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[Post Famine Ireland- Social Structure Ireland as it Really Was. Copyright © 2006 by Desmond Keenan. Book available from and]

Chapter Six


Chapter Summary. This chapter deals local government in the towns, cities and counties of Ireland, the duties of the sheriff, the provisions for the poor, the sick, the aged, and those without housing. Public health also came under local authorities. The rest of the chapter describes the system of courts, the police forces, the Royal Irish Constabulary, the Dublin Metropolitan Police, crime including terrorist crime, and the penal system. The hyperlinks immediately below are to the most important headings.

 City and Urban Governments

Poor Law Unions

Dispensary Districts

Sanitary Authorities

County Councils and Urban and Rural District Councils

Old Age Pensions


Ordinary Crime


Gaols and Penology

Agrarian and Political Crime

Royal Courts

County Courts

Other Courts


Local Government

County Governments

            Shiring, or the establishment of counties, was commenced in the 10th century when Edward the Elder of Wessex divided up the old kingdom of Mercia in England into shires under shire reeves (sheriffs) appointed by himself. In the course of the Middle Ages more and more of Ireland was shired, which in practice meant that the local chief submitted to the crown and was appointed sheriff. The first sheriffs were mentioned in Ireland in the 14th century, but with considerable overlapping with the office of seneschal of the local lord.

It is not easy to describe the government of counties. It just emerged over several centuries. The various officers were appointed at different times and for different reasons. The sheriff and the coroner were originally officers to collect different revenues for the king. All county offices seem to have been offices of profit with remuneration derived from fees attached to the duties. (Famously, the turnkey of a gaol had to be paid by a prisoner to let him in and again to let him out.) In Ireland the Grand Jury of the county, representing the gentlemen of the county and sitting in assize with a Commission judge, formed the government of the county to which the officers were responsible, a form that remained in force until 1898 (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland 206-222). The most important officer was the sheriff. There was a county governor who was responsible for the militia. There was a custos rotulorum who was responsible for the safe custody of the official administrative books, and the clerk of the peace who was responsible for writing writs and records, and was in effect the sheriff’s clerk. In the 19th century he was given the job of keeping the records so the office of custos became an honorary one. This happened when Lords Lieutenants of counties were introduced in 1831 following the English pattern. Then the latter became the principal representative of the crown in the counties, joining the sheriff and coroner. The principal job of the coroner had originally been to secure treasure trove (ancient buried treasures often dating from the late Roman period) for the crown. But he became the independent investigator of unexplained deaths, thus acting as a check on the sheriff. Within the county itself there was a county treasurer, the county surveyor (superintendent) in charge of the public roads, which in practice meant little more than filling in the larger holes.

The high constable for the county with his assistant constables was responsible for maintaining public order. They could, for example, remove a broken cart obstructing a bridge or road. These elderly constables were figures of authority rather than young, strong and effective policemen. If they could not quell a disturbance by persuasion they could get a magistrate to read the Riot Act and call on the military. From the 1780s onwards efforts were made by various Irish Secretaries to develop an efficient and well-trained police force able to maintain the peace, by force if necessary, and from which both men and officers retired as they grew old. By 1836, two such forces were established, not under the control of local magistrates. It was found advisable to organise all the police forces except that of Dublin on national lines. Other duties of the constables such as removing nuisances and obstructions from public highways were taken over by the surveyor. Unlike in England where the Chief Constable of the county became to pivotal figure in the new police, in Ireland he ceased to have any function.

These county officers employed lesser officers like bailiffs, gaolers, process servers, turnkeys, clerks, medical officers, cess-collectors, janitors, cleaners, etc. All these minor positions, perhaps several hundred of them, were filled by patronage. In the first half of the 19th century this meant that they were given to Protestants. As noted earlier, there was little supervision over or checks on an official once appointed. It was presumed that every office-holder would maximise his own income. Though gradually various checks were introduced, such as demands from the Government to know the exact specifications of public works.

The central Government too was always imposing extra duties on the counties, like the keeping of at least one county infirmary and one lunatic asylum, while at the same time urging the construction of proper sanitary gaols and court houses. Fever hospitals had to be provided when necessary, and Grand Juries could present for public works in times of famine. (Present, pronounced pre zen´t: request public money.) These duties had to be fitted into the administrative framework of the county. In the 2nd half of the century, gaols were placed under a Central Prisons’ Board, and so removed from the responsibilities of the county. The provision of relief for the destitute and a network of dispensaries were placed under a Poor Law Board. Though the Poor Law Unions were local elected bodies they had no connection with the counties. The same gentlemen however sat on Grand Juries and on Poor Law Boards. (In the 20th century more and more powers were transferred either to central government, but in the 19th century the county was at the centre of government and justice for most people.)

The governing body in the county, the county Grand Jury, was a more or less random selection from among £10 freeholders after 1832, but the qualification was modified by later acts. A jury was a representative selection of freeholders ‘sworn in’ by the sheriff or coroner for a particular purpose. The process of selecting a Grand Jury was the same as for a petty jury. The revision of the general jurors’ lists in 1904 caused 54,036 to be struck off out of 127,058; there were now 72,554 qualified jurors on the corrected list of whom 58,258 were on the rated qualification; 10,559 were £10 freeholders, 3,019 were £20 leaseholders, 698 were managers or directors of public companies, and 20 were harbour commissioners. Of the 17,647 on the special jury list 6,608 were struck off by the Revision Court, 171 were exempted by clerks of the peace, 24 were struck off by judges and 99 were added by the Revision Court; there were now 10,943 special jurors. 43,340 jurymen were summoned in the course of the year (New Irish Jurist 9 Sept 1904).

A panel from which the Grand Jury was drawn was selected by the sheriff who always placed the major ratepayers on the panels for presentment sessions. The size of the Grand Jury could vary from 12 to 23 of whom 12 had to agree. The principal duty of the Grand Jury was to set the county cess or rate. Many of the things for which local taxationhad to be raised were set by statute, but members of the Jury could put forward proposals or ‘presentments’ for particular works to be paid for by the county. These almost invariably meant something that was of particular utility to the one making the presentment, a new road or a new quay on his estate. In the 18th century there were few checks on how the money was spent or if it was spent, but gradually in the course of the 19th century controls were introduced. The Government was not worried for it considered that the county gentlemen were only cheating each other. That grand jurors were not averse to accepting bribes for votes, for example when an application for a licence was being considered, was well known.

In theory they were supposed to be in charge of the county officers, but the few days of the assizes and quarter sessions were filled with other duties, so no great scrutiny was made of the activities of the officers (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland 214-222). They agreed the estimates and assented to the county cess or tax. Besides the general expenses of the county officers the most important services for which the Grand Juries were authorised to raise money were: maintaining militia lists, holding the shire courts, roadsand bridges, lunatic asylums, building and maintaining county courts and offices, county infirmaries or hospitals, reformatory and industrial schools, public works in times of famine, and guarantees for railways. Gaols and prisons and the costs of the police were removed from them in the 19th century. By the county cess under the Grand Jury an equal poundage rate was levied on the county as a whole, but some charges were levied separately on baronies and half-baronies, and even special expenses levied on particular parishes or townlands. The rate was payable twice a year on the nett annual value of the rateable property and was payable by the occupier. An attempt in 1870 to make the landlord pay half proved a failure (Jurist New Irish 20 Mar 1903). Grand Juries were abolished in Southern Ireland in 1948 and in Northern Ireland in 1969, but by then they had been largely stripped of any functions except judicial. (Ireland seems to be the only common law country where a Grand Jury had administrative functions.)

Baronies were divisions of counties, and there were 324 of them in the 32 counties. A Grand Jury for a barony could deal with particular problems or opportunities in that barony. It could set a rate to be paid in that barony, for example authorising public works in times of famine. In the 18th century, when an effort was made to improve the police, they were organised by baronies, the baronial constabulary, ‘ould barnies’. In the following century the police were organised by counties, and then nationally. The baronies remained the basis for censuses and valuations. Curiously, at the end of the 19th century the Tramways and Public Expenses (Ireland) Act (1883) allowed Grand Juries of baronies to guarantee a certain return to investors and the Tralee and Dingle Light Railway was built with that guarantee (Flanagan, Cavan and Leitrim Railway, 7-8, 32-4). The barony was however usually too small and impoverished a unit for most purposes, and was gradually replaced by Poor Law Unions comparable in size but organised around towns to produce revenue.

The sheriff remained the principal officer in the county (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland, 208). It was not the custom however for the central Government to interfere in the counties, or to remove a sheriff except for a criminal offence. The office of sheriff was an arduous one, but the Government did not take kindly to a qualified gentleman refusing to accept the office when appointed (Dublin Irish Jurist 24 March 1905). By the end of the 19th century most of the duties of the sheriff were being carried out by the under-sheriff. The assize judges received three nominations in each county and passed them to the Lord Lieutenant to make the appointments each year. He must reside in the county and have a certain [property] qualification. His first duty was to appoint an under-sheriff, and almost invariably he appointed the man who served his predecessor. He then obtained from the under-sheriff an indemnity against cases like illegal seizure, and there his duties ended. But he remained legally responsible. At the ending of his office he must hand over a list of all prisoners in his custody to his successor, and all writs and processes in his hand not executed by him, and must hand over all books, records, etc. to him. The office lasted for one year only, but it could expire with the death of the monarch. If the sheriff died in office his duties were carried out by the sub-sheriff in exactly the same manner until the vacancy was filled. In 1889 a committee of the House of Lords recommended that a high sheriff should still be appointed annually for the sole purpose of empanelling a Grand Jury and receiving a judge of assize, and that a permanent office of under-sheriff should be established but this was not acted on until 1920. After the Local Government (Ireland) Act (1898) instituting elected county councils sheriffs had no administrative duties apart from the courts and the elections.

The duties of a sub-sheriff after 1898 were:

1) the summoning and empanelling all jurors, civil and criminal,

2) the execution of practically all writs, orders, and attachments of the High Court of Justice,

3) presiding over parliamentary elections,

4) presiding over enquiries for assessing damages,

5) the execution of all county court decrees, and orders, including ejectments,

6) the execution of capital punishments.

