Imprisonment for Debt in Early Nineteenth Century Ireland, 1810-1848

27 Pages Posted: 10 Aug 2013

See all articles by Kevin Costello

Kevin Costello

Sutherland School of Law, University College Dublin

Date Written: August 9, 2013


About one third of the prison population in early nineteenth century Ireland was made up of persons imprisoned by their creditors for debt. These prisoners had been arrested for defaulting on debts owing to shopkeepers. The growing size of the prison debtor population was, by the second decade of the century, threatening to cause a humanitarian crisis. The Government responded to this by, first (1821), establishing a specialist Insolvent Debtors Relief Court, second (1848), by abolishing the creditor’s power of imprisonment for debts under ten pounds, and, finally (1872), by abolishing the power to imprison genuinely insolvent debtors Each of these reforms was opposed by small business interests. This interest group -- particularly small retailers -- viewed abolition as threatening an essential and effective means of debt recovery. Abolitionists, and the Government, on the other hand, argued that the process of arrest did not work. This paper offers an account (i) of the process of imprisonment for debt in nineteenth century Ireland, (ii) of conditions in Irish marshalseas, and (iii) of the profile of those creditors who used imprisonment. It concludes with an assessment of the abolitionist claim that the remedy was ineffective.

Keywords: Imprisonment for Debt, Early Nineteenth Century Ireland, 1810-1848

Suggested Citation

Costello, Kevin, Imprisonment for Debt in Early Nineteenth Century Ireland, 1810-1848 (August 9, 2013). UCD Working Papers in Law, Criminology & Socio-Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09/2013, Available at SSRN: or

Kevin Costello (Contact Author)

Sutherland School of Law, University College Dublin ( email )

Dublin 4

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