The Exploits of an Septuagenarian Drunkard in Early 20th Century Ireland

Like most academic historians, as my inebriate reformatory project took shape and eventually turned into a monograph, I took to the road delivering the obligatory conference papers and invited lectures. I illustrated every talk with some of the case studies of the people who populated the institutions because, well, your audience will glaze over if you spend 20-45 minutes merely talking about the history of penal policy. I am interested not only in policy but in the people who made these policies necessary. And in the ways those policies impacted lives. During this phase of what I called ‘criminal drunkards on tour’, one individual more than any other has exercised the attention of the audiences.

This most fascinating, colourful and altogether wretched character was an inmate of the State Inebriate Reformatory at Ennis and was supplied by the great county of Limerick. She travelled an extraordinary path and despite what we do know about her during her interactions with the reformatory at Ennis, we can only imagine the circumstances that gave rise to what had undoubtedly become an unbelievably tragic life. Anne appeared before Judge Adams at Limerick Quarter Sessions on 26 May 1905 where she was convicted of assault and being a habitual drunkard.[1] At seventy-three years of age she had been convicted and imprisoned no less than 145 times, mostly for drunkenness and assault.[2] Her admission record at Ennis shows her previous address to have been Cork prison, she had no relations and under occupation was written the word ‘tramp’. For fifteen years Anne had lived this impoverished lifestyle, mostly under the heavy influence of alcohol. Prior to those years she lived in Charleville in Cork and though she ‘was of loose and intemperate habits’ she had not yet succumbed to a full state of deterioration. Unflatteringly described as a ‘haunchback’, she came from a respectable working-class family, none of whom were known to be insane or addicted to alcohol. Physically she was described by the institution’s medical officer as being ‘fair considering her age and habits’. She did, however, imagine that she had a portion of a needle lodged in her buttock. Mentally she was defined as being ‘poor and depraved, and has no self-control’.[3] When measured against most of the women admitted to Ennis inebriate reformatory, Anne’s case is extreme in that she was the oldest inmate committed and was among those with the highest number of convictions.

anne-meehan-history
The governor at the State Inebriate Reformatory was required by the General Prisons Board to generate a ‘before’ and ‘after’ history Casebook of all inmates. This is available on microfilm at the National Archives of Ireland.

Despite being sentenced to six months in Ennis in May 1905, Anne was not committed straight to custody but released on her own recognisance to appear at the October sessions once a legal issue with her case had been resolved by a higher court. When she failed to appear a bench warrant was issued for her arrest. She was arrested on 2 November 1905 in Cork prison having already committed further offences for which she was incarcerated. She was transferred to Limerick and eventually to Ennis. She was released on the expiration of her sentence on 1 May 1906.[4] Anne had no fixed address which suggests a life blighted not only by alcoholism but also by poverty. Her home seems to have been the nearest prison and it is clear that she had long been desensitised to the trauma of a custodial sentence. This was something she had in common with many of the inebriates in Ennis, most of whom had served multiple sentences in the past.

The first post-release supervision report on Anne was received at Ennis in April 1907, almost a full year after she left the institution. A local Royal Irish Constabulary district inspector in Croom described how she had spent about one third of her time in his jurisdiction since her release. In that year she notched up four further convictions for drunkenness. It was his intention to apply to have her recommitted to Ennis.[5] This never happened but her failure to reform at Ennis can easily be traced through subsequent prison register appearances.

General Prisons Board records show that at one court sitting alone in August 1907 she was convicted of four counts of being drunk and incapable, receiving one month in Cork Female Prison.[6] By April 1908, a sergeant from the same station in Croom reported that Anne had accrued a further ten convictions for drunkenness. A final report was filed in February 1911 and she was described as still being a ‘hopeless drunkard’ who continued to spend most of her time in gaol.[7] It is worth noting that Anne was seventy-nine years old when this final report was filed. This was not the end of her criminal career by any stretch. The last appearance that I can trace of Anne in an Irish court or prison comes on 12 September 1912. She was sentenced to one month in Cork Female Prison for being drunk and disorderly – there were two charges.[8] She was eighty-three years old! The best estimate would be that in the final alcohol-fuelled couple of decades of her life she accrued somewhere in the region of 160 convictions.

[1] Limerick Leader, 26 June 1905.

[2] General Prisons Board (hereafter GPB), Ennis State Inebriate Reformatory for Ireland Register of inmates, 1900-18.

[3] GPB, Ennis State Inebriate Reformatory, Casebook, 1902-1920.

[4] GPB, Ennis State Inebriate Reformatory, Casebook, 1902-1920.

[5] GPB, Ennis State Inebriate Reformatory, Casebook, 1902-1920.

[6] GPB, Cork Female Prison, Register of Inmates, 1907.

[7] GPB, Ennis State Inebriate Reformatory, Casebook, 1902-1920.

[8] GPB, Cork Female Prison, Register of Inmates, 1912.