The assessment of damages payable by the county under the Grand Jury (Ireland) Act (1836) was made in the sheriff’s court at the quarter sessions, with right of appeal to the assize court. These duties were attached to the office of the high sheriff, but by 1900 were being carried out by the under-sheriff. The latter had no emolument but depended on certain fees derived from the execution of high court judgments. He had no lease of the office and could be replaced at any time. The uncertain and fluctuating income had to be set against the expenses of maintaining a staff of bailiffs at a high rate of wages for these are hard to find nowadays; as far as is known there is no under sheriff in Ireland who depended solely on his income from this source. The reason why so many wanted the change was that the sub-sheriff could not afford to make more than a few efforts to execute judgments in the civil courts in favour of plaintiffs; trade debts were virtually irrecoverable (Warder 22 Nov. 1902).    

These desiderata were enacted in the Sheriffs (Ireland) Act (1920) which provided that under-sheriffs were to be appointed by the Lord Lieutenant and not by the sheriff, and an under-sheriff was to be appointed for every county and county borough. Everyone appointed would hold office at the Lord Lieutenant’s pleasure and would not be affected by the changes in the sheriff. He must in future be either an existing under-sheriff or a barrister or solicitor of at least five years standing, or a person who had acted as an assistant to an under-sheriff for at least five years. The powers and duties of a sheriff of a county or county borough were to be transferred to the under-sheriff, and the sheriff was not liable for any act or default of the sub-sheriff. The sheriff was however to continue to discharge his duties in connection with the reception of and attendance on judges and commissioners at assizes, and commissions of oyer and terminer, and in connection with persons to serve as grand jurors at such assizes and commissions. The salary appointed to be paid under the Grand Jury (Ireland) Act (1836) to be paid to sheriffs was to be paid to under sheriffs (Irish Law Times 2 Oct.; 4 Dec. 1920).[Top]

City and Urban Governments

            The Municipal Corporations (Ireland) Act (1840) brought to an end the system of town government in the hands of a corporation of merchants and traders and established directly elected bodies, though the old names of mayors, aldermen, and councilmen were retained. Their powers to act in future came from this statute and not from their charters. All powers to regulate trade were removed. Daniel O’Connell was determined to wrench control from what he regarded as the Protestant or Orange faction. They were equally determined that the corporations would have virtually no powers when he did succeed. It should be noted that this started a trend in local government elections which was to last for a very long time, namely, that councillors were usually elected for their allegiance to a political party, and not for any capability in administration. Also, being an elected councillor meant that small gifts or bribes came the way of any councillor who had a say in any public appointment. Opportunities could arise to assist a member of the public with an application for a minor post like street-sweeping, or for nominations to public housing, or a place in the county hospital or county home. (The approved method was to put a pound note or a five pound note in a brown envelope and say ‘Here is something for your trouble.’ It became a major grievance among Catholics in Northern Ireland that these little gifts had mostly to be paid to Protestants, but the practice was universal.) Hope was expressed when proportional representation was introduced that a better quality of person than party hacks and place-seekers would seek election, people actually concerned with the quality of the administration. But the major political parties were determined to control local government and its graft as well.

Besides the corporate towns urban areas were constituted under one of the three Acts which regulated local government in towns in Ireland, the Lighting (Policing) of Towns Act (1828, the Municipal Corporations (Ireland) Act (1840), and the Towns Improvement Act (1854 The 1828 Act was entirely repealed by the Local Government (Ireland) Act (1901) and all towns under it were placed under the provisions of the 1854 Act. Towns and townships under local Acts were Blackrock, Dalkey, Enniskillen, Galway, Kingstown, Newry, Pembroke, Rathmines, and Rathgar. (The last three were suburbs of Dublin.) There were town councils of boroughs or county boroughs in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Londonderry, Clonmel, Drogheda, Kilkenny, Sligo, and Wexford. There were 56 towns under the 1854 Act and not under the other Acts (New Irish Jurist 22 Nov 1901). Nevertheless six towns, Wicklow, Dungannon, Omagh, Bandon, Fethard, and Monaghan did not make any changes. Of the 11 boroughs Clonmel, Drogheda, Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford adopted the 1854 Act in whole or in part. Others like Dublin and Belfast got special Acts passed. The 1828 Act allowed the electing of a Board of Police Commissioners instead of those named in the charter to look after certain duties of ‘policing’ like cleaning and lighting the streets, and hiring constables, and to set a rate to cover the charges. The 1854 Act allowed the establishing and electing a Board of Town Commissioners with more extensive powers over municipal affairs. The first thing to be done in either case was to establish the exact limits of the town.

There were three important bodies in Belfast wholly independent of each other, the Corporation, the harbour commissioners, and the water commissioners. The Belfast Corporation was established in 1841 under the Municipal Corporations (Ireland) Act (1840) and possessed 25 special Acts from 1845 to 1902 from which it derives its powers. The Belfast harbour commissioners administer the affairs of the port and harbour of Belfast under 12 Acts from 1847 to 1901; the Belfast water commissioners were incorporated in 1840 and derived their powers from 12 Acts between 1840 and 1899. The Belfast Corporation Acts, known as the ‘Local Acts’ constituted the government of Belfast. In 1888 it was made a city; in 1892 by royal charter the title of Lord Mayor was conferred, and in 1898 it was made an administrative county under the Local Government Act. The principal Act governing the city was the first, of 1845, called An Act for the Improvement of the borough of Belfast; this Act repealed all previous legislation for the government of the city (New Irish Jurist 8 May 1903).

 The Lighting (Policing) of Towns Act (1828 was connected indirectly with the attempt to ‘open’ the parliamentary boroughs to democratic control. Previously, each town was governed by a self-selecting body of burgesses in accordance with it own charter, and their powers as far as local government went, were restricted by the terms of their charters (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland, 226-7). The primary function of the burgesses was to elect a member to Parliament, but they were also allowed to hold a court to deal with disputes, to make necessary regulations, and levy fines if necessary. They were also responsible for cleaning and lighting the streets, paying night watchmen, supplying piped water, looking after the harbour if any, and regulating porters, carmen, and markets, so it is not clear if extra duties and powers were conferred by the 19th century Acts (Saunders’ Newsletter 20 Jan 1803). It would seem that duties earlier assigned variously to parishes, manors and liberties could now be undertaken by the town commissioners. The civil functions of the parishes, manors, and liberties virtually ceased. Newry in fact was both a borough, and a liberty, the latter directly under the Earl of Kilmorey and derived from the jurisdiction of the abbot of Newry. The 1828 Act was passed first with regard to Newry, following the establishment of a Gaslight Company, subsequent to which the borough owner, the Earl of Kilmorey, took steps to see a proper local authority was established. Newry later adopted the 1854 Act (Canavan, Frontier Town, 58, 124-6, 154).

It is worth noting that under the 1828 Act Monaghan town (pop. 5,000)  employed a town clerk, a town sergeant, a bell ringer, a contractor for lamps, a street sweeper, and a keeper of the donkey (M’Kenna, Diocese of Clogher, 91). The sergeant would have been in charge of ‘policing’, i.e. clearing rubbish obstructions and nuisances, the bell ringer was presumably the town crier, and the contractor of lamps would have provided, maintained and lit the oil lamps in the streets. The street sweeper and the man in charge of the donkey presumably came under the sergeant. Newry, a larger town, established a town watch to patrol the streets at night, in addition to the county police. There was no definitive Act before 1898, and various towns and cities got further special Acts passed (Canavan, 158). No permanent workforce was employed before 1898, so those bidding for contracts would normally make a little gift to the relevant commissioners. Private companies to provide clean water, gas, electricity, and public transport could be established. By 1900 there were 108 gas companies in Ireland which corresponds closely with the number of towns. Most towns and cities eventually followed the lead of Joseph Chamberlain, mayor of Birmingham (1873-6) in developing to a greater or lesser extent municipal activities, gas works, water works, sewage works, slum clearance, libraries, art galleries and schools (DNB Chamberlain). As the century advanced, the municipal authorities dealt with water supplies, sewers and sewage purification, public health, fire brigades, public libraries, dogs and rabies, and whatever the Government saw fit to impose on them. Many built imposing town halls. [Top]

Public Health Authorities

Poor Law Unions

The basic unit for public assistance to the destitute was the Poor Law Union (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland, 233-4). The Irish poor law was modelled on the British one, and had as its basis the provision of workhouses where relief would be given to the destitute only within their doors. The Unions (of parishes) were to be of such a size that a reasonable Poor Law rate could be collected from it, and that a destitute person should not have to walk an excessive distance to obtain relief. Often it included a rich part like a town and a poor area of mountain or bogs. An elected Board of Poor Law Guardians was responsible for administering relief within each Union. During the height of the Famine crisis in 1847 a separate Irish Poor Law Board was hived off from the parent board (Keenan Pre-Famine Ireland 233).

Conditions within the workhouse were Spartan to deter applications for assistance from all but the desperate. Otherwise up to a quarter of the population of Ireland would have entered. It was also hoped that by keeping the Poor Rate as low as possible more money would be spent on improving agriculture (Saunders’ Newsletter 17 June 1850). Another deterrent was that the sexes were segregated to prevent destitute parents having any more children. The workhouses were swamped during and just after the Great Famine (1845-50) despite the enormous increase in make-work schemes financed by borrowing from the Treasury. Though intended for the destitute other categories were lodged in the poorhouses, lunatics and idiots, epileptics, orphans and deserted children or foundlings. These latter were usually farmed out to nurses or placed in families, and when old enough placed in domestic service. The poorhouses inevitably got involved in medical care and made provision for education. The National Board of Education gave some assistance but the system was never satisfactory. The Guardians were also made responsible for blind, deaf, and dumb institutes. Boards of Guardians acted as burial authorities and the provision and maintenance of burial grounds came under their remit (County Councils Gazette 9, 16 Mar 1900; Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine 79). In 1851 the Poor Law officials were given the direction of the dispensary districts and their local wardens issued tickets to see dispensary doctors. One great problem with workhouses in Ireland was that they were foisted on a country which had no experience in running them, and they were the first democratically elected bodies in local government in Ireland. It is not surprising that there were allegations of total ineptitude in management, including a failure in basic book-keeping and outright corruption involving contracts with suppliers (Saunders Newsletter 9 Sept 1850). Allegations of corruption never went away.

What came to be called ‘outdoor relief' was introduced in 1847, namely the payment of small sums to old people to enable them to stay in their homes. By 1911 there were as many people being assisted by outdoor relief as there were within the workhouses.

