The night Pat McMahon broke into Limerick gaol to slay the devil

Defendant gave the court good reason for breaking into prison - he had to kill ‘the evil one’

Before a court in Limerick, Pat McMahon said he had a good reason for scaling the walls of the city prison the night before and breaking into a cell. He had to kill the devil.

Breaching the boundary of the gaol after dark in May 1861, McMahon wanted to meet Satan, “whom, he alleged, located there, and nightly did him revel”.

The court heard the prisoner's story, which was published in an Irish Times report on Monday 22nd of that year, topped with the headline: "The Devil in Limerick Jail – A laughable case."

Perhaps reflecting attitudes towards mental illness at the time, the defendant was described by the unnamed reporter as a “a lunatic, and exorcist as well”. He had been in prison before; it was during his last stretch behind bars that the devil had first appeared to him, “with his horns, and tail, and chains, and fiery eyes”.


On the night of the first apparition, according to McMahon, the devil danced and sang songs while inmates gathered, looked on and even joined in the merriment.

He said “by chance he met his sable Majesty, who danced the ‘butcher’s dance’ before his eyes, and others who were present then and there, when he, in the highest key, struck up that lively air”.

Amid the celebrations, one inmate attempted to whistle Garryowen - he wasn't very good, so the devil "gave the whistler, grinning, a stunning polthouge in the jaw, that quickly sent him spinning".

McMahon’s account of Satan’s visit to Limerick Prison prompted his decision to scale the walls of the jail. Finding himself in court as a result, he then asked the mayor, presiding, to let him back inside his cell to slay the devil.

“He dreaded lest he’d got at large, and play his pranks through town, and earnestly he begged the bench allow him put him down.”

'Doubtless mettle'

He asked for seven days. It was essential he be held in the exact cell he occupied during his last stint.

“One week was all he asked, in which this man of doubtless mettle engaged, unaided and alone, the ‘evil one’ to settle: provided in a certain cell they put him, and no other, for there, and there alone, he’d meet the tempter of our mother.”

After some consideration, the magistrates were pleased to grant “indulgence to this whim of Pat’s”, who returned his thanks and marched off to jail amid “convulsive laughter”.

“And, far from being affrighted at what he undertook to do, appeared right well delighted.”

That’s where the reporter finishes with Pat’s story and Lucifer’s various antics in Limerick, but the National Archives’ prison records tell a slightly different story.

On May 16th, 1861, a man named Patrick McMahon was indeed before the court in Limerick city. Due to a couple of days’ mismatch in the dates compared to the newspaper, it is difficult at first to be sure we’re dealing with the same defendant.

Further down the petty sessions order book, however, a charge of “Scaling the walls and entering the city gaol, at Limerick on the 15 of May 1861,” ties the two Pats together.

As The Irish Times reported, Pat gave his reason for breaking into jail that night, but neglected to mention the other complaints: "Disorderly and gambling in the public street"; "Drunk in the public street" and "Committing a larceny of rags" on Broad Street. Two other charges of disorderly conduct were included, but dismissed.

For his night’s work, in total, Pat McMahon was sentenced to: six hours of solitary confinement for being disorderly and gambling in public; one day’s hard labour for being drunk (on top of a 6 pence fine); and a further 14 days of hard labour, for stealing the rags.

Finally, as reported, the judge ordered he be remanded in the city gaol until May 23rd, in return for climbing into the prison the night before. A seven-night stay, at his own request, for breaking into his favourite cell.

This story is part of the Lost Leads series - a re-visiting of lesser-known stories that have made the pages of The Irish Times since 1859. What can you find? Let us know @irishtimes. For more information on subscribing to the archive, visit