April 26, 2020 Genealogy Research 1 Comment

The skeleton of our family history is formed by the dates and names which we find in the major record sources.  Birth, marriage and death dates are the basic details on which every personal database is founded.  They are the important context from which we can derive other information, and also differentiate between the many Murphys or Ryans who are to be found in Irish records.  However, they provide little information on the personalities of our ancestors.

The number of Petty Session courts per county for which records are available

One excellent source which can provide some such insight is the records of the Petty Session courts, which have been made available through the website www.findmypast.ie.  The Petty Sessions were the lowest courts within Ireland’s judicial system up to the early 20th century.  They dealt with the minor cases and were presided over by unpaid Justices of the Peace who were usually local land-owners or dignitaries.  These judges could make summary judgements on cases and there was no jury. The Sessions were convened daily, weekly or monthly, depending on the volume of cases.  The cases heard at the Petty Sessions courts generally included minor law-breaking such as public disorder or drunkenness, poaching and other minor larceny, straying animals, and also complaints by individuals about non-payment of debts, boundary disputes, quality of purchased goods,  and minor assaults.  The above depiction of a Petty Session court is from the Illustrated London News.  The more serious cases were referred to ‘Quarter Sessions’ where a jury would hear the case.  The equivalent Irish courts nowadays would be the District Courts and Circuit Courts- see here for a full account.

For those of us who might like to seek out the (petty) skeletons in our ancestral cupboards,  there is no better place than these records.

Every court had a clerk, whose job it was to record the details that are the basis of this resource. The clerks also collected the fees or fines from those convicted.  The major record compiled by the clerk was the ‘Order Book’. These are effectively the daily schedule for the court and are very detailed. They show the person charged, the offence and its date, the aggrieved party (in cases of civil action) and the sentence.   The name, address and occupation of the defendant and complainant are stated, and names of witnesses where these are involved. They also record the names of police and judges and occasionally other comments.

The records now available are for the 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland.  The number of courts for which records are available in each county are shown in the above Table.    The records for the North of Ireland are in PRONI  and FindMyPast hopes to digitise these in due course.  The records date mainly from 1851 but records from 1827 to 1851 were compiled,  but were not required to be placed in a central archive. Their whereabouts is therefore uncertain.  Some of these are included in the records already on-line from FindMyPast (see paragraph below) and further records will be digitised as they become available.  Brian Donovan of FindMyPast tells me that the very valuable pre-1851 records for Donegal county will be added to their collection later this year.

The original records for the Republic of Ireland are held in the National Archives of Ireland  but not all court records have survived.  There are no records for Dublin City Petty Sessions, for instance, and only for 2 courts in Leitrim.  However there are records for 22  courts in Mayo, 26 in Cork and 35 in Galway.  Most of the currently available on-line records start around 1851 but some are later.  A very few start in 1834 including Castletownbere (Cork); Bray (Co. Wicklow) and Enniscorthy (Co. Wexford);  whereas those for Moate (Co. Westmeath) start in 1828;  and for Cavan town in 1830. The records of almost 8 million individuals are fully digitised and can be searched by name, area and by time period. There is also a ‘keyword’ facility in which addresses or other terms can be added to search criteria.

The examples below show only the core information on the individuals charged.  These are reproduced courtesy of FindMyPast.  Figure 1  refers to  Michael Ryan of Ballylahey in Tipperary who was charged in Clonmel court on 19 November 1851 with ‘leaving his ass and car on the footpath in the town of Templemore‘.  For avoidance of doubt, an ‘ass and car’ in this context is a donkey and cart.  He was fined one penny and also one shilling in costs.

Figure 1: Charge against Michael Ryan of Ballylahey, Tipperary in 1851

The second is a charge against Mary Walsh for running what was known as a shebeen,  i.e. an unlicenced public house.  It reads  “That the defendant did unlawfully keep for sale by retail in the house occupied by her at Knockatunna a quantity of intoxicating liquor, on the 2nd of October 1892 she not being duly licensed to sell same“.   For reasons not stated, she was discharged.

Figure 2: The charge against Mary Walsh for unlawfully selling liquor from her home in Clare in 1892.

The detail of the records varies according to the custom of local court clerks.  A clerk in one court might record that the defendant was involved in an ‘assault’, while another will provide the interesting details of the defendant “going into complainants field … and threatening to knock out complainants brains with a stone..” .

The records are alive with the colour of the times.   Here we find the names and addresses of the drunks, poachers, vagabonds and debtors, and also of the neighbours who were in dispute about boundaries, straying animals and trade matters.  A flavour of the charges:  ….. defendant did allow trespass of 16 sheep in turnips; ….. trespass of defendants cows in complainant’s cabbages; ….. desertion of children; ….. defendant retains items of muslin given to defendant to embroider;  ….. defendant did offer for sale a quantity of butter which was unwholesome and fraudulently prepared ; ….. defendant did assault complainant by throwing a bucket of manure at and upon him; …..  defendant did unlawfully leave complainant’s service, he being the complainant’s duly hired servant.  

Figure 3: My grandfather’s conviction for allowing his pig to wander on the street in Killorglin, Co, Kerry in 1900.

These exemplify the colour which may be added to our ancestry from these records.   By example, my great-grandfather was Morgan Cregan (1850-1912), a stone-mason born in Limerick but resident in Killorglin, Co. Kerry.  I have all the usual records about him.  Birth, marriage, death, obituary, census and even a nice photograph.  However, what colour can be added to his life from the details of his minor brushes with the law?  He appears on several occasions in the records.  In 1889 he is prosecuted for being ‘found on the premises’ of a public house on a Sunday afternoon, it being outside licensing hours.  Conveniently,  the same page of the records also contain the charges against several others charged at the same time.  These, we might reasonably assume, are his local pals.    In 1904 he applies for a dog licence, while most interestingly in 1900 he is prosecuted (see above) for causing a ‘public nuisance in allowing a pig, his property, to wander on the public street’.      Colour comes in all shades!

Written by Jim Ryan
Dr Jim Ryan is a writer and publisher who has been active in Irish genealogy for the past 35 years. His books include: Irish Records- sources of family and local history; Tracing your Dublin Ancestors (Flyleaf Press 2009); Irish Church Records (Flyleaf 2001); Sources for Irish Family History (Flyleaf 2001), and Tracing your Sligo Ancestors (Flyleaf 2012). He writes blogs and articles for Ancestor Network and Irish Roots, and previously for In-Depth Genealogist, and Irish America. He has lectured extensively to genealogy conference and societies.