The civil valuation was extended by the Poor Law Valuation to cover all kinds of real property within a union, to spread the burden as wide as possible. The Poor Rate was valued and collected by electoral districts. When the Poor Law was introduced in 1838 the site of the workhouse was first determined on the principles given above, and then the boundaries of the Union were fixed around them ignoring county, barony, and parish boundaries (Saunders’ Newsletter 16 February 1849). Each electoral district was composed of townlands, the townland being the basic indivisible unit. Groups of local electoral districts formed dispensary districts, and groups of dispensary districts formed the Union. Each electoral district was to be responsible for the costs of sending the destitute from their district to the workhouse, which seems to contradict the principle of including rich districts to assist the poorer districts within the Union. Half the rate was to be paid by the landlord, and half by the tenant. The local Poor Law Board was composed of two thirds members, elected by those who had the county or borough franchise and one third chosen from the local justices of the peace; clergymen were excluded. Eventually half the Board was composed of justices of the peace (magistrates). All were unpaid, but they employed staff (Burke, Economic History, 262-3). The whole scheme was supervised by the main Poor Law Board or Commission in Dublin, which had been hived off from its parent body in London in 1947 and in 1872 it was renamed the Local Government Board.

By the Poor Law (Ireland) Act (1838 the workhouse infirmaries and hospitals were provided only for the legitimate inmates; in 1853 it was reported that poor sick people, not destitute, were being admitted so that especially in large towns they were assuming the character of general hospitals. Nevertheless the Commissioners commended the practice, especially in places distant from the county infirmary, and in 1860 they stated that better attention to the sick could be obtained in this way than under the Dispensaries Act. On 5 January 1901 there were 19,690 beds with 14,918 patients in the workhouse infirmaries, and 4,741 beds in fever hospitals with 649 patients. In the infirmaries there were 98 trained nurses, and in the fever hospitals 29. Other nurses numbered 588 and 165; other attendants numbered 272 and 62; pauper inmates employed were 1,496 and 157 (New Irish Jurist 27 Dec. 1901).

In 1861 they noted that salaried nurses were being employed. In 1862 an Act legalised the practice thus formally linking the Poor Law and the medical charities. The qualifications of nurses improved; in the first half of the century no qualification was required to obtain public money under the Dispensaries Acts; in some cases the operator had not even the licence of an apothecary. Until very recently, the standard of training of nurses, especially in Ulster outside Belfast, was little better than that of the old dispensers. It is now realised that nurses should have a formal training; but many Boards of Guardians still resist the introduction of trained nurses, preferring the old pauper inmates (New Irish Jurist 10 Oct 1902). Presumably in Catholic areas the presence of nuns ensured a higher standard of training.

Besides outdoor relief, other kinds of relief were gradually authorised. The Public Relief (Ireland) Act (1898) was passed to supply seed in times of scarcity in districts where there was none; for this purpose the Poor Law Guardians were allowed to borrow money interest free from the Government. They were also allowed to provide spraying machines and materials. By the loans so arranged the Guardians in 74 unions expended the sum of £68,482 on seed and potatoes, and £5,833 on spraying machines (Belfast Weekly News 6 Oct. 1900). Total expenditure on poor relief, medical relief, burial grounds, sanitary measures, superannuation, payments under the Contagious Diseases (Animals) Act, under the National School Teachers Act, and for all other purposes was in 1897 £1,488, 656 and in 1898 £1,597,027. The daily average number in workhouses April 1898 to March 1899 was 42,728 and on outdoor relief was 64,104 making a total of 108,780 or 1 in 41 of the population [2.44.%] (County Councils Gazette 9, 16 Mar 1900). There were 159 Unions in that year.

In 1900 Mrs Haslam reported excellent progress on women as Poor Law Guardians in Ireland; in the first year, 1896, there were only two women Guardians, in 1897 13, in 1898 21, and in 1900 86. Also she noted that the two Dublin Unions had appointed 17 women inspectors, 4 as sanitary sub-officers and 13 as schools attendance officers, while neither Cork nor Belfast had appointed any yet (County Councils Gazette 13 July 1900). In 1903 in Irish workhouse infirmaries 32 nuns were employed as matrons, 48 as schoolmistresses, and 335 as nurses; the salaries paid to them amounted to £13,504. It is now very difficult for other nurses to get these official positions as advertisements now increasingly require that applicants be members of a Roman Catholic religious order (Church of Ireland Gazette 15 May 1903).

In Ireland the practice was not to board out children outside the Union. The Guardians boarded out directly, the children being under the supervision of the relieving officer who was the responsible official. In some cases they were under a ladies committee of the Poor Law Union which the Local Government Board’s Order of 1902 provided should be appointed annually. This committee had full power to visit any house in which a child was boarded out or placed at service, and to report to the Guardians. It was found from experience that after a first visit from the lady inspector the accommodation provided to children improved (Dublin Irish Jurist 5 May 1905). Many children were being kept in workhouses that would be better off boarded out, but this requires a change in the law (Weekly Irish Times 28 March 1914).

A vice-regal commission in 1906 concluded that the Poor Law of 1838 was no longer suitable. At present one third of the inmates are sick, and another third are aged and infirm. Those who are sick are not really destitute but tradesmen and other humble earners who are accommodated in the cities in the voluntary hospitals; but because of the tradition of the poor houses these sick are housed in unplastered and unceiled rooms, with the roughest beds, and are attended by the other inmates as nurses, and are in general treated much worse than the lunatics. Similarly outdoor relief is given to those who are by no means destitute, but is provided as an additional support. ‘The boundary line has in practice been extended from destitution to poverty, with the result that the number of possible recipients is much increased’. The Report added that this was not what had been intended but the system is popular and appears to have taken root.

The professor [Thomas Jones] noted that since the Report was published the state was now providing for the aged poor, and he agreed with the recommendation of the Report that the poor houses should phased out and the various classes segregated into different institutions; he also concurred with the recommendation that a state medical service should be established and funded by money provided by Parliament (General Advertiser 26 Feb. 1910).

 Besides relief of the poor, the Poor Rate was drawn on for expenses connected with Medical Charities and Dispensary Acts, Public Health Acts, Labourers Acts (housing), and other minor services. There was no provision for assisting vagrants of whom there were a large number wandering from Union to Union but never seeking work. The English Act did not apply to Ireland (Warder 5 Sept. 1903). Nevertheless, at least in Dublin, the Union House did have a casual ward for vagrants (Warder 7 April 1906).[Top]

Dispensary Districts

Medical assistance to the poorer classes had always been through the apothecaries’ or pharmacists’ (druggists) shops. Apothecaries, like surgeons and barristers, were trained under the system of pupilage or apprenticeship, and were licensed by the Irish Apothecaries Hall. Grand Juries were allowed to pay for dispensaries and did so, but it was complained that most of the money went towards the dispensers’ salaries. In 1827 in an advertisement to fill a vacant post in Ardee, Co. Louth, diplomas in medicine, surgery, midwifery, and pharmacy were required which may mean that an over-qualified person, at an appropriate salary, was being given the post. In 1851 it was decided to reform the system, and place dispensaries under the Poor Law Unions rather than the county Grand Juries. Expenses for them were transferred to the Poor Rate.

Province          Unions Dispensary Dist.          Electoral Divisions

Ulster               44        216                              875

Munster           50        204                              1023

Leinster           40        207                              945

Connaught       29        93                                596


Total                163      720                              3,439 (Irish Economist 19 June 1855).

            Lord Chief Baron Palles noted that until 1838 poor relief and dispensaries were completely separate, but in that year was passed an Act which regulated Poor Law administration, and this, with the amending Acts, were now the law. The Poor Law Extension (Ireland) Act (1847) authorised outdoor relief, and the same Act empowered the appointment of a medical officer who would work outside the workhouse. Then the Medical Charities Act (1851 extended the Poor Law to purposes that were not strictly envisaged for it. The 1838 Act and the 1847 Act gave powers to the Poor Law Guardians and the Poor Law Board to make appointments; the 1851 Act also gave powers, so that the present Commissioners have the powers granted by all three Acts vested in them. It is clear that the 1851 Act gave powers to appoint officers, not restricted to medical officers (New Irish Jurist 1901-2 Reports 69). The medical officer was appointed by the Poor Law Commissioners (later Local Government Board) but other officers such as midwives locally, but still the Poor Law Commissioners could make any appointments in the dispensary service.

The declaration of dispensary districts was commenced on the 30 December 1851 and completed 27 May 1852. According to the Second Annual Report for the year ending 30 September 1853 the then authorised staff was 776 medical officers, 38 apothecaries, and 10 midwives, and the total number of new cases for that year was 690,411; the number of vaccinations was 43,332, and the number of lunatics certified was 480. For the year ending 31 March 1903 the number of new cases was 592,521 (Dublin Irish Jurist 3 June 1904) though the population had halved.

            The system established for the free treatment of the poor was that a Poor Law warden would issue a ticket called the ‘red ticket’ to those in his own area and the recipient took it to the dispensary. It is clear that in most cases the dispenser was a qualified doctor. He was responsible for compounding his own drugs. (The patient had to bring his own bottle or container.) For more than a century the dispensary doctor was the bedrock for medical treatment of the poor. The dispensary doctor was allowed to have private patients and to make home visits, but the dispensary formed a solid basis to his income.

            Under the Dispensaries Act 1851 the medical officer in each dispensary district was obliged to vaccinate against smallpox, as part of his ordinary duty, all persons who came to him for that purpose; and also to certify dangerous lunatics without fee or reward. This was clearly a public health measure not a poor relief measure, and later Acts secured further remuneration for vaccinations. Under the Public Health Acts 1874 and 1878 the Medical Officers of the various dispensary districts were constituted Medical Officers of Health, with additions to their salaries. The average remuneration for salaries of an MOH in 1853 was £73 8s; now for the combined offices of medical officer and medical officer of health it amounts to £141 11s exclusive of the fees or vaccinations, the examination of lunatics, registrar of births, marriages, and deaths, which office is usually held by the MOH. The total number of medical officers is 810; of these 32 get under £100 and 2 over £200; most get between £110 and £150 (New Irish Jurist 10 June 1904). Obviously, these salaries assumed that most of a doctor’s income would come from private patients, calculating that £100 then was equivalent to £5,000 today.[Top]

Sanitary Authorities

            Public health was another matter which was the concern of the local authorities. In particular they were concerned with outbreaks of fever, and with the need to provide fever hospitals and medical care in times of fever. In local ports they were responsible for the quarantine of ships. As bad air was supposed to cause fevers, the authorities had to remove public nuisances like dead carcasses or stinking rubbish. Food poisoning was a common cause of illness so the local market authorities in the towns had to patrol the food shops carefully.

