Borstal was first established in Kent, England in 1901 by John Ruggles Brise for the punishment and reform of 16 – 21 year old males. Ruggles Brise was an advocate for the total separation of juvenile and adult offenders in prison, as he felt incarceration together only lead to juveniles learning more about crime from older more experience prisoners.
The basic principle behind the borstal system was to encourage young offenders to become useful members of society upon release. Offenders received a minimum sentence of 2 years. While in borstal a system of non violent discipline, a strict regime, (as per timetable), rewards for good behaviour, education and training helped to rehabilitate the offenders. On release the boys were relocated and supervised for a period of time, in the belief that it was better to take them out of the environment that caused them to offend originally.
In 1906 a disused wing of the County Gaol in Clonmel was chosen as the location for Ireland’s Borstal. By 1910 the entire complex of the former County Gaol had been converted to a full scale borstal with a capacity for 110 inmates (where you are standing now). This remained Ireland’s only Borstal until it was relocated to St. Patrick’s Institution in Dublin in 1956.
During World War 1 over 400 Irish borstal boys opted to join the British Forces in order to bring forward their release. However in order to qualify for such a release boys had to get permission from their parents, they were still juveniles after all. Then the approval of a judge, as well as the body responsible for supervision on release had to be obtained. Finally an interview with an army recruitment officer and a medical exam before acceptance into the army. Over 70 of these recruits died in action. One such boy was James K from Dublin.
When James K, originally from Anglesea Street in Dublin appeared before the Southern Police Court on Saturday 24 July 1915 he was already free on bail and awaiting trial on charges of shop-breaking and larceny. He now faced further charges of stealing a bicycle, a gentleman’s cape and a parcel of books from a property in Merrion Street.
With his bail revoked, James remained in Mountjoy prison until his appearance at Dublin City Commissions on 4 August when both sets of charges were tried on the same day. He was sentenced to two terms of three years, running concurrently, in Clonmel borstal institution for juvenile-adult male offenders. A baker by profession, he was nineteen years old and lived with his parents and six siblings.
James did not serve his three-year sentence and never returned to Dublin. Neither he nor the sentencing judge were to know that his detention in Clonmel would merely be a detour on his journey to the battlefields of France where, in April 1916, he was killed in action while fighting with the British armed forces during the First World War.
James was a private with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 8th Battalion when he was struck down. His journey from urban street criminal to war veteran was one that was replicated dozens of times for young men who made that detour through the Ireland’s only borstal institution at Clonmel in south Tipperary.