Carlow Convicts

Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

County Carlow

"The Law Must Take It's Course"

Source: Oonagh Wake

Source: OONAGH WARKE M.A., H.Dip. Arch.. Born in Castlerock, graduate of Queens University, Belfast. At present on contract with the National Archives in Dublin.

On 18th April 1845, Henry Hutton, Assistant Barrister for the county of Carlow, submitted the memorial transcribed below to Edward Lucas, then Under Secretary at Dublin Castle, for the attention of Lord Heytesbury.

To the Most Noble The Earl of Heytesbury – Lord Lieutenant General and General Governor of Ireland.
The petition of Margaret Butler
A Convict in Carlow Gaol -
Most Humbly Sheweth
That your petitioner was tried at the last quarter sessions of Tullow before Henry Hutton Esq - Assistant Barrister - for stealing a few potatoes and sentenced to seven years transportation.
Petitioner begs most humbly to state that she was left a widow with six fatherless children who have been dependent on the bounty of a humane and charitable public for support. Hardship alone induced her and the tears of her wretched orphans compelled her to do what she was sentenced to leave her country for.
Petitioner now throws herself on the mercy and clemency of your Excellency that you would be graciously pleased to commute her sentence to any length of imprisonment - but oh in pity to her orphans - do not send her from them as they would be theron friendless outcasts on the world. Your Excellency will see by the undersigned signatures that poverty alone drove her to do what she has done.
Petitioner once more craves the clemency of your Excellency’s prerogative on her favor and the Hands of her orphans shall be uplifted in prayer.
And your petitioner as in duty bound will ever pray
From Margaret Butler a convict in Carlow Gaol Carlow April 16, 1845.

Hutton’s own view of the case took little account of Margaret Butler’s pleadings, ‘ I am not aware of any mitigating circumstances which would render the Prisoner an object of mercy’. In support of that opinion he also forwarded to Lucas his report of the trial at which Margaret Butler and her three fellow miscreants were sentenced:

Tullow, Easter Quarter Sessions 1845, Thursday 3rd April.

Esther Burgess, Mary Burgess, Margaret Butler and Mary Griffin were indicted for stealing a barrel of potatoes of Richard Carr at Tullowland on 4 Feby last. Richard Carr sworn - lives at Tullow. On 4th Feby witness lost some potatoes from a pit at Tullowland on the land of Mr. Byrne - witness visited them 1/4 after six o’clock in the evening. The pit was then safe - he visited the pit again at about 1/2 past seven o’clock and found that about a barrel had been taken out. There were 4 kinds of potatoes in the pit - Russenden cups, Pink-eyes, Lumpers and Devonshires and an odd white cup thro’ the others. On the same night about 9 o’clock witness found potatoes with the police corresponding with those which witness had lost. Those with the Police constituted of the 5 kinds of witness’s potatoes.

John Roddy, Constable, sworn - was questioned in Tullow on the night of the 4th feby last - was on the Dublin road – witness concealed himself from about six o’clock to eight in the evening on the Dublin road. Witness saw the four Prisoners on the Dublin road about 8 o’clock. Each of them had a bag of potatoes on her back. They were coming towards Tullow from the direction of Carr’s pit. Witness arrested them. On arresting them Prisoner Mary Griffin was in the act of spilling potatoes out of the bag when witness prevented her. She also ran away till she was stopped. Mary Burgess also attempted to run away till she was prevented. Carr afterwards identified the potatoes. The prisoners were all barefooted.

Witness got a pair of shoes in the barrack which were claimed by Asther Burgess. The 5 nails in the shoe exactly corresponded with the track close by Carr’s pit. Witness also found a mark of fresh clay on the hands and clothes of all the prisoners. Where he first met the prisoners is about 40 or 50 perches from Carr’s Pit. The Prisoners told witness they had gathered the potatoes about thro’ the country.

The Jury found all the Prisoners guilty. The Governor of the Gaol reported that all the Prisoners had been convicted several times before of stealing potatoes, that is to say Esther Burgess three times and each of the other Prisoners twice - and that the Matron of the Gaol reported Margaret Butler & Mary Griffin as desperate characters and very ill conducted in Gaol. The Court sentenced all the Prisoners to be transported for seven years. H.H.