            From 1870 onwards public opinion was increasingly focussed on public health. A Dublin Sanitary Association was formed in Dublin in 1872 and was vocal in its criticism of the failure of the Corporation to provide proper sewers. Part of the problem was the increasing use in urban areas of water closets or flush toilets. Previously the nightly collection by carts of night soil had been sufficient, but now the excrement was flushed into the River Liffey which accordingly stank. (The problem was even worse in London until 1858 when Disraeli introduced a short Act enabling Joseph Bazalgette’s great system of intercepting sewers to proceed. The London scheme was commenced in 1865 and completed in 1875.) The corresponding plan for Dublin was adopted in 1875 and work commenced 25 years later.

            During Disraeli’s great reforming ministry from 1874 to 1880 the Public Health Act (1878) was passed, consolidating various provisions of earlier Acts. Though much of its content was not new, it established the principle that there should be an authority everywhere in Ireland responsible for public health, and that local authorities must constitute themselves as sanitary authorities. The problem was largely an urban one, but around Dublin various ‘suburbs’ were heavily built up and had all the problems of towns. The dispensary district, not the county or Poor Law Union, was to form the basis of the districts, but large towns and cities could constitute themselves the sanitary district and did so. (Later it was observed in a different connection that rural districts, virtually identical with Poor Law Unions, were too large for effective local control, while electoral districts were too small New Irish Jurist 22 Nov. 1901).The dispensary doctor became the Medical Officer of Health with an additional salary with respect to his sanitary duties. Dublin had two Poor Law Unions, but the Corporation of the city became the sanitary authority. The suburban districts of Clontarf, Drumcondra, Clonliffe, Glasnevin, Grangegorman, and Kilmainham were separate sanitary districts. These sanitary districts survived even after the establishment of urban and rural district councils. Belfast established its Corporation as the sanitary authority and commenced a large sewage scheme.

            Earlier legislation was incorporated so the sanitary laws concerning the supply of pure water, adequate street lighting, regulating public clocks, providing and regulating markets and slaughterhouses were included. Under the Towns Improvements Act (1847) an urban authority might regulate slaughterhouses not owned by them. The Local Authority could condemn all unsound food (County Councils’ Gazette 5, 12, 19, 26 Jan. 1900). Within the districts, all new houses must have water closets, earth closets, or privies; scavenging and rubbish collection was made the duty of the health authority, subject to orders of the Local Government Board; those who kept pig sties and other nuisances might be prosecuted. Provision was made for the regulation of common lodging houses and tenements, and the inspection of such, with different regulations for common lodging houses and tenements; further powers to regulate these were given by the Housing of the Working Classes Act (1890). Dwellings in cellars were prohibited by the Public Health Act (1848) applied to Ireland in 1866, except where they were occupied as dwellings before that date. Rules were set out for the abatement of nuisances. These usually concerned smelly trades of which there were a great number. In this Act and in a whole series of other Acts powers were given to deal with infected premises both houses and factories, the notification of infectious diseases, the provision of hospitals, mortuaries, and burial grounds, and the control of these latter, the contagious diseases of animals with powers over dairies, cowsheds and milkshops, the sale of pure food and drugs, the discharge of sewage and effluent into streams, the provision of bathhouses, and recreation grounds. The big cities opened public baths. Many of these duties and powers were later transferred to the local District Councils, which explains the Gazette’s long exposition of the case in 1900 (County Councils’ Gazette 2 Feb. 1900).

            It was felt that the greatest sanitary need in most of rural Ireland was proper housing for the poorer classes. Provision should be made for siting privies at a distance from the house, and for the collection of rubbish. It was alleged that the Poor Law Guardians as sanitary authorities were not doing enough in this respect (Homestead 29 Dec 1901). One of the provisions of the Public Health Acts was that in towns and cities all houses in all streets must be consecutively numbered.[Top]

County Councils and Urban and Rural District Councils: The 1898 Act

            Following the establishment of county councils in England a similar Act was passed with regard to Ireland. In 1887 the Government in England under the Marquis of Salisbury decided on a comprehensive reform of local government in England and Wales which was then divided between quarterly sessions of magistrates in the counties and the sanitary districts. Charles Ritchie (Lord Ritchie), after a year of preparation, introduced a large Bill into the House of Commons to rationalise the system and place it under the democratic control of elected councils which would be autonomous and subject only to parliamentary control. All the existing legislation concerning county administration and sanitary districts as well as numerous powers of the English Local Government Board were to be transferred to the new councils and the sanitary districts. The complex Act was passed in 1888. One of the great problems was to ensure that the duties and powers conferred by all existing Acts were properly transferred (DNB Ritchie). A similar Act for Scotland was passed the following year, while the Irish Secretary, Arthur Balfour, introduced an Act for Ireland in 1892 but it was withdrawn.

            In 1898 when Arthur Balfour’s brother Gerald was Chief Secretary the Local Government (Ireland) Act (1898) was re-introduced. The New Irish Jurist commented that Irish Chief Secretaries have to suddenly acquire a knowledge of complex issues in Irish law. Mr Gerald Balfour, in piloting the Local Government Bill through the Commons, displayed a complex knowledge of the intricacies of the Irish Grand Jury Acts, the Poor Law Acts, and the Towns Acts which were the despair of industrious lawyers who were working in those subjects all their lives (4 Mar. 1902). These included Acts dealing with Grand Juries, sheriffs and other county officials, Poor Law boards, dispensary districts sanitary districts, and the powers given to towns and boroughs under the Towns Acts and private Acts. By the Act control of the counties was taken away from the Grand Juries and given to elected County Councils. Cities and towns were reorganised as boroughs and urban districts. Counties were organised into urban and rural districts, each with its elected council beside the county council, while cities became counties in themselves, resulting in odd titles like ‘the county of the city of Belfast’. The rural districts were based on the Poor Law Unions. In many parts of Ireland their tax base was so low that rural districts could do very little and they were abolished in the Irish Free State in 1925. They survived in Northern Ireland until 1973 after direct rule from Britain was re-imposed.

            The franchise was the same as the parliamentary franchise, but extended to include women and peers. Women became eligible to be elected as Poor Law guardians, and urban and rural district councillors. They were not eligible to be county councillors or borough councillors, justices of the peace in virtue of their office, nor poor rate collectors. Under the Local Government Act (1900), the chairman of a council of a district of more than 5,000 souls was ex officio a justice of the peace, women and legally disqualified persons excepted (Constabulary Gazette 19 May 1900). In 1911 they became eligible to be county councillors. Lyons comments on the poor quality of Irish county and district councillors: ‘It was not always possible to root out incompetence, corruption or simple self-interest from local government’ (Ireland Since the Famine, 482). While true, this misses the main point, for the object of self-government was to capture the corruption not abolish it. Immediately, the councillors commenced giving all jobs to Catholic nationalists, often inserting conditions like knowledge of the Irish language to exclude Protestants or Unionists.

            The grand and petty juries and the sheriffs were not abolished; they were just deprived of all administrative functions and confined to judicial ones. Sheriffs remained returning officers for elections.

The level of debt of the old town authorities was £7,244,080; owed by-

Town councils                         3,931,822

Town Boards under 1854 Act   438,385

Town Boards under 1829 Act      22,400

Town Boards under special Acts 699,353

Town joint burial boards                7,134

Town Boards of Guardians     2,144,986

             These figures do not include loans for lunatic asylums; most of the cesses were raised on real property and amounted to 88.71% of the total collected; tolls, fees, and dues accounted for 1.61% and other receipts to 9.68%. The new councils have more extensive borrowing powers, so no doubt the debt will increase in future years (County Councils’ Gazette 17 Aug. 1900). Besides getting increased borrowing powers the newly elected councils were given additional powers. One, of the most practical importance, was the right to establish a county committee of agriculture to liaise with the newly established Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction. They also took over powers given under the Technical Instruction Acts and Public Libraries Acts. Technical schools in Ireland date from this period, though grants for technical instruction had been given by earlier bodies. But the new councils were allowed to put technical education on the rates, and specialist technical schools were built, at first in urban centres but afterwards in the counties. The powers of the magistrates regarding the manufacture and use of explosives were transferred to the county councils. The councils themselves used considerable amounts of explosives in their quarries for road stone.

            The total local taxation 1898 for Ireland in the year 1898 reached £4,116,561 and was continually growing. In 1898 the Grand Jury cess amounted to £1,273,655; the poor rate to £1,087,920, town taxes £757,854, to which must be added the Belfast water rate, the Dublin Metropolitan Police rate, and the Dublin Port and Docks Board taxes. For the past 20 years there has been a steady increase in taxes; in 1878 the total was £3,251,422. The sum of £838,276, about half the county cess was spent on roads, footways, bridges, and other public ways; the second largest item was £207,270 for the maintenance of lunatic asylums; the cost of £83,519 for infirmaries and hospitals is not excessive; neither is the sum of £100,398 for county officers (County Councils Gazette 9 Feb. 1900).

            The distinction between owner and occupier was abolished and the occupier made solely responsible for the whole rate. The county cess was abolished and there remained only two charges; the Poor Law rate, and municipal rates; from the latter charges for paving, lighting, sewerage, and municipal administration are allowed and in Ireland these sums are quite small. From the new poor rate all other local charges are defrayed, not merely poor relief, but also all county expenditure, and all rural district expenditure. In other words a separate Grand Jury cess was abolished and the county charges were merged with the poor rate as a single rate. (The technical reasons why the county cess rather than the union one was abolished in the merger are not obvious, for the counties and boroughs actually remained the collectors.)

In the counties the rate was collected by the county councils, who then transferred appropriate amounts to the rural districts and the Poor Law Unions. In urban districts, other than the county boroughs, the urban district council collected the poor rate and handed over to the county council the sums required for the county charges and the Poor Law Union. In county boroughs the borough council collects the poor rate, and hands over to the guardians the necessary sum.

