Offaly’s Grand Jury records: recovering local archives in a national context. By Lisa Shortall

The grand jury system in Ireland was a precursor to the county council or local authority system we know today, and the records generated by the grand jury and its offices reveal the history of towns, cities and boroughs all over Ireland. Unfortunately this body of records suffered significant losses during the twentieth century. On 25 May 2021, Beyond2022:Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland in association with Local Authority Archivists and Records Managers (LGARM) hosted a research showcase to mark the centenary of the burning of the Custom House during the War of Independence, an event which resulted in the destruction of the archive of the Local Government Board for Ireland.  This event was echoed just over a year later with the destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland at the beginning of the Civil War and whose losses in terms of documentary destruction is being valiantly and virtually rebuilt by the Beyond2022 team. The top floor of the PRO was where the grand jury records from all over the country were kept and ultimately perished during that terrible fire. Between the fire in the Custom House and the more well known 1922 PRO(I) fire, vast quantities of records relating to local government were destroyed. 

In Offaly, a further loss of records occurred when on 19 July 1922, a couple of weeks after the PRO in Dublin was destroyed, the courthouse in Tullamore was also completely destroyed in a fire by anti-Treaty forces. This consolidated the records losses suffered in the PRO and the Custom House fires and ultimately resulted in almost the complete destruction of grand jury records for Offaly.  The Courthouse was the location of Grand Jury Rooms where the assizes were held and it was also the location of the offices of the Crown and Peace for King’s County. There were valiant efforts to save the records by the clerks of these offices and while many documents were reduced to ‘ashes’, the county council’s minute books and other volumes were saved and remain in Offaly Archives to this day.

The collection of grand jury records that we have here is small and it is a reconstituted collection, brought together through acts of salvage, donation and strategic purchase by both Offaly County Library and the Offaly History over many years. The collection is described in detail on the online catalogue. In summary it contains presentment or ‘Jobs’ books for the years 1830-1878 from two sets of bound volumes originally belonging to James Franck Rolleston, Franckfort Castle, Dunkerrin, and Henry Trench, Cangort Park, Shinrone, respectively, with some crossover. These survive as they were in the personal libraries of Rolleston and Trench and ended up in auction houses. Offaly History also purchased individual volumes of 1893 and 1899 presentments at auction in recent years, the latter an important volume as 1899 was the last time the grand jury met for the purpose of local government matters following the enactment of the Local Government Act (1898) which established the county councils system we have today.

The collection also includes three coroner’s inquest report books of James Dillon, King’s County Coroner, which were donated separately to both the library and Offaly History many years ago.

Finally there are printed general lists of jurors from the baronies of Ballyboy, Ballycowan, Garrycastle, Geashill, Kilcoursey, Moycashel, Lower Philipstown and Upper Philipstown. Legislation mandated that the jurors lists be compiled by the clerks of the poor law unions who were well established at collecting the poor-rate and therefore had comprehensive lists of free-holders and rateable tenants. The clerk who compiled these particular lists which date from the 1870s and 1880s was James McKenna and he was clerk of Tullamore Poor Law Union for approximately 40 years. He died on 4 December 1907 at the age of 92 and in obituary published in the King’s County Chronicle it was said ‘An idea of his self-sacrifice to his work will be formed when it is stated that even on Christmas days instead of passing holidays at home with his family, he would be seen in his office in Tullamore Workhouse as intent upon his duties as if he was bound to have his books posted up for an immediate imperative inspection.’

These jurors lists, which catalogue the power brokers in the area at the time,  were part of a large tranche of material rescued by Offaly History from the former Tullamore workhouse when it was being demolished in the 1970s and which were then deposited in the county library. The collaboration between the council and the historical society in relation to the keeping of local archives is therefore long-standing, and has resulted in our new building in which the archives are safely housed today. 

While the local government functions of the grand jury ceased in 1899 when the county councils were formed, the assizes courts continued until 1921. There was always great pomp and ceremony accompanying the arrival of the King’s judges to the assizes and we have a great photograph in the archives which was taken at some point in the last decade, probably the 1910s, of the arrival of the judges to the grand jury assizes at Tullamore Courthouse.

According to newspaper reports, the judges would arrive at Tullamore train station to be received by the High Sherriff and a guard of honour from the RIC. The judges would then have been taken in the Sherriff’s carriage to John Tarleton’s house in Charleville Square, which is now the site of the present day library in O’Connor Square, where they donned their judicial robes and proceeded to the courthouse in great style and ceremony which we can see demonstrated here in the photograph of their arrival in the grounds of Tullamore Courthouse preceded by mounted RIC police. By 1919 however, with the War of Independence in full swing, the mounted RIC were replaced by the Army for the judge’s safety. 

The grand jury records, although rarely studied today, are a wealth of local historical information. Offaly Archives is delighted to be part of a larger national collaboration with Beyond2022 with the aim of digitising all extant grand jury material held locally and to facilitate greater access through their hosting on the Beyond2022 Virtual Treasury which will be launched in June 2022. A range of online accompanying materials is available for further information. Dr Brian Gurrin has produced a superb booklet, People Place and Power: the grand jury system in Ireland, lavishly illustrated from locally held grand jury collections (including Offaly’s). The seminar was recorded live and is available from Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Institute. It features a short video shot in Offaly Archives which showcases some of the records outlined above. 

Offaly History would like to acknowledge Heritage Council Sector Support funding for 2021 which allowed for the retention of a professional archivist and facilitated participation in the Beyond2022 project.