Jimmy Ennis, 71, and his life in the Shelton Abbey “open” prison in the Vale of Avoca near Arklow is a legend in the prison service. For the last 20 years the pensioner has turned down release offers.
Several ministers for justice have told him he is free to go, but he has preferred to remain in the former stately home where he has his own bedroom.
A former itinerant farmhand, Ennis was first jailed for a shooting in 1955. After his release in 1963, he was arrested within days for stabbing a farmer to death. He had been expected to serve a maximum of 20 years. So far he has done 39 years behind bars and has seen the insides of 14 different prisons around the country.
His position as the doyen of the jails was highlighted in 1997 when the media were taken on a tour of the country’s prisons.
He told journalists who spoke to him in 1997 that he might leave if a suitable place came up locally. “I am not pushed,” he said. “I’m happy enough with the situation.”
He works on a daytime release program as a gardener in the Arklow area. He is normally out every day and is usually back at the Abbey by late afternoon.
A spokesman for the Prison Service refused to comment on Ennis, saying it was not the Service’s practice to discuss individual prisoners.
“The sentence management plans for long-term prisoners or for lifers is a matter for the Parole Board,” the spokesman said.
A former home of the earls of Wicklow, Shelton is currently the third most expensive jail in which to hold a prisoner.
It cost euro 118,600 per inmate last year, compared to the average cost of euro 79,000 for all the country’s 15 prisons.
The future of one of country’s three open prisons was under consideration as part of Department of Justice cost-saving measures.
But the Abbey and Loughan House in County Cavan were spared when it was announced the Shanganagh Castle prison in Dublin is to close.
Over the years, the Shelton Visiting Committee has complemented the “friendly, relaxed atmosphere” and “top quality meals” at the Abbey.
Facilities available to prisoners include billiards, a swimming pool, TV rooms, a fully equipped gym, darts, soccer, a nine-hole pitch and putt course, football, volleyball and tennis.
A perimeter fence is designed to keep people out rather than the prisoners in. The Abbey currently holds 56 offenders out of a capacity of 58.
The inmates have a low risk status and are either serving time for relatively minor offenses or are long-term prisoners nearing the end of their sentences.
Shelton was built in the 1770s by the first earl of Wicklow and was transformed into a gothic revival abbey by the fourth Earl in 1819.
Legend has it that James II stayed in an earlier house that became a stable building. The king had paused there during his flight from the defeat of the Battle of the Boyne and had a nose bleed in the hall.
His blood spattered the door post, which was cut out and preserved for a relic for many years until a servant unwittingly used it for firewood.
Situated in the Vale of Avoca up a two-mile main avenue, Shelton was further embellished by later earls. In 1947, the huge running costs led to it being turned into a hotel.
Taxes forced the family to sell the demesne in 1951. It became a school for a period before it passed into the ownership of the state and became a prison in 1973.