There are two sets of collectors, collectors for rural districts, and collectors for urban districts; the rural collectors are appointed by the county council with the approval and under the terms and conditions of the Local Government Board. To each collector there is assigned a district, there being normally two collectors for each rural district. They must keep offices for collection within their district which they must attend on market days and at other specified times. Many rates are paid by post. Every fortnight the collectors must lodge the amount collected to the credit of the county fund. Urban collectors are appointed by the urban councils and collect all rates within the urban district: the town rates, the sanitary rates, poor rates, etc., and the urban council remits each half year to the county council the amount collected on its behalf. In county boroughs the city itself was the county, but transferred the appropriate dues to the Poor Law Union(s) within its bounds.

The part of the new poor rate required to meet county charges is raised off the whole county, the part to meet union charges off the Union, and the part to meet rural district charges off the rural district. By the 1898 Act, rating by electoral divisions was abolished, all poor rates being levied on the union at large. Municipal rates, in addition to the poor rate, are levied by the county boroughs, other municipal borough councils, urban district councils, and town commissions of towns not urban districts. (The lesser towns were not constituted urban districts under the Act.) In addition to the county cess and the poor rate, municipal rates were levied in 120 Irish towns. The powers of these bodies to raise municipal rates were not substantially altered by the 1898 Act except for the provision for consolidating the poor rate with the other rates. The Report on the subject by the Local Government Board in 1897 showed the extraordinary variety and complexity of the rating arrangements in towns. Rates were raised under several general Acts, and a large number of local Acts. They were all based on the same valuation as the poor rate, for no other valuation existed in Ireland, but they showed great diversity in the rates [in the pound] imposed on different kinds of property. Belfast for example had a Police Rate for constabulary, lighting, fire brigade and repayment of loans, where a half charge is made on hereditaments under £20 value (New Irish Jurist 20 Mar. 1903). It also had a water rate. Rating powers in Belfast were granted under three separate private Acts. (In 1923 and 1925 the Free State Government drastically simplified the system, combining poor law unions, abolishing rural district councils, making the county councils the sanitary districts and organising public health and poor relief on a county basis, Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine, 483-3). .[Top]

Old Age Pensions

            Though this was a national scheme it was devised to transfer the burden of assisting the aged by means of outdoor relief from Poor Law Unions to the Treasury the scheme being thus fiscally neutral. The first plan was put forward by a clergyman from Dundalk called the Rev. William Blackley who proposed a national fund. His plan was rejected by the House of Commons (DNB Blackley). However in the twentieth century the proposal of Charles Booth who had intensively studied the poor in London was adopted. He urged a non-contributory scheme, national in scope, which would not increase taxes but merely to transfer them from the parish to the Treasury. This had the added advantage that it would be uniform over the whole kingdom.

            The major parties agreed on a scheme by which 5 shillings a week would be paid to all over seventy. Ireland was to be included in the scheme. This sum was not intended to be the complete support for the elderly but as a supplement to savings and any work the old could do (Briggs and Jordan, Economic History, 693-4). The Liberal Government passed the Old Age Pension Act (1908 which came into force on 1st Aug 1908, amounting to 5/- a week or £13 a year and applying to the whole the United Kingdom. There were no conditions or disabilities attached to receiving the pension; all who are British subjects for at least 20 years, over 70 years of age, and whose income from any source does not exceed £31 10/- a year or 12/- a week. Those who are in receipt of Poor Law relief or have received it since 1st January 1908 were disqualified until the end of 1910. Medical or surgical assistance, or any relief which does not disqualify for registration as a parliamentary elector, does not involve the disqualification. There were various other disqualifications including those who have failed to support their families, or have been sent to prison without the option of a fine, for 10 years afterwards.

The best evidence of age was a birth certificate, but compulsory registration of births did not come into force in Ireland until 1863. The best available evidence must be given including certificate of baptism, certificate of service in the crown forces, certificate of membership of a friendly society or trade union, or certificate of marriage. It is well known that local registers for marriage are very imperfect; many old people are quite ignorant of their own ages, but it can be established by comparison with others, or by reference to a known event such as the erection of a public building; in some cases middle-aged clergymen will be able to testify that the claimant was old when they were young. With regard to income this can be very difficult to establish especially on small holdings in Ireland; this is especially so if the applicant possesses a cottage in which he resides which is capable of being let, or a patch of land, though not worked, is capable of being let and worked; or savings which could be invested to produce an income (Weekly Irish Times 19 Sept. 1908).

The machinery of the Act included the local Pension Committee, the central pensions authority, and the pension officers. The local committee was to be appointed by every county or county borough, or by the urban district council in towns of over 10,000 inhabitants. The members of this committee may not belong to the appointing council. For proof of age, whether born on or before the night of the big wind 6 January 1839 [70 years to 6 January 1909]. All applications went to the pensions officer, 16 different forms being printed. The first or principal form could be obtained at any Post Office. The first pensions were paid on 1st January 1909, 127,309 claims being accepted in Ireland out of 209,136. The Post Office machinery to pay out the pensions worked smoothly; all the pensioners apparently had to go in person, even those who had not been outside for years; however medical certificates can be obtained giving exemption.

The writer commented on the number of people in the West of Ireland who remembered the night of the Big Wind clearly, and whose non-appearance in the 1841 census is explained by the fact that they were living at the time with an aunt in a different townland, whose name they do not recall. The Inland Revenue Board was supposed to check on claims, but gave up after thousands of claims were submitted, nor could the clergy furnish proof, but said they had no written records. Nobody knows on what grounds the Local Government Board decided on appeals; it has no staff for it own investigations. It was estimated that 108 persons are receiving the pension in Ireland for every 100 entitled. Several inspectors from Somerset House [London] have been sent over to investigate; the census returns have been preserved since 1841. In many parts of England, Wales and Scotland fewer were applying than were entitled, in Ireland much the reverse In 1910 30,000 Irish pensions were disallowed on grounds either of age or means (Weekly Irish Times 3 Oct. 1908, 9, 30 Jan. 1909; 20 Feb. 1909, 26 Mar. 1910).[Top]


            The principle of the intervention of local authorities in the provision of houses was first enshrined in Disraeli’s Artisans’ Dwellings Act (1875) which provided that municipal authorities could acquire and demolish slum areas in towns and cities, to give no compensation above the value established by an arbiter, and to build and let suitable houses. Before that local authorities had powers only to demolish houses in danger of collapse. The Public Health Act (1878 imposed the duty on sanitary authorities to provide suitable housing. The Housing of the Working Classes (Ireland) Act (1896 gave powers to the sanitary authorities to acquire land compulsorily for the erection of dwellings for the working classes; in the same year an Act was passed for simplifying the acquisition of land for labourers’ cottages (Belfast Weekly News 6 Oct. 1900). Various Labourers Acts commencing in 1883 were passed allowing authorities to acquire land and construct labourers’ cottages on them. There were major problems with executing these Acts. One Poor Law Union in Ulster wished to purchase 50 sites in fifty places, none of which were worth more than £10. But all the costs of the legal searches, conveyances, and stamp duty fell on the Union. Of £12 million authorised by law for this purpose loans for only £2.7 million had been authorised (New Irish Jurist 19 February 1904). Another source of objections was from the small tenant farmers who having just bought their farms did not wish to part with any of it. It was also pointed out that there was a hidden subsidy as the rents did not cover the costs. After 1898 the cost of providing the cottages fell on the rural districts many of which were impoverished. There had been 482,000 single-roomed mud-walled cottages in Ireland in 1841; by 1901 this had fallen to about 10,000 (Weekly Irish Times 8 Sept 1906).

Under the Labourers Acts country workers could get cheap suitable housing; but the problem in large cities was the lack of money; this was remedied by the Housing of the Working Classes (Ireland) Act (1908) steered through the House of Commons by Mr Clancy [John Joseph Clancy MP for Dublin, North]. If the local authorities act on it they can provide many suitable dwellings at little cost to the rates; prior to the Act the local authorities could only borrow at the higher rates, and the longer the period of repayment the higher the interest. Also many had reached the limits of their borrowing powers under the Public Health Act of 1878. Despite the hope, Dublin Corporation had to pay £1 per square yard in the Ormond Market area (near Ormond Quay) or £4,840 an acre. Dublin's slums were among the worst in the three kingdoms; a large number of tenements in Dublin were unfit for human habitation. Under the provisions of the ‘Clancy Act’ investment in slum property will not be as profitable as before; under the Act the owner is obliged to keep the properties in habitable condition; it he does not the municipal authority is empowered to demolish the premises (Weekly Irish Times, 13 Feb. 1909; 10 Dec. 1910). One great problem in Dublin was the presence of numerous slum-property landlords and slum publicans on the corporation Weekly Irish Times 13 Dec. 1913; 3 Jan 1914).

After the First World War it was realised that rents for public housing would have to be subsidised and that help from the central government was required. The Cork Weekly News gave a table. It said it was possible to build houses for £500, but a subsidy for rent would be required for these because of the difference between the economic rent and what people could pay.

cost      econ. rent        tenant  subsidy                        [repayment

£500    15/6 per week 4/-       11/6                =£806

£550    17/-                 4/6      12/6                =£884

£600    18/6                5/-       13/6                =£962]

This allows an 8% return on capital with a repayment time of the borrowing over 60 years (Cork Weekly News 3 Jan. 1920). The Chief Secretary in 1919, Ian Macpherson promised to bridge the gap between the rent charged and the proper rent. The post-War Government took the issue seriously, and the Housing Act (1919) envisaged the construction of 350,000 new houses for the working classes, and 65,000 for Ireland. Compulsory purchase was allowed in England, but not in Ireland. The owners of condemned property would receive only the value of the cleared site (Weekly Irish Times 12 April; 17 May 1919).

            Despite efforts by private individuals like the Guinness family slum-clearance did not develop to any great extent in Ireland until after the First World War. One problem with private working class housing was that the rents could only be paid by skilled tradesmen in full-time employment. Between the wars, many houses were built on green field sites for immediate sale at £500, the builder getting his cash immediately. [Top]

Crime and Police

Ordinary Crime

            In Ireland in the prison service there arose a distinction between ‘ordinary decent criminals’ and politically-motivated or terrorist criminals. The first served their sentences with the minimum of disturbance, gained remission of their sentences, and got out as soon as possible. The others considered themselves either ‘victims’ or ‘prisoners-of-war’ and made life as difficult as possible for the prison officers. The motivation for their crimes was quite different, though in practice it was difficult to distinguish between a terrorist organisation and a criminal one or one which was both.

