Exploring justice in 19th century Ireland

By Holly Crawford

Learning about crime and punishment may not be on everyone’s holiday activity checklist, but an exhibition called ‘A Most Proper Verdict’ set to tour Mid-East Antrim this summer, makes a good case for why it should.

Attitudes towards gender, poverty and even alcohol during the 19th century are set to be revealed thanks to an exhibition curated by Mid & East Antrim Council’s Museum & Heritage Service in collaboration with the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB.)

The exhibition, which took two years to curate, sheds light on how gaols operated during the 19th century, a time when those who committed what we would now consider to be petty crimes, or not even crimes at all, were severely punished.

‘‘Films and television series that focus on crime and punishment are consistently popular with viewers,’’ explains Dr Elaine Farrell of the QUB History Department.

‘‘Yet many people don’t know how criminal or deviant behaviour was punished in the past, or indeed what types of behaviour was punishable. This exhibition points to different punishments for a range of diverse crimes, and uses local case studies to show how residents of Mid-East Antrim experienced the criminal justice system.

‘‘The nineteenth century saw a lot of change in terms of criminal punishment, with the ending of transportation to Australia, the establishment of reformatories and industrial schools for children, and the imprisonment of women and men in separate prisons.’’

Academic research on crime and punishment and social and gender history forms the framework of the exhibition, which includes a number of artefacts with local connections and focuses on the main settlements of Ballymena, Larne, Carrickfergus and the surrounding villages and rural hinterlands which would have made up the geographic area in the 19th century and which have fallen within Mid and East Antrim Borough Council since 2015.

Carrickfergus Gaol played a prominent part in the lives of accusers and the accused during the 19th century and as such, is the focus of the exhibition. Built in 1779, it served as the County of Antrim Gaol for fifty years until 1850 when it closed.   

Exterior of Carrickfergus Gaol, c.1900, PRONI, T1129/507

Yet that brief period has provided historians with multiple sources which showcase just how brutal the 1800s were and how attitudes have – thankfully and in the most part – changed.

Dr Farrell picks up the story: ‘‘An examination of crime and how criminals were punished is revealing of attitudes towards gender, age, alcohol, and poverty during this period. I particularly like the story of Mary Ann Hanna, who was fined for selling alcohol illegally to five women in 1874. The judge criticised her for encouraging the women to waste their husbands’ money. Yet this brief example tells us a lot.

‘‘It reveals that the judge didn’t consider that the women might have just wanted a drink themselves, nor that they might have their own earnings. It reveals gendered attitudes towards alcohol; clearly the middle-class male judge didn’t think that women should be indulging in alcohol at all. His view obviously differed to Mary Ann Hanna, who sold alcohol illegally as a means of survival, pointing to women’s limited employment opportunities at the time.’’

And the poignant stories just keep coming. Take for example, the tale of two young women, Mary Moody and Eliza McIlveen: both sentenced to death for murder. Yet somehow, their sentences were reduced to ‘transportation’ and they were loaded onto the same ship bound for Tasmania. What became of those women remains a mystery, but their connection with Carrickfergus lives on and is highlighted thanks to this exhibition.

Visitors also have the opportunity to see a commemorative quilt which depicts the role Carrickfergus Gaol played in the lives of the people of County Antrim in the 19th century.

Seventeen craft enthusiasts set to work over the course of three sessions, each making individual pieces of the quilt, which were based on images and stories featured in the exhibition. They were led by textile artist Lucy Craig, who then pieced everything together.

Carrickfergus Goal Quilt, created in 2021. Carrickfergus Museum Collection (Photo credit: Mid and East Antrim Borough Council)

Speaking about the textile, Shirin Murphy, Collections Access Officer at Mid & East Antrim Museum Service, said, ‘‘It has generated so much interest and the ladies who created it were thrilled to see their work on display.’’

‘A Most Proper Verdict’ may be a new exhibition, but its origins derive from a different source, as Mid & East Antrim Borough Council Museum and Heritage Manager Jayne Clarke explains. ‘‘This exhibition was actually inspired by one curated by Armagh County Museum in 2016 entitled ‘Mad or Bad,’ which explored the history of crime, gender and mental illness in late 19th century Ireland. The exhibition addressed the question of why the accused’s gender and not just the nature of their crime often determined if they ended up in an asylum, prison or on the gallows.

‘‘In the summer of 2017, Mid and East Antrim Museum Service staff met with Armagh County Museum staff to discuss the exhibition and how it could inspire a new Mid and East Antrim exhibition featuring museum service artefacts with Queen’s University academics possibly again carrying out research, and ‘A Most Proper Verdict’ was born.’’

Yet it would take two years and a major collaboration between the council’s Museum & Heritage Service, and the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, at Queen’s University Belfast, before ‘A Most Proper Verdict’ could come to fruition.

To get to that point, the museum service’s curatorial team carried out an audit of relevant collection artefacts and curated the exhibition working with exhibition text, based on research carried out by postdoctoral researcher Ruth Thorpe and Dr Farrell.

Unfortunately, after all their hard work, the exhibition was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic necessitating the temporary closure of all museums.

RIC police truncheon in holster, late 19th century, found at Rasharkin Police Station. Mid-Antrim Museum Collection. (Photo credit: Mid and East Antrim Borough Council)

Thankfully, as attractions start to reopen, locals, visitors and tourists alike will get their chance to give their verdict on the exhibition and the darker side of the area’s history, which, thanks to huge collaborative efforts, will take centre stage for the first time.

‘A Most Proper Verdict’ exhibition can be seen for free at Mid-Antrim Museum, The Braid, in Ballymena until 5 June. The exhibition then tours to Larne Museum & Arts Centre and can be seen from 4 July to 26 August. The exhibition tour will conclude at the McClay Library, Queen’s University Belfast where it can be seen in September.

For more information, visit: https://www.midandeastantrim.gov.uk

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