conviction for drunkenness and tax evasion was three times greater, and the rate of both destruction of property and prostitution were double what they were in the UK for the same time period.

Family Tree editor Helen Tovey has a few Irish branches that she’s currently researching and can’t wait to get stuck into the records, ‘I look forward to having a good rummage to see what I can discover. It seems quite possible that there will be something in them that will link to my tree - I'll just have to work out how to break it to my family!’

Brian Donovan, director of, said: ‘These records provide such a wealth of information that they are sure to shock and surprise almost anyone looking for the missing links in their Irish family tree.’

If you do find something in these records we would love to hear about your discovery!

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