Ireland, politically-motivated terrorist crimes apart, was a comparatively crime-free society particularly in rural areas. The total of all offences committed in 1904 was 128,162; the cities of Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Londonderry, Limerick, and Waterford accounted for 60,315 of that total. In country areas this was a total of around 2,000 offences per county per year or perhaps 1 for every 500 people. Of the 9,617 indictable offences (liable for trial before a jury) committed, 5,841 were in those six cities. The rate for indictable offences was 632.8 per 100,000 of the population in those cities and 106.8 for the rest of the country; with regard to non-indictable offences the rates were 5,901 in the cities and 3,517 per 100,000 elsewhere. Drunkenness was rather higher in the country areas being 1,717 in the cities and 1,864 in the country areas (Dublin Irish Jurist 1 Sept. 1905).

Of the cities, half of all indictable offences were committed in Dublin alone in 1880, though this proportion declined with the growth of Belfast and other cities (Encyclopaedia of Ireland, Crime). The same Article notes that the period from 1920 to 1960 was one with stable and relatively low crime rates. Small numbers of not very proficient property crime offenders were responsible for much of the crime (loc. cit.). The same could be said for the previous 70 years. Prostitution too was a feature of the cities, especially Dublin, but any garrison town or port was liable to have its share. Other crimes were poaching and breaches of the game laws, street begging, Sunday trading, adulteration of milk and butter, and failure to have a dog licence. In some areas illicit distillation of alcohol was carried on. Though denounced alike by politicians and clergy it is doubtful if most people thought either it or poaching and illegal fishing proper crimes. When we consider that being drunk and disorderly on a fair or market day was probably the most common offence, we can regard rural and small town areas as being comparatively crime free. [Top]


            Policing in common law countries presented a particular difficulty because of the ingrained belief in the right of the citizen to his freedom to do whatever he liked, however strange or bizarre it might seem to others, or even how dangerous to the public it might be, unless there was a precedent in common law, or a statute prohibiting it. The largest liberty for example was given to violent sports, or indeed to violent demonstrations against unpopular politicians. The Duke of Wellington, among others, had his windows smashed by a mob. Nor were the police allowed to use more than the minimum force, and could detain arrested persons only for the briefest periods unless the detention was authorised by a magistrate. Even those charged with grave offences were allowed their liberty on bail until the date of their trial arrived.

Ireland had two police forces almost entirely composed of Irishmen. One was the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), probably the oldest common law police force in the world, an unarmed force. The opportunity was taken in 1836 to re-organise and re-train the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Proper county police forces to replace the ineffective baronial constabulary were established in 1822 but re-organised and re-trained on a national basis in 1836 as the Irish Constabulary; after 1867 the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Against British tradition, for reasons given below, they were armed with muskets. These were progressively upgraded to Snider rifles and then Martini-Henry single shot rifles, but the men got little practice in shooting (Constabulary Gazette 16 June 1900).

These two police forces dealt with all crime, ordinary, agrarian and political, and only rarely had they to seek military assistance. Troops were sent to Belfast in 1907 to assist the police in their duties against the trade union leader James Larkin’s supporters’ violent actions, followed by serious sectarian rioting on the Falls Road. The RIC was organised on military lines with separate entries and careers for officers and other ranks. This was a major source of grievance for the ordinary policemen who could normally only advance to the rank of head constable (corresponding to sergeant major in the army). Sons of gentlemen entered as officer cadets and became officers. The Irish Constabulary Act (1836) provided for 1 inspector general, 2 deputy inspectors, 4 provincial inspectors, 35 sub-inspectors, 217 chief constables, 260 head constables, 1,350 constables, and about 8,000 sub-constables (Belfast Weekly News 2 May 1901). In times of crisis the numbers could be increased. The worst period of terrorism in modern Irish history was during the so-called ‘Land War’ between 1879 and 1889 when their numbers were raised to 14,000. There were 35 sub-inspectors for 32 counties, and 217 chief constables for 324 baronies.

            The officer cadets were selected by competitive examination and the cadets were then given their uniforms made up by a military tailor, and their swords. They were instructed in marching and parading by drill instructors, and riding at a riding school. They were instructed in the arts of writing reports, doing accounts, and paying bills. Instruction ended at 3 p.m. after which the day was their own. For recreation, one of them recalled, they had a billiard table but no balls so they had contests of jumping over the table. They sang around the piano, but there was no card-playing. A lot of time and money was spent on drinking. For the first six weeks the cadet's family had to support him. The duties of a young orderly officer were to inspect every day the food for the men, to attend to any complaints, to see that sentries were posted, and that all lights were out at 10 p.m., to see to the forage of the horses and to visit all the sick in Steeven's Hospital; they all dreaded the visit to the fever ward (Weekly Irish Times 1 Feb. 1902).

Since 1847 practically the whole cost of policing was defrayed by the Treasury; the pay of the various ranks was regulated by several Acts, that of 1883 being now in force [1902]. As appears from the 1902 estimates the cost is now £1,376,447 of which £20,785 was recoverable from local rates, sale of old stores etc. The total cost of policing in Belfast was £89,877 of which £20,000 was contributed from the rates in Belfast; Dublin paid £62,000 towards the costs of its police. Londonderry was the other city which had to pay a police precept or charge. The Chief Secretary, George Wyndham, in 1903, noted that the £1.4 million spent on the police was largely spent on dealing with agrarian crime.

Total strength of the RIC in 1902 was 11,201 or 3,119 less than in 1883, of whom 2,562 were above the rank of constable. They were lodged in around 1,400 police stations or barracks around the country. The old military name barrack persisted in Ireland but they were just large rented houses. In 1916 the number was 9,101. The strength of the DMP was about 1,200. Both forces had a mounted branch, especially useful during trade disputes, and a detective branch. Detective officers from Dublin were sent to London to form the London Metropolitan Police’s Irish Special Branch, now simply the Special Branch. The RIC was widely respected in country areas and there was no shortage of people willing to supply them with information. Their information on American-backed subversive movements was detailed. Later, when the terrorist organisations started targeting the police they also targeted their informants or informers as they were called in Ireland. It was with a view of choking off this supply of information, that the Gaelic Athletic Association, a sporting body which was also a front for terrorists, prohibited the playing of any games against teams from the police and army.

 There was no shortage of recruits, 10% of whom were sons of policemen, which showed the respect and esteem in which the force was held. A constable's pay has been nearly trebled since 1866, and a sergeant’s pay nearly doubled. The duties of the constabulary in Ireland in the disturbed districts are not more taxing or severe than those of the English constabulary; trade strikes on a large scale and other labour disturbances produced in England much the same condition of affairs as the agrarian and sectarian disputes in Ireland. Sectarian excitement is confined to one Province, while agrarian crime had decreased; political agitation keeps the police on the alert, but on the other hand there was practically no professional criminal class. The English police, unlike the Irish, patrol singly by day and night, except in the rarest circumstances; nor is the job more dangerous, as is evinced by the fact that in the past 10 years only 7 men retired because of injuries received in the course of their duties (Weekly Irish Times 24 May 1902). The ordinary policemen were not particularly well paid, and if they were not promoted they tended to leave the service, and almost always tried to get compensation for some injury or illness supposedly resulting from their duties in the force. One constant duty, especially in the West of Ireland, was affording some police protection to families being intimidated by the Land League or United Irish League, but this could amount to more than sending out police patrols on bicycles in their direction (Weekly Irish Times 15 Mar. 1902). One of their chief duties, especially in Co. Donegal was searching for illicit distillation. As soon as they left the barracks the direction they were taking was signalled, so consequently they left the barracks in the opposite direction and worked their way round (Weekly Irish Times 31 May, 7 June 1902).

When reading the Irish Constabulary Gazette, one can see how much sport was part of the policemen’s lives, especially cycle racing. The police did much to develop athletics in Ireland. The advertisements in the Constabulary Gazette were for Rover bicycles, bicycle tyres and saddles, boots, boot polish, boot repair kits, whiskey and tobacco, melodeons, furniture removals, and watches (6 Jan. 1900).

            The forces were almost exclusively composed of Irishmen, and in 1913 79% of them were Catholics. Like almost all their fellow Catholics they were nationalist in politics, and the newspaper most likely to be found in police barracks was the nationalist Freeman’s Journal. From time to time there were complaints that Catholics did not get a fair share of promotions, but others said that this was because lacked influence in higher places. A few times there threats of police strikes, chiefly because of poor pay, but also because the ordinary constables felt that the officers rarely responded to their complaints. After the First World War, when the men in the London Metropolitan Police tried to organise a police strike some members of the RIC tried to do likewise but the Government appointed a new Inspector General, Sir Joseph Byrne, to deal with the men’s complaints, and in general they were satisfied, though they were still not able to join or form a trade union.

The first women police were appointed in Dublin in 1917. This followed on the success of the women's patrols which aimed at keeping young girls out of danger; they succeeded in convincing the Dublin Metropolitan Police who have now appointed two women police officers with a similar remit to patrol the streets of central Dublin. They will also try to deal with the persistent street beggars in Dublin, who are a public nuisance. They will not arrest offenders but call the attention of the nearest police officer to them (Weekly Irish Times 20 Oct. 1917).

The police were the front line in the fight against terrorism, but their efforts were hampered by political interference, and also by the incompetence of the long-lasting Chief Secretary, Arthur Birrell. Against the fiercer attack of the Land League the police had the total support of the magistrates, the courts, the Irish Government and Parliament, and were successful. But after 1910, when Asquith and Lloyd George agreed to hand over Ireland to the Home Rule Party, no coherent policy to deal with violent trade unionism led by James Larkin or revolutionary terrorism led by the American-backed IRB was followed. Predictably, in 1916, failure to allow the police to take action against those procuring arms led to an excessive military reaction. There seems little doubt that if it had been left to the police to deal with plotted putsch the RIC could have mopped up the would-be revolutionaries with little loss of life or destruction of property. It would have been sufficient to surround the buildings which the IRB had seized with barbed wire and marksmen. The police had the full support of the local people. Instead the army made martyrs.