The petition submitted by Esther Burgess on behalf of herself and her daughter Mary, was drawn up by a pen even more florid, in both style and content, than that which compiled Margaret Butler’s [it also, interestingly, clearly identifies her as ‘Easter’ rather than ‘Esther’].

His Excellency, Lord Heytesbury, Lord Lieutenant General, and General Governor of Ireland. The Humble Petition of Easier Burgess, widow and her daughter Mary Burgess - both under sentence of transportation in Carlow Gaol, Most Humbly Sheweth,
That your Excellency’s petitioner was tried at the last general Quarter-Sessions of the Peace, on the 5th instant, held in Tullow, before Henry Hutton, Esqre, Assistant Barrister for the County of Carlow for Petty Larceny in taking some Potatoes, was Convicted and sentenced to seven years’ Transportation.
Your Excellency’s Petitioner, the Widow Burgess, is an extreme poor woman, whose husband died about two years and a half back, and left petitioner without a single penny, nor means of any kind to support herself and her seven children, the eldest of which is not yet fourteen years of Age, and who is under the same sentence as petitioner.
Your Excellency’s petitioner had no way to support herself and her large helpless family, but merely what petitioner could earn by her dayly labour, and being out of employment in February last petitioner had no means of any kind to purchase food for her miserable children, and the poor creatures were crying for something to eat, which caused the greatest affliction, and almost deranged Petitioner, at the impulse of the moment, and without reflection Petitioner unfortunately with her little daughter went out and brought in some Potatoes from a Neighbour’s field, to keep Petitioner’s wretched family from starvation.
Your Excellency’s Petitioner is in jail near three months, and if sent off Petitioner’s unhappy family must inevitably perish or become outcasts and wretches. A great number of highly respectable magistrates and gentlemen are so good to subscribe their names to this Petition, as a recommendation to your Excellency’s humane consideration of Petitioner’s case. Petitioner therefore implores that your Excellency will be graciously pleased to take Petitioner’s deplorable case into your Excellency’s Charitable consideration and that your Excellency will please be so good to commute Petitioner’s sentence from Transportation to imprisonment for any term your Excellency may deem proper.
And Petitioner will be ever bound to pray,
Easter Burgess Widow
Mary Burgess her daughter
Prisoners under sentence of Transportation
(Carlow Gaol, April 1845)

In neither case, however, was the Lord Lieutenant prepared to be swayed by the distant cries of ‘wretched orphans’ [he extended the same response to the famine victims in ensuing years]. Each petition bears the same curt and unambiguous annotation, in his hand, ‘The Law must take its Course - Heytesbury’.

In the year 1841, the population of Carlow County stood at 86,228; 72,172 in the rural, and 14,056 in the civic district. In 1845, 359 of that populace were committed to trial, and of them 141 were convicted. If documents such as those transcribed above are not in themselves of enormous significance at national level, they are typical of material which, by filling in our often inadequate knowledge of local conditions in pre-Famine Ireland, can aid in answering such questions as those posed by Roy Foster when he states that ‘We remain unsure about the background to Irish poverty, the spectacular agrarian problem of the pre-Famine decades, and its relation to subsistence crises ...‘ (1)

Carlow in the first half of the nineteenth century was regarded as one of the more prosperous counties, largely because sub-division of holdings was kept to a minimum. In his ‘Account of Ireland’ published in 1812 Wakefield noted that ‘in this county there is very little of that minute division so injurious to other parts of Ireland

and though destitute of manufactures, it is tenanted by more wealthy people than almost any other county’ (2). Wakefield’s Table of Prices in the same book shows that that wealth was reflected in the markedly higher prices charged in Carlow in comparison to prices for the same goods and services elsewhere in the country.

Wages for skilled tradesmen were on average 5d per day higher than in Galway, butter almost £2 per cwt. dearer, and there were similar differences for most other foodstuffs, including potatoes, milk and oat-meal. In other words, these were the prices that the market could bear, and that market included, in Carlow particularly, the smaller tenant farmers, whose holdings would still have been generally larger than those of the rest of the country. It is those for whom Wakefield does not provide statistics, the Butlers and Burgesses as opposed to the Bruens and the Brownens, who were hardest hit by that very prosperity.

