A considerable amount of crime in the early modern period resulted from several wars, poverty, famine, insecurity and the transition from one legal system to another.

Early Irish or brehon law demanded that the convicted person pay an eiric (compensation) to the victim or to the clan or family of the victim in the form of property, work or repairing damage. Brehons were described as hearing cases in public on a hill and demanding a share of the compensation. They did not condemn criminals to death or send them to jail. If the accused failed to appear before the court or to pay compensation, the victim's family or clan could obtain it by force, often by raiding for cattle. Then the criminal became an outlaw and, if acting aggressively, could be killed by anyone.

English common law was different. Offences were treated as crimes against the state and the accused was tried and punished as an individual. Judges sat in central courts in Dublin and around the country 'on circuit' and there were local magistrates also as well as manor courts and church courts. Jails were built and flogging, torture and execution in public were common at the time. Offences for which women were prosecuted under English law in the seventeenth century included scolding, gossip, begging, keeping an alehouse without a licence and witchcraft. Women could be punished in the stocks, dipped in water on a ducking-stool or hanged or burnt as witches, though this rarely happened in Ireland.

Criminal statistics revealed females committing fewer and less serious crimes than males.

The gaol delivery rolls for Ulster for 1613-15, for instance, record only one woman being tried out of over 120 cases. The same pattern is demonstrated in the 1614 Grand Jury presentments preserved in the corporation book of Youghal. Out of 63 cases women featured in only two - one woman for keeping 'misrule' in her tavern and two women presented for being scolds. Again in the mayor's court at Youghal in 1646 of 62 persons appearing, four were women, a scold and thief, a forestaller, an unmarried mother and a stopper of watercourses. It seems that female prosecution for criminal activity in the British Isles was generally low in the early modern period.
Raymond Gillespie, 'Women and crime' in Margaret MacCurtain & Mary O'Dowd, Women in early modern Ireland, Dublin, 1991, p.48.

But thousands of women were transported to convict colonies in Australia in the eighteenth century.

Another phenomenon of the eighteenth century was the transportation of Irish convicts to Australia, amongst whom were a high proportion of women. It has been estimated that of 40,000 Irish convicts transported direct from Ireland to Australia, almost a quarter were women, a higher proportion than in England.
Margaret MacCurtain & Mary O'Dowd, 'An agenda for women's history, 1500-1800' in Irish historical studies, Vol. XXVIII, 1992, p 17.

Ports on the south coast of Ireland were notorious for piracy in the seventeenth century. Pirates depended on women to supply their ships and receive and dispose of stolen goods. Some women ran ale-houses which were fronts for harbouring criminals and for prostitution. Hazards included raiding parties and even slavery:

Anne Bonny, pirate
Anne Bonny
as depicted in
Historie der Engelsche zeerovers, 1725
... the attack on Baltimore [Co. Cork], by Turkish pirates in 1631, when more than 100 men, women and children were carried off into slavery in Barbary. Two of the victims, Joan Brodbrooke and Ellen Hawkins were ransomed and brought home in 1646.
J.C. Appleby, 'Women and piracy' in Margaret MacCurtain & Mary O'Dowd, Women in early modern Ireland, Dublin, 1991, p.62.

Anne Bonny from Cork and Mary Read joined a pirate crew, took part in attacks on shipping and were convicted of piracy in Jamaica in 1720. Anne Bonny was reprieved because she was pregnant.

Conditions in prison were appalling. Prisoners who could afford private rooms escaped the horrors of the common hall where women and men were often crammed together into the same quarters. A parliamentary report in 1782 stated that Newgate Prison in Dublin was,

... already dirty and crowded and prisoners were being crammed into underground cells with men, women and children sharing the same quarters. There was neither straw nor bedding and drunkenness was prevalent among the prisoners.
Bernadette Doorley, 'Newgate Prison' in David Dickson (ed.), The gorgeous mask, Dublin, 1987, p. 123.

Six years later in 1788, the prison hospital was reported to be still filthy and four women were lying on the hospital ground with no covering and nothing but water to drink. Conditions improved for a while but slipped back again.

A damning [parliamentary] report in 1808 found that disorder and mismanagement had returned to Newgate. The sexes were once more mixed, there were no beds or bedding; rape, robberies and murder were occurring and illicit profits were once again being shared out among the turnkeys and the watchmen.
Bernadette Doorley, 'Newgate Prison' in David Dickson (ed.), The gorgeous mask, Dublin, 1987, p. 130.


  1. Discuss briefly the essential differences between early Irish or brehon law and English common law in relation to crime.
  2. Suggest reasons why English law created these special offences for women
  3. How valid is the conclusion Raymond Gillespie (above) draws from his primary sources? Give reasons for your answer.
  4. Turkish pirates captured more than ___ men, women and ___ at _____ in ____ and brought them off to ___ in ____.
  5. Anne Bonny from ___ and ___ Read were convicted of ____ in ____ in 1720.
  6. Write a paragraph on 'Twenty five years of Newgate Prison, Dublin 1782-1807.'


  1. Organise a debate on the topic, 'That the principle of restorative justice characteristic of the brehon laws would be more effective than the principle of punitive justice characteristic of our present criminal law.'
  2. Calculate an average percentage of women prosecuted in the early modern period based on records for Ulster 1613-15 and Youghal 1614 and 1646.
  3. Research the percentage of women prosecuted or imprisoned in Ireland in the most recent year for which statistics are available.
  4. Research the records of transportation from Ireland to Australia on the Internet.
  5. Write a brief newspaper report with appropriate headline on the topic of Newgate Prison, 1808.
  6. Organise a visit to a restored jail museum at Kilmainham, Wicklow, Cork, Nenagh, etc.
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