Matters got worse after 1918 when Sinn Fein displaced the Home Rule Party and the agrarian terrorists/IRA resumed their terrorist campaign. The RIC had no doubt about their ability to deal with the local terrorists, but they were told to defend the police barracks, which were rented property. This made them sitting targets. The terrorists principally targeted the policemen who were mostly Catholic Irishmen in Catholic districts, but also intimidated their families, and murdered anyone who had contacts with the police. The pages of the Constabulary Gazette were filled with scathing comments about the misdirection of the police, and still more by the attempt to bring in Englishmen, as often as not misfits from the demobilised army. No attention was paid at first to screening these English volunteers, who introduced the idea of local reprisals. When Lloyd George and his Government realised the mischief they had carried out they were swiftly and systematically removed. But the harm had already been done, and republican propagandists never let anyone forget it.

A letter was written to the Gazette advocating the use of wireless by the police, as the telegrams could no longer be relied on in some parts. The first thing to do before attacking a police barracks was to cut the phone wires. It said that the old rule that a constable could not marry until he had served for seven years in the force should be abolished; at present the men share a common dormitory, with straw mattresses over iron grates with the windows sand-bagged. The police are not concerned with the reasons for the unrest; but it is their duty to prevent the attacks; at the moment it is clear to all that the offenders are having the best of the encounters. The police barrack is a barrack, a pallet of straw, a bare and cheerless day room, no armchairs, no privacy in the dormitory; not to mention the occasional bomb; remove the pinpricks; let them marry, give them wireless sets, make the barracks comfortable, let them find recruits, let them find ways of defeating the enemy.

The writer went on to criticise the system of forcing the police to 'mind' police barracks in remote districts; the whole time of the police is now taken up with minding the barracks; it would be better to shut the barracks and send out the men, armed, and in plain clothes on cycle patrols. The police love detective work more than anything else. To quell lawlessness the first thing to do is to abandon the uniform, and 90% of the red tape; there is not the slightest point in marching men to divine service in uniform. If the police are taught to shoot straight, and be rewarded for their success there is no need for an extra 1,000 police; the present men are sufficient. Police duty is utterly different from army duty; it is not like marching in battalions, but more like a cat catching a mouse; if he is a good cat he will catch the mouse, but not if he has a bell tied round his neck (Constabulary Gazette 17, 31 Jan. 7 Feb 1920).

The Royal Irish Constabulary was blamed by the IRA for causing trouble and was disbanded by the new Free State Government who had to find jobs for their supporters and so formed the Civic Guard. The Dublin Metropolitan Police survived as a separate body until 1925 when it was absorbed into the Irish Civic Guard. 425 policemen were murdered and 725 wounded, and the remainder incurred the bitterest animosity of their countrymen (Constabulary Gazette 24 Dec. 1921). [Top]

Gaols and Penology

            As was general in common law countries there was a wide variety of places in which suspects could be held for trial. Grand Juries and Corporations were responsible for them. In 1800 there were 41 city and county gaols, and 112 local bridewells or local gaols (jails) where petty offenders and debtors could be held temporarily. Most of these buildings were ancient, ramshackle, and unhealthy. Imprisonment in itself was normally not a punishment, but individuals, especially writers of seditious pamphlets could be sentenced to terms of detention. The loss of freedom was the sole punishment, and the person detained could hire rooms and furniture, and have his food sent into him. Following the campaigns of John Howard in England for penal reform, the Irish Government in the 1780s established penitentiaries where those whose sentences to transportation were commuted could serve out their sentences, and also a Prison Inspectorate. After the Union in 1800 a general inspection of Irish gaols was made, and the construction of proper healthy gaols on modern lines commenced. In 1826 all gaols except the county gaols were abolished, and the bridewells where the New Police still had the right to hold those arrested in cells in the police offices until brought before a police magistrate, a police officer given the usual powers of magistrates (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland 247-53; Encyclopaedia of Ireland, Prisons). Mountjoy, Dublin’s new model prison was completed in 1850.       For capital offences, and there were many of these, the usual punishment was hanging by the neck. A thick hemp rope was tied round the condemned man’s neck with a large knot at the back. He stood on a trapdoor with a considerable drop below so that his neck was broken by the fall. Death was not by strangulation but quick and painless. Executions were in public until 1868, either on a scaffold outside the prison, or at any place the judge might order, and thereafter within the walls of a prison. For lesser offences, periods of transportation to the colonies could be ordered where the convicts could be forced to work. After the loss of the American colonies, Australia was the normal place for penal colonies. This sentence was for capital crimes if there were mitigating circumstances. After 1848 the Irish leaders of the attempted rebellion were transported to Tasmania where they gave their parole and were allowed to live wherever they liked. The Treason Felony Act (1848) was passed to remove the automatic sentence of death for treason. The ending of transportation in 1856 meant that Irish revolutionaries had to serve their sentences in penitentiaries, prisons where a sentence of imprisonment with hard labour could be served. Hard labour consisted of breaking stones, or working a treadmill.

            In the first half of the 19th century the Irish prison authorities followed the trends in Britain and America in trying to use prisons as penitentiaries, places to reform the prisoners especially through labour. Silence was imposed, and face to face contact between prisoners was prevented. These had to listen to sermons and read the Bible. The Irish Director of Prisons, Sir William Crofton devised a system of rehabilitation in four stages to rehabilitate prisoners which was more influential in the United States than in Ireland (Encyc. of Ireland, Prisons; Encyc. Britt., prison).  They were taught a trade and then released early under police supervision as ‘ticket-of leave’ men. When Sir Richard Cross was Home Secretary in Disraeli’s ministry from 1874 to 1880 the management of prisons in the three kingdoms was transferred from the local authorities to the central government, and the costs likewise transferred to the Treasury, but with the local magistrates retaining visitatorial powers (DNB Cross). To deal with this a General Prisons Board of Ireland was established, but the Grand Juries retained the right to hear complaints and investigate abuses. A policy of reducing the number of prisons was commenced. In 1878 there were 4 convict prisons or penitentiaries, 38 local prisons, and 95 bridewells. In 1910 there was 1 convict prison, 1 joint convict and local prison, 15 local prisons, and 6 bridewells; to this list must be added the Borstal Institution at Clonmel (1909) and the state Inebriate Reformatory in Ennis (1899). The total number in Irish prisons in 1909 was 31,469 or a daily average of 2,305; the number of convicts sentenced in 1909 was 118, and the daily average number in convict prisons was 243; the numbers sentenced for drunkenness remained unchanged at 41% (Weekly Irish Times 6 August 1910).

            The Report of the General Prisons Board of Ireland 1899-1900 noted the reduction in the number of bridewells; the number has decreased from 95 in 1878 to 14 in 1899. Bridewells are unsuitable for any but the shortest detention periods, and with improved communications [railways] prisoners can be sent elsewhere. Committal to larger prisons is also felt to have a greater deterrent effect, for example for defaulters on paying fines. Education is not neglected in the prisons and many prisoners learn to read and write; steps are being taken to get a larger supply of secular and instructive books in prison libraries. The numbers being committed are well down on twenty years ago. With regard to juveniles they are given physical drill and are educated. 19 male and 4 female juveniles were sent to Mountjoy were they were strictly segregated from the older prisoners. Mechanical work is now reduced to a minimum, and every effort is made to provide work which requires thought and care. Several prisons have acquired large gardens where the prisoners can work; baths and dressing rooms have been provided in Mountjoy using prison labour. The treadmill is now everywhere abolished as a form of hard labour in our prisons, though oakum-picking is still kept. The treadmill, highly favoured earlier in the century, was abolished because it was regarded as injurious to health, and ineffective as a punishment; the large rooms and spaces are now used as workshops (Belfast Weekly News 18 Aug. 1900, New Irish Jurist 19 Sept. 1902). Work commenced by the General Prisons Board on Maryborough [mara burra] gaol to be made the largest convict establishment in this country; work has been in progress for two years and cost £30,000 (Warder 31 August 1901).

            A lot of effort was put into finding suitable punishments or corrections for juveniles. The first step was to try to segregate them from the older prisoners. In 1854 a Reformatory Schools Act was passed in England and the Reformatories (Ireland) Act (1858 was passed four years later. This Act allowed voluntary institutions and religious bodies to establish such schools providing full residential care with literary and industrial training for juvenile offenders. The buildings and equipment were to be provided by the institution while running costs would be met by the Treasury and Local Authorities. Both the Catholic Church and the Protestant Churches rushed to provide these. Reformatories are often confused with industrial schools. Though the latter were managed and run on similar lines the idea behind them was rather preventative, to take children in danger and teach them a suitable trade before they offended, but the distinction tended to be blurred. Industrial schools run by convents usually taught needlework and embroidery, while the National Board tried to provide literary instruction (Barnes, Irish Industrial Schools 29, 39-40). There followed a series of Acts trying to improve the system: a Summary Jurisdiction over Children (Ireland) Act (1884), the Probation of First Offenders Act (1887), the Reformatory Schools Act (1893), the Youthful Offenders Act (1901), the introduction of the borstal system into Ireland in 1906, and finally, the wide-ranging consolidating Children’s Act (1908. Barnes notes that this last Act was called the children’s charter (Barnes, Irish Industrial Schools, 86). Clonmel gaol in Co. Tipperary was designated Ireland’s borstal. Male prisoners between 16 and 21 were sent to Clonmel prison in 1909 where the 'borstal' system was in operation. Four had already been in industrial schools, and one in a reformatory; their parents were generally described as being of drunken habit. In the borstal system, which was introduced to Ireland in May 1906 the juveniles are employed in carpentry, gardening, laundry-work etc. (Weekly Irish Times 7 Aug. 1909). Borstals were reformatories run on lines developed in a reformatory at Borstal in England which was regarded as particularly successful.

