Grand Juries in Ireland: the politics of power in the counties. By Michael Byrne

The county grand jury system will be the subject of much focus from mid-2022 with the uploading of links to the county archives records throughout Ireland by way of the Beyond 2022:Virtual Record Treasury Project. The first thing to say is that a useful and well-illustrated booklet People, Place and Power: the grand jury system in Ireland (Brian Gurrin with David Brown, Peter Crooks and Ciarán Wallace, online 2021) can now be downloaded from the Beyond 2022 website as well as useful material from the county archives in Offaly, Wicklow and Donegal. Furthermore, Brian Gurrin has published online an interim listing of the records held in each county. The scope of the records is well illustrated and draws on more detailed catalogues for counties such as Offaly and Donegal where listings are available on the online catalogues from the county archives. For more on Offaly material see the blog and presentation by Lisa Shortall now on YouTube and as a video on the Offaly History Decade of Centenaries platform on

In summary the access position to these records will be revolutionised within the year and will greatly facilitate family historians, those interested in the workings of local government and how local elites interacted. What elite families provided the power brokers and controlled local patronage? All were men, most were landowners, representative of the county families, and, of course, most were Protestant from the early 1700s and the enactment of the Penal Laws. It was not until the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 that Catholics were admitted, and being a select club were scarce until the 1830s.

Grand Juries were ‘notorious for their jobbing’

The great historian Lecky in his five-volume Ireland in the Eighteenth Century remarked that in that period the grand juries ‘were notorious for their jobbing and for the vices that spring from monopoly’ and largely controlled by the great territorial families (vol. iii, p. 65). But Lecky as a convinced unionist, and yet a great inspiration to the nationalists, was quick to say that now (that is in 1892) all was reformed. This was a point made by R.B. McDowell in writing of the early 1800s that grand juries were shockingly careless when dealing with road contracts and that the ‘excellent Irish communications system resulted largely from the facilities afforded by road-building for using public money for private purposes’ (Public Opinion and government policy in Ireland, 1801 –1846, p. 80). This observation can be fully tested when the records of the grand juries go online and are used with records such as those of the provincial and national press and the first edition of the Ordnance Survey maps to look at the entrance roads to demesnes against presentments. Suffice it to say that Ireland as England’s great social laboratory in the first half of the nineteenth century affords ample example of the centralising tendencies in local government that grew in the 1820s and 1830s and again 100 years later in the new Free State.

The assize judges entering the precincts of the Tullamore courthouse about 1914. Courtesy of Offaly County Library.

Some of that reforming zeal can be seen from 1817 onwards and with the appointment of county surveyors in earnest from 1834. The year 1817 was the year of commencement of the retention of King’s County/ Offaly’s grand jury presentment books. However, at this time (due to the burning of the Tullamore courthouse in 1922 during the Civil War) the main series in Offaly Archives runs from 1830 to the 1880s. A set commencing in 1817 was sold at auction in 2016 but appears not to be in a public repository. More reforms followed with the building of courthouses and jails and the gradual transferring of power from local officials and grand jurors to professional administrators. For more on this see Byrne, Legal Offaly (2008) and the majestic work on the Irish courthouses by Richard Butler (2020, and see www.offalyhistoryblog). Grand juries also made contributions to ‘lunatic asylums’, reformatories and occasionally once-off payments to the widows of victims of crime. By 1836 baronial committees of justices of the peace and ratepayers had been established to review and sanction road contracts before sending them on to the grand jury (McDowell, Public Opinion, p. 82). This procedure can be followed in the local press.

As the nineteenth century progressed grand juries were gradually stripped of their powers, especially after the setting up of the poor law unions (1838–9) with their sanitary powers, and the town councils for the management of town life including water, waste, some sanitation and later housing. The prisons, but less so the courthouses, came under the influence of national authority. And yet notwithstanding the emergence of the poor law unions (over 130), and of which there were five encompassing Offaly) membership of the grand jury was still a select forum. The chief figurehead was the High Sheriff nominated by the Lord Lieutenant with the former selecting the 23 ‘good men and true’ who as to their legal functions could find a true bill against a person before the assize courts or acquit.

The foundation stone of the Tullamore prison of 1826 with the names of the commissioners for the building of the new prison as appointed by the grand jury. Courtesy of Offaly History

On the local government side they could find in favour of a new jail in Tullamore in 1820 (completed in 1830) and the new courthouse (1835). Lord Tullamoore would busy himself drawing rules for the new jail in 1830 and the design of the new courthouse after 1830, and before the transfer of the assizes from Daingean to Tullamore in 1835. This was a boost to Tullamore trade as much business came with the Lent and Summer assizes, besides the accolade of county town status. Binns in his Miseries and beauties of Ireland (London, 1837) commented on this in the context of the loss of earnings to Philipstown/ Daingean following the termination of the assizes in that town from Spring 1835. For the parliamentary voters it was a boon to Birr as Tullamore was more centrally placed in the county and voting was in public until 1872 and generally in the assize town. In the study of such activities the preferences of the local power brokers are of great interest and can be the subject of Namierite scrutiny by those so enthused. The grand jury’s local authority functions, well whittled away as the nineteenth century progressed, were finally abolished under the Local Government Ireland Act of 1898 which established the county councils, the new urban district councils and rural district councils. In Offaly only one of the old grand jury members was returned (Perry Goodbody, the Clara industrialist and unopposed) while three were provided with seats ex-officio.

Abstracts of Presentments of the King’s County Grand Jury housed in Offaly Archives. Courtesy of Offaly History

The judicial functions of the grand jury go back to medieval times. Many of the Irish counties were established in the time of Elizabeth and shiring meant the introduction of English law and forms. The development of assize courts throughout the country would have progressed faster but for the scarcity of judges and the difficulties with travel. The provision of courthouses was also a problem. Sir William Gerrard, the lord chancellor, reporting on the Trim assizes of 1577 ‘found the hall where the sessions had been kept all open, full of dung and cattle in it’ and had to seek alternative accommodation. The following day he found neither bailiff, crier nor sheriff available. Of Queen’s County he noted that the sheriff had been murdered. Many of the earlier judges and, indeed, late eighteenth century and early nineteenth-century judges such as Sir William Cusack Smith and Lord Norbury, had no difficulty combining a political with a legal career and support for the government of the day was the road to judicial preferment. Often the assize judges would process to the courthouse and deliver themselves of a ‘pep talk’ to the grand jury on the state of the county.

John Wright’s, King’s County Directory of 1890 (reprinted with a new title in 1989) has much about the grand jury drawn from the original records. The courthouse was destroyed in July 1922 by the departing Republican IRA during the Civil War. Courtesy of Offaly History. This is very useful for grand jury business and copies are still available from Offaly History.

The effective end of the assize system followed on the adoption by the Dáil in 1919 of a programme for superseding British institutions but, between then and 1922, much of the work of the Dáil courts was on the civil side and such courts sat with difficulty due to the opposition of the British military. The last of the assize judges in 1920 and 1921 were the subject of extraordinary precautions taken for their protection. Gone was the great gathering of landowners many of whom owed their wealth and power to the plantation settlements of 300 years earlier. Of the thirty-seven grand jurors summoned only four attended before Judge Wylie in  Offaly’s last assize court in July 1921(see a blog on this in Offalyhistoryblog for July 2021).