Patrick Byrne, A 19th Century Irish Deaf Prisoner

20 July 2012, 20:28

Here is a blog on a Deaf man from Wexford, called Patrick Byrne.

He was sent to jail many times, to several different jails, and was often transferred from one to another, and then back again!

He had a remarkable life.
Patrick was born around 1840 in New Ross, Wexford.
Like most Deaf people he grew up in a hearing family. He didn’t go to Dublin to school, and so never attended a school for the deaf, where he would have been taught sign language. We know he was deaf, but it is not known if he was a sign language user.

That said, at that time in Wexford (from the 1850s to the 1870s) there were many Deaf people living in the area. We know this from the prison register, which lists the names of several Deaf people. I’m certain that Patrick would have known some of these Deaf people, and that they would have been able to communicate with each other through gesture and sign.

It is likely that before the Deaf schools in Cabra were established, people would have been using an early “version” of ISL.

Patrick grew up to become extremely strong and broad; he was very well built. Prison records list his height at 5 feet 10 inches, which was exceptionally tall for the middle of the 19th century. The records also mention his weight; he was very heavy.

Later prison reports describe him as being “a very powerful man”, and that he was quick to lose his temper and hit out at others.

Around the age of 18 years old Patrick started getting involved in fights. Sometimes he drank heavily also. But mostly he got in trouble for fighting. Often he attacked policemen. It is not known why he attacked policemen in particular. It is possible that he had had a bad experience with the police, but there is no way of knowing. However, as a result, Patrick often ended up in court.

Frequently he was sentenced to serve time in the local jail in Wexford. Usually these stays were short, maybe a week or two, or maybe a month, but they were a regular occurrence until 1870 when he committed a very serious assault.

It was then that the Wexford Court realised that Patrick needed a long and severe prison sentence. He was given 5 years Penal servitude.

Consequently, he was sent to Mountjoy Gaol in Dublin, where he served the first part of his sentence. He spent 9 months in Mountjoy Gaol. During his time there Patrick did not mix or communicate with other prisoners.

He had his own cell. He was confined to this cell all day, except for one hour per day when prisoners were allowed out to the yard. To reach the yard, prisoners walked in a long line. Once there, they walked around the yard. This was their exercise. However, it was impossible for prisoners to talk or even whisper to each other.

Communication between prisoners was strictly forbidden.
At the end of the hour, prisoners had to return to their cell. Prison life was very tough. There was no work; prisoners were not given any tasks and there was very little to do. Prisoners were expected to serve their time with nothing to occupy them, except to reflect on the past and find remorse for the crimes they had committed.

Imagine what it must have been like for the deaf man as he entered the prison, as the door closed behind him… with no-one to talk to and not allowed to talk to anyone!

At times Patrick’s behaviour was bad.

On these occasions he was thrown into a special cell where he was in darkness, surrounded by high stone walls; no matter how much he tried, the steel door wouldn’t budge; there were no windows. It must have been a terrifying experience for a deaf man. No vision, no hearing. It was a form of sensory deprivation for him.

Nine months later Patrick was transferred to Spike Island prison, in Cork, where he stayed for about 3 years. On Spike Island cells were not locked, and prisoners were able to walk around, chat with each other and work. After some time there, Patrick’s behaviour was considered good enough for him to be sent to Lusk prison, in Dublin.

Patrick had been sentenced to 5 years. However, in Lusk this was reduced to 4.5 years for good behaviour. At that time it was possible for sentences to be reduced and prisoners to be released early under licence.

A licence permitted prisoners to be released early.

Patrick was given a licence and so left Dublin and returned to Wexford, where his family lived. Time passed, but it wasn’t too long before he broke the law again. There was no other choice but to send him straight back to Dublin to finish out the remainder of his sentence.

Once he had served a total of 5 years he was free to return to Wexford. But in no time at all Patrick was in trouble again. At the beginning it was just small incidents, such as drunkenness and other minor offences.

Until, once again, in 1877 he committed another serious assault. The judge had no option but to hand down another 5 years of penal servitude. Patrick was sent back to Mountjoy Gaol, and the process started again.

An interesting incident took place during this time. As we know, Patrick was very strong and on one of the numerous occasions that he spent in the local prison in Wexford, this time for a only for a short period, approximately one or two months, he became very agitated and was desperate to get out. In fact he was in a small cell next to the police station, which was used as a holding cell for short periods of time, such as the days before prisoners were transferred to prison.

Patrick was desperate to get out. So, despite the very high walls, he started to climb, in an attempt to scale the wall and escape over the other side. Another prisoner saw what he was doing and alerted the guards, who rushed to the wall and pulled him down.

That was in 1877.
Five years later Patrick returned home to Wexford. But by this time a serious problem had arisen: any time Patrick saw a policeman he attacked him. Prison staff and other people related to the case started to pay attention, suspecting that he had mental health problems.

You start to see these suspicions being mentioned in the prison records from the time. During that period a special “lunatic asylum” was in operation in Dublin. This was a closed facility where people with mental health problems were sent and kept.

In Dundrum there was a lunatic asylum specifically for criminals. Patrick was sent to this asylum, initially to be examined, to find out if he did indeed have a mental health problem. On this first trip to Dundrum it was concluded that he was not insane, and so he was sent back to “normal” prison.

However, some time later, in 1898, Patrick committed another very serious assault, and he was summoned back to Wexford court. The judge heard the evidence from both sides but, on questioning Patrick, he decided that Patrick was not able to plead, that is, when the judge asked Patrick if he was guilty or not, Patrick could not give an answer. Consequently, the judge had to send Patrick back to the lunatic asylum in Dundrum.

So, in 1898 Patrick was committed to this asylum, where he remained. In the 1901 census Patrick is listed in the asylum, as he is in the 1911 census. This means that he spent 13 years or more in this mental hospital.

In the many prison records I have examined, Patrick’s name is associated with breaking the law and beating people up.

Prior to his first 5 year sentence, he had broken the law 33 times. He had committed a series of 33 assaults and other offences!

So from this presentation you may have an image of Patrick Byrne as some kind of monster or savage; you may think that consequently, and because he had no education, and couldn’t read or write, that he should have been locked up in some kind of institution.

But there was another side to Patrick. As mentioned already, every time Patrick was released from prison in Wexford he returned home to his family. It appears that his family looked after him and cared for him. They were always willing to take him back.

The attitude, at that time, was that Deaf people could simply be dumped in an institution and left there, and families could wash their hands of the situation.

But Patrick’s family didn’t do that. They took him back every time, which is really astonishing. During Patrick’s time in Mountjoy Gaol his family in Wexford wrote letters to him. And he replied. They exchanged letters more than once. Remember, this is a man who could not read or write.

So how was he able to correspond with his family?

Maybe someone in the prison, for example a guard, was able to transcribe and translate these letters using basic gestures.

I don’t know how they did it, but they sent letters to each other regularly.

There are also accounts from prison inspectors, who, on making enquiries about this Deaf prisoner, were told by staff that Patrick was a decent man, but quick-tempered, but nonetheless that he was a hard and willing worker, completing quickly and with a high level of concentration any work that was given to him. It is also reported that he was pleasant, patient and very quiet once he had enough to do.

So Patrick definitely had two sides to him.

What happened to him after that?

We don’t know. But new information is due to be made available shortly from the National Archives.

There are plenty of files on this man, so if you are interested in learning more about him, from the original sources, including prison records, here is the link:
http://www.box.com/s/07572d54936cdf97e76c

If you are interested in having a look at the files on other Deaf prisoners in the Irish Deaf Archives, be my guest:
http://www.box.com/s/111c60001db3ce1d549f

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