In a county whose landlords were notoriously adept at ensuring, particularly at election time, that the course of the law ran parallel to their own interests (one critic describing the county in 1842 as one of ‘the leading contenders in the corruption stakes’ with votes ‘up for sale to he highest bidder’ (3), the marginalised poor were even more marginalised than they would have been elsewhere. A fuller analysis of court records would provide interesting data on the degree to which transportation was a preferred option to imprisonment for magistrates in Carlow and other counties, not because it reflected the level of the crime, but simply because it removed offending blots from the landscape altogether.

Wakefield regarded the majority of Protestant landowners of Carlow as being ‘decidedly in favour of the catholic claims’ (4), but that they were not averse to such removals is indicated by Hoppens description of their respone to tenants who disregarded their political injunctions. In 1835, for example, Colonel Bruen was ‘genuinely amazed when criticized for evicting farmers with hugh arrears on electoral rather than economic grounds’ (5), while in 1840 Lord Courtown saw to it that at the next election his recalcitrant tenantry’ did exactly as they were ordered’. (6)

With those tenantry who could claim to some economic stability so entirely under the thumbs of their landlords, the situation for those who had neither position nor employment became correspondingly worse. Esther Burgess’ having no way to support herself and her family but through what she could earn ‘by her dayly labour’ meant that when work was scarce there was little to turn to except larceny or charity. We find the same plea over and over again in statements to the Devon Commission on the conditions of farmers and labourers in 1844, ‘I hold no ground. I am a poor man. I have nothing but my labour’.

And that labour, when it could be had, could itself furnish little more than a diet of potato. The widespread hardship occasiond by the increase in rent arrears and evictions which took place in the 1830s meant that by the 1840s the potato was the staple and often the only food of many of the poor. Foster notes that by then too the traditional varieties, ‘apples’ and ‘minions’, were being largely replaced by the cups’ and ‘lumpers’ so painstakingly recorded by Constable Roddy. (7). The tragic repercussions of this development were to begin to emerge with the first appearance of the potato blight in September of 1845, when it was discovered that the ‘cups’ and ‘lumpers’, although they gave a higher yield, were less resistant to disease.

So perhaps our ‘desperate characters’ were fortunate to be transported when they were, before they, who would have been in the front line of victims, had to suffer the further afflictions of the Famine (although it must be recorded here that Carlow suffered less than other counties, its average annual excess death rate for the period 1846-51 showing the third lowest increase in the country). It remains to record that one petition at least did meet with approval. Her own plea for commutation of her sentence to imprisonment having been rejected, Esther Burgess wrote again, this time with the imprimatur of the Carlow Board of Superintendents, all of them Carlow landlords [and the name of one of whom, Fishbourn, was also borne by the supplier to Wakefield of information for his ‘Table of Prices’ in 1812].

To His Excellency Lord Heytesbury Lord Lieutenant General and General Governor of Ireland.
The humble Petition of Esther Burgess a Prisoner under sentence of Transportation in Carlow Gaol - Humbly Sheweth

That your Petitioner has a Daughter 13 years of age with no person to look after her and must ultimately come to utter ruin if your Excellency with your usual clemency and humanity will not allow her to go along with your Petitioner to New South [Wales]. That the Girl’s Father being dead and having no friend or relative to look after her Petitioner humbly implores your Excellency will be graciously pleased to issue an order to have her sent to New South Wales along with your Petitioner and she shall ever pray.

Esther Burgess
Carlow Gaol, 2 June 1845.
We believe the above statement to be true and we recommend the case to the favourable consideration of His Excellency the Lord Lieutenant.
J.H. Eustace J.P., Willm. Fishbourn, B.B. Newton J.P. - members of the Board of Superintendents, J. [Jameson?] - Local Inspector.
‘If I have the power of granting the prayer of this Petition, let the necessary steps be taken for that purpose. June 14th 1845 Heytesbury’.


Assistant Barristers Report and Memorials, National Archives, Ireland, State Paper Office, CRF 1845 B15.
(1) R.F. Foster, Modem Ireland 1600-1972, Penguin Press 1988, p.319.
(2) Edward Wakefield, An Account of Ireland Statistical and Political, London 1812, Vol. I, p.
(3) K. Theodore Hoppen, Elections, Politics and Society in Ireland 1832-1885, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1984, p.p. 77, 82.
(4) Wakefield, Vol. II, p. 599.
(5) Hoppen, p. 145.
(6) Hoppen, p. 146.
(7) Foster, p. 319.

Source: Carlow Past & Present Vol. 1 No. 4. 1993 p.120


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