James Dillon (1788-1859), King’s County Coroner during the Great Famine

James Dillon Esq of Clara, King’s County was born in 1788 to Simon and Catherine Dillon. His father was involved in property and his mother had a general provisions shop with extensive property at New St., Clara. James was politically active in the 1820s and 1830s opposing tithes and supporting Daniel O’Connell’s Emancipation cause. He married Alice Kelly in the mid 1820s and had 10 children between 1827 and 1847, six daughters and four sons.

Apart from being a postmaster and a grocer, he was elected coroner for the county in July 1836 at the age of 48, having beaten his opponent Benjamin Toy Midgley by 341 votes. He was the latest in a long list of county coroners dating back to 16th century when the office of coroner was provided for in the 1557 statute establishing the King’s County. In 1847, the county was divided into northern and southern districts and Dillon was assigned the northern Tullamore district, while his former opponent, Midgely was assigned the Parsonstown district.  We are very fortunate in Offaly to have a set of Dillon’s diaries which contain the verdicts of the various inquests he held in the county from the time he was elected until his own sudden death in 1859. Coroners’ diaries are extremely rare as most were destroyed in the Four Courts fire of 1922. These particular diaries are of great significance as they record sudden death in Offaly immediately before, during and after the Great Famine.

One of James Dillon’s leather bound inquest diaries. Courtesy Offaly County Library.

The diaries span the entirety of Dillon’s career as coroner. We have three extant diaries from a set of four, beginning at Inquest No 1 in 1836 and ending with his final inquest, No 1381 in 1859. The first diary, dating 1836-1840 is part of the Grand Jury archive collection in Tullamore Library and contains 220 inquests. The second diary spanning 1840-1846 is unfortunately missing from the series and contains 367 inquests. It was never part of the library’s collection and its whereabouts are currently unknown. The third diary dates from 1846-1854 and was donated to Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society some years ago and is part of the manuscript collections in Offaly History Archives. It has 490 inquests and apart from the year 1845, it covers the accepted date range of the Great Famine. The fourth and final diary covering the dates 1854 – 1859 is also in Tullamore Library and holds 278 inquests. There are 22 further inquests missing between the end of Diary 3 and the beginning of Diary 4, whereabouts again unknown, so in total we have 988 extant inquest reports out of a total of 1381.

Natural causes account for the majority of Dillon’s verdicts on sudden death, and the diaries are a great resource for medical historians, detailing deaths ‘by the visitation of God’ and then qualified by the exact cause such as ‘apoplexy’, ‘dropsical effusions of the chest’, ‘asphyxia’, and ‘excessive use of ardent spirits’ (i.e. alcoholism). It is clear from the inquests that disease was rampant in Tullamore Gaol and Tullamore Workhouse where many of the inquests took place, particularly at the height of the famine in 1847 and 1848. Indeed most of the deaths from dysentry were reported from the Gaol, which saw an exponential rise in inmates during the famine years, many of whom had committed petty offences to be admitted to the gaol to be fed. In 1849 Tullamore Gaol had 321 inmates, nearly 3 times what it was designed to hold and rates of death within the gaol rose sharply due to overcrowding and endemic disease.

The workhouses were also packed beyond maximum capacity and there is a spike in the sudden death rate here also. In 1846 there were 740 paupers in Tullamore Workhouse which had a maximum capacity of 700. By the following year there were 900. Indeed there are inquests on babies who were ‘overlain’ by their mothers during the night such was the cramped space in the workhouse.

Inquest 595, March 10th 1846,  Catherine Fleming at Ballycumber, died by the visitation of God to wit of apoplexy occurring in the last stage of epilepsy. Courtesy Offaly History Archives.

Accidental deaths account for approximately one third of the deaths recorded in the inquests and  reflect the living conditions and occupations of the time. Accidents include workplace casualties, such as falling into a pot of boiling grains at a distillery or getting entangled in a mill wheel. Fatal kicks from horses or cows are commonly recorded and the equivalent of modern day road traffic accidents involving horses and carts are also detailed. One of the most common fatal accidents, however, was burning to death due to clothes catching fire.

A small but significant number of the inquests record the verdict of murder and these include the murder of land agents and members of the constabulary, as well as domestic conflicts and opportunistic assault. During the peak years of Famine distress, the rate of infanticide and suicide also rose and there are a number of inquests recording such verdicts.

After the Famine, Dillon’s diaries record the incidence of another major epidemic – tuberculosis. He was often sent to the Convict’s Prison in Philipstown (Daingean) to conduct inquests on prisoners who had died while awaiting transportation to the penal colonies in Australia, and nearly one third of his case load between 1854 and 1859 records deaths in this prison, nearly all from ‘consumption’ or ‘scrofula’, both forms of tuberculosis.

In November 1859, James Dillon died suddenly himself on the way to Edenderry to conduct yet another inquest. He had a fit of apoplexy and was dead within 15 minutes, having had his arms bled by his assistant Dr Glover to no avail.  The obituary in the King’s County Chronicle described Dillon as ‘possessing no ordinary abilities, and he discharged the duties of his office with a clear apprehension of them, and an earnest desire to uprightly perform them. He was warm and firm in his friendships, and he was affectionally regarded by a large circle of friends. To the poor he was ever a kind friend and a wise adviser.’

Further reading:

Byrne, M., Legal Offaly: The County Courthouse at Tullamore and The Legal Profession in County Offaly From The 1820s To The Present Day, Esker Press, Tullamore (2008)

Murphy.M, Coughlan, A. and Doran, G., Grand Jury to Áras an Chontae: local government in Offaly, Offaly County Council, Tullamore (2003)

O’Neill, T. P., ‘The famine in Offaly‘ in Nolan, W. and O’Neill, T. P. (eds), Offaly History and Society: interdisciplinary essays on the history of an Irish county, Geography Publications, Dublin (1998)

Reilly, C., John Plunket Joly and the Great Famine in King’s County, Maynooth Studies in Local History: No 103, Four Courts Press, Dublin (2012)