21 million Irish Petty Sessions Court Registers on Findmypast
There are now over 21 million records dating from 1828 to 1912 covering all parts of Ireland available on Findmypast.
The Courts were historically presided over by two or more unpaid Justices of Peace (JP) often local land owners, a system which led to regular charges of corruption and undue influence by landed interests.
Throughout the 19th Century, in an effort to bring the courts under control and improve the public’s faith in the legal system, the government systematically replaced the JPs with paid magistrates.More than 600 “Magistrate Courts” existed across the island at any one time.
The Petty Sessions Courts dealt handled the bulk of lesser legal cases, both criminal and civil in Ireland. Cases ranged from merchants who had not paid duty on their goods, to workers suing for unpaid wages. Farmers were fined for letting their cattle wander or for allowing their cart to be driven without their name painted on the side. Debts were collected and disputes settled. Public drunkenness was a common offence, as was assault and general rowdiness.
Cases of a more serious nature, which did require a jury, were held at the Quarter Sessions, which, as the name suggests were held four times a year. The most serious cases, those like murder or treason that carried the death penalty, were presided over by at least one legally trained judge at assizes held twice a year in circuit. The jury courts used a system known as a commission of Oyer and Terminer, a Norman French phrase meaning To See and To Judge. There were two juries, a Grand Jury who assessed the strength of the prosecution evidence, and the trial jury, who would hear the case if the Grand Jury had decided the case was strong enough to go forward to trial.
At the lower levels though, justice was summary and swift. The Petty Sessions, which sat daily, weekly or monthly, depending on the volume of cases, often saw controversial judgements. Every court had a clerk, whose job it was to record the details of each case in a register. It is those registers you are looking at in these records. The clerks also collected any fees from those involved in the cases.
The Petty Sessions were formally established with legislation in 1827, although they had been in operation for centuries before that. By 1851, amid growing concerns about the fairness of some of the justices of the peace, the Petty Sessions (Ireland) Act sought to tighten up the rules. JPs were gradually replaced by trained and paid magistrates as the 19th century went on.
Covering both civil and criminal cases, the Petty Sessions’ brief was wide. Cases ranged from merchants who had not paid duty on their goods, to workers suing for unpaid wages. Farmers were fined for letting their cattle wander or for allowing their cart to be driven without their name painted on the side. Debts were collected and disputes settled. Public drunkenness was a common offence, as was assault and general rowdiness. Political feelings were often volatile and there are frequent cases all over the country of people charged with putting up seditious posters or leaflets.
There are very few registers which pre-date 1851 and none for Dublin city, Dun Laoghaire (Kingstown) and some other districts, either because they weren’t covered by the 1851 Act or because the records did not survive. However the latest records added include those for one of the main Dublin courts, Kilmainham, for most years between 1833 and 1854 as well as the year 1887. Findmypast has also added more of the available pre-1851 records. Further records will be added in due course.
Included in the records are the colour images from Newmarket-on-Fergus in County Clare. These records a kindly provided by Dr Patrick Waldron. Dr Waldron’s ancestor, Georgina Frost, made history by becoming the first woman to hold a centrally appointed official role as clerk of both Newmarket-on-Fergus and Sixmilebridge courts.
Georgina Frost was the third generation of the same family to hold this role and won her legal challenge to be able to take up the job, something she would normally have been barred from doing, as a woman.
The Petty Sessions were replaced by the District Courts in Ireland in 1924. The system continues in Northern Ireland where they are usually referred to as Magistrate’s Courts.
A further 1.1 million new articles to Findmypast’s ever-growing Irish Newspaper Collection over the last month. Eight (8) titles in the archive have been supplemented with new articles, bringing the entire collection to 8.8 million searchable articles and 72 different titles. The findmypast.ie Irish newspapers archive covers over 230 years of Irish history (1719-1950), giving you an unrivalled glimpse into the life and times of the Irish People of this period.
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