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16 October 2014
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Omagh's 19th century gaol

Opened in 1804, apparently most of the inmates were debtors. The Gaol was also the scene of several public hangings.
Article by Brian Willis.

armagh's Gaol

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Alan Dodds has been languishing in Omagh Gaol, County Tyrone, since 1961.

Not quite as dramatic as it sounds for Alan owns, and lives in, this 19 century complex of high stone walls and melancholic buildings. His home is the eight sided governor's house. A house with a balcony from which the governor used to watch the prisoners in the yards below.

Alan Dodds stands on the balcony of the prison governor's house.
Alan Dodds stands on the balcony
of the prison governor's house.

The present buildings were opened in 1804 and a new section added in 1825. Apparently most of the inmates were debtors.

Omagh Gaol was the scene of several public hangings. Yes, Omagh folk used to come and watch these executions. The last public hanging was in 1860 although hangings within the gaol continued until about 1880.

Perhaps the most legendary criminal hanged there was a policeman. District Inspector Montgomery of the RIC. A cashier had been robbed and killed in the bank at Newtownstewart and DI Montgomery was the investigating officer. But he turned out to be the perpetrator of the crime and was hanged in Omagh Gaol in 1873.

Entrance to tread wheel
Entrance to tread wheel
The Tread Wheel

It's hard to discern the writing over the door in this photograph, but this is the entrance to the TREAD WHEEL. (I wonder why we now call it a tread mill?) The wheel has long since gone. The door itself, like all the other doors in the prison, is made of thick vertical planks on the front backed by horizontal ones at the rear. The whole held together by many studs.

View over tread wheel of prison hospital
View over tread wheel of prison hospital
Present buildings

Many of the original buildings and several of the high walls have disappeared but the laundry, church and entrance arch are all still there, although sadly there are no gates now.

Several other buildings still exist and this photo shows two of them. It was taken from the balcony of the governor's house and is looking over the roof of the tread mill and the master debtors' yard at the large building in the background which was the prison hospital.

Omagh Gaol was eventually closed in 1902. It is now in private hands and is not open to the public.


As I was being shown around by Alan Dodds, the owner, it struck me what a wonderful complex this would make for the nucleus of a museum for Omagh. But I suspect I'm not the first person to have thought of that idea.


I'll end with a query. Alan is in the process of renovating the governor's house and tells me the ceiling plaster, which he removed, was made of a mixture of lime, ox blood and camel hair. Camel hair? To be honest I accused him of pulling my leg. But no - he assured me bales of camel hair used to be imported from Egypt for binding plaster. Has anyone heard of this before?

Malcolm Lake, Omagh - May '04
More commonly, horse hair would have been used in order to bind together and retain the integrity of lime plaster.
The use of lime in building generally ceased in the mid-19th century.The use of Lime as a mortar and a render is quite important. A mortar should always be less strong than the masonry, so that a wall 'breathes' through the joint and not through the masonry. The need for this is readily demonstrated in freeze-thaw conditions which (when using a cementitious mortar) frequently results in the masonry spalling (catastrophically, the freezing pushes-off the face of the stone or brick).


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