            In 1910, when the ever-active Winston Churchill became Home Secretary he looked into the state of the prisons. He authorised the introduction of books and entertainments into prison. Like others he was concerned with the treatment of juvenile offenders, did not think a prison sentence was effective against drunkenness, and he relaxed the prison conditions like compulsory bathing and hair cutting for the suffragettes (Weekly Irish Times 30 July 1910). He wished to review the ticket-of-leave system which made it hard for ex-convicts to get work, and he promoted the Association for the Assistance of Discharged Prisoners (DNB, A. Paterson).[Top]

Agrarian and Political Crime

Terrorism was first identified in Ireland in the 1760s and initially was confined to the countryside and concerned with purely local issues like rents, tithes, evictions, or taking the farm of a tenant whose tenancy was not renewed. There was no national organisation, but an outbreak of terrorism in a parish soon spread over wide areas on the copycat principle, and then often quickly died down. From 1795 onwards local parish groups of agrarian terrorists associated themselves with political struggles and this continued down until 1921. As an individual could be a member of a local parish group could also be a member of a wider political group like the IRA it was often impossible to determine the motive for a particular atrocity. Except in Ulster in 1798 no political movement ever succeeded in putting a credible army into the field, so such movements came to depend on the methods of the terrorists.           

Agrarian crime was very distinctive, and its characteristics did not change from its origin in the 1760s until 1921. Only the professed reasons for the acts of terrorism changed. Up until 1840 local issues, like tithes, or rents, or the letting of farms, predominated. Towards the end it was allegedly the overthrow ‘British misrule’ in Ireland. From 1795 the two issues, the political and the agrarian, intertwined. Even in 1921 was it not possible to say in a given instance if an agrarian or a political motive predominated. (Searching studies of this matter were not for understandable reasons undertaken.) The perpetrators did not feel that they were committing either sins or crimes; they regarded themselves executing local justice. Otherwise honest, hard-working, family men could be involved in acts of terrorism. As a writer, William Carleton, wrote at the time, ‘In Ireland you will find these crimes perpetrated by men who are good fathers, good husbands, good sons, and good neighbours, by men who would share their last morsel or their last shilling with a fellow creature in distress- who would generously lose their lives for a man who had obliged them’ (Carleton, Irish Peasantry, 484).

            Most of the acts of terror or intimidation were directed against neighbours, small holder against small holder, fisherman against fisherman, trade unionist against non-trade unionist. It was soon obvious when a local conspiracy was being hatched. Catholic priests noticed that men were not coming to the sacraments. There was a spate of housebreaking at night to seize arms, namely sporting guns; notices were placed outside chapel gates stating the aims of the anonymous conspirators. These could be signed by names like ‘Captain Rock’. Everyone was warned not to oppose the conspirators or to take any steps against them. The gravest warnings were issued against ‘informers’ namely those who reported crimes to the police, or who assisted them. Those who did oppose them had their hayricks burned, their cattle houghed (hocked), and they themselves could be beaten, tortured, or even killed (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland, 236-8). Quite often, those who were warned got a piece of paper with a drawing of a coffin on it, or a letter containing a bullet. If that did not persuade them, shots would be fired into their houses in their absence. Then their thatch would be fired, and finally they would be shot. With robbery for arms from houses so prevalent, Protestant landowners became reluctant to employ Catholics.

            There normally was no co-ordinating body. Units formed in individual parishes and swore themselves into a group. The techniques were well known and understood, and when a conspiracy was formed in a particular parish it was liable to spread to the parishes in the neighbouring counties. When the Lord Lieutenant had to proclaim counties under special legislation against terrorist organisations, groups of contiguous counties were usually named. In the 1790s, the 1840s, the 1860s, the 1880s, and the second decade of the 20th century when revolutionary plotters tried to establish widespread armies under a central control the agrarian terrorists rushed to join them. But it would seem in most cases, and even to the present day, their first loyalty was to their local group. Some political leaders like Robert Emmet, William Smith O’Brien, and Patrick Pearse, full of romantic dreams about Ireland, seemed to have been unaware of the kind of person they were recruiting. But others recognised that for real fighting they would have to rely on the local ‘hard men’. Even in 1921 it was impossible to say if a local group was acting as part of the national ‘Irish Republican Army’ or was acting as part of a local agrarian group bent on getting land or for some other local issue. (Not every Irishman who joined the IRA, any more than every German who joined the SS, was intentionally a criminal. But in each case they were bound to obey orders.)

            The agrarian terrorist groups were normally recruited from Catholic working-class Irishmen, cottiers or farm labourers, and similar groups like trade unionists. For such men resort to violence was the first resort not the last. The political leaders were often middle-class Catholics with some Protestants, though the great majority of Irish middle and upper classes abhorred the use of violence and preferred parliamentary politics, even if not necessarily honest politics. It was one thing to cheat a person out of his vote, another to murder him. The Catholic priests normally followed the parliamentary route. However with the spread of racist fascism like a plague in Europe in the early 20th century some Irish priests endorsed the strategy of violence and gave absolution to those participating in the ‘armed struggle’.

            The agrarian terrorist groups had usually been called Whiteboys in the 18th century but Ribbonmen in the 19th, one from wearing white shirts, the other white ribbons. The similarity with the Ku Klux Klan is obvious. (Whether any Irish Ribbonmen were involved in forming the Klan is an intriguing point.) Ribbon societies continued their separate existence until 1880 after which their activities were merged with those of the Land League and were rarely thereafter mentioned separately. They persisted longest in the southern counties of Ulster where the Ribbonmen were also the heirs of the Defenders, a similar grouping who opposed the Protestant Orangemen.

            With the foundation of the Land League in 1879 there commenced the greatest, most widespread, and most prolonged period of terrorism in Irish history. (See earlier section on Leases and Tenancies.) It was largely financed by American money, though a pretence was kept up that the Land League had no connection with organised crimes which it attributed to the activities of rogue individuals. Nobody was deceived. The configuration of agrarian crime made it difficult to make charges against the leaders of the Land League of inspiring terrorism stand up in court. The individual acts were carried out by local bands who kept their mouths shut. But Charles Stuart Parnell, one of the principal leaders of the Land League, had no doubt about the purpose to which the money he collected in America was to be put.

            The struggle against the Land League fell principally on the shoulders of the Royal Irish Constabulary. The local magistrates and the courts refused to allow themselves to be intimidated. The Lord Chief Justice, Michael Morris, was an Irish Catholic. As early as 1881 Cardinal MacCabe denounced the cruelty and injustice of the Land League, and the same activities were condemned by Pope Leo XIII in 1888. Leo said that a tenant could nor unilaterally diminish an agreed rent, especially as there were tribunals established to deal with cases of grievance; nor was it allowable to extort rents from tenants and deposit them in the hands of unknown persons to the detriment of the landlord; for 'it is contrary to justice and charity to persecute by a social interdict those who are satisfied to pay the rents they agreed to, or those who, in exercise of their right, take vacant farms' (Warder 12 July 1902). The Catholic bishop of Elphin made it clear that the same condemnation applied to the activities of the United Irish League.

The Report of the Times Commission in 1890 said that the defendants were cleared of any direct conspiracy to establish an independent Ireland, but they did enter into a conspiracy to promote agrarian agitation by means of a system of coercion and intimidation against the payments of agricultural rents for the purpose of impoverishing and expelling from the country the Irish landlords who were styled the "English Garrison"; they did disseminate the Irish World and other newspapers tending to incite to sedition and the commission of other crimes. That though they did not incite to any other crime except intimidation, they did incite to intimidation, and the consequence of that incitement was that crimes were committed by the people they incited. That some of the defendants, notably Mr Davitt did express bona fide disapproval of crime, but none of them denounced the system of intimidation which led to the crime, but persisted in it with knowledge of its effect. The defendants did defend persons charged with agrarian crime and supported their families, but it had not been proved that they subscribed to testimonials to notorious criminals, or that they made payments to procure the escape of criminals from justice. They did however make payments to persons who had been injured in the commission of crime; it was also proved that they accepted money from known advocates of crime and the use of dynamite. The Times (14 Feb. 1890) verdict on the Report was that there was an organisation "based on terrorism, operating through outrage, and so deeply implicated with criminality that it was not within the power, even if it were the desire, of the nominal leaders to place any effectual check upon crime (Bucke, History of The Times, Vol.III; Davitt can scarcely be cleared of the charge of hypocrisy).

            In 1898 William O’Brien an extreme nationalist leader formed the United Irish League whose aim was to break up the great grass farms or ‘ranches’ into smaller holdings by methods similar to those of the Land League. The United Irish League also became the front behind which parliamentarians rallied after the Parnell split, and in doing so tainted themselves with terrorism.

Regarding the activities of the United Irish League Lord Clonbrock said that Parnell found that there were few interested in his views until the bait of settling the land was added. Now the bait is dividing up the grasslands; the owners of these grasslands are to be invited to surrender them next May irrespective of their wishes. The League cannot possibly carry out its proposals without Government money; they hope that the powers of the Congested Districts Board can be extended. The Government should not be ‘hoodwinked by hypocritical professions of legality and fair dealing while gross intimidation is being covertly practised’. ‘They should show further that not only would they not countenance the artificial depreciation of grassland with a view to purchase, but that they are determined that these who engaged in such practices should reap no benefit from them’ (Porter’s Own Gazette 1900; Robert Edward Dillon, 5th Baron Clonbrock, owned 28,246 acres in Co. Galway). Though William O’Brien himself was satisfied with the Land Act (1903 as forming a reasonable solution though no compulsory powers of purchase were given in it, others were not, and disputes over land continued until 1921, and after.

The purchaser of an estate in Sligo which had been boycotted found that the workers would not work for him because they said they feared they would be murdered. The police told him that the 'Executive' at Ballymote had decreed that he was to be boycotted even to death if necessary; they also tried to force any workmen remaining to leave his employment even if they have no other work to go to (Weekly Irish Times 29 June 1901). The word boycotting was derived from Captain Charles Boycott, an estate manager in Ireland, with whom workers and tradesmen stopped dealing after he refused to reduce rents. It was of course pretended that those boycotting were not themselves intimidated into so acting, but they would in turn be boycotted if they did not comply. Mr Justice Andrews speaking on boycotting said there were 47 branches of the United Irish League in Sligo, and a number of them were active in passing resolutions against persons who held evicted or grazing lands. There were 26 evicted farms in the county of which 11 were derelict, and there were 11 families requiring and receiving police protection, and three requiring constant police patrols. He found that blacksmiths and those who supplied goods refused to supply boycotted persons; there were in all 8 families numbering 57 persons who were boycotted. The Grand Jury concurred and said that a reign of terror and intimidation was being applied in the county by the United Irish League. Judge Kenny at the Roscommon assizes also commented on the system of intimidation and terrorism; it was directed at those who held evicted or grazing lands, and who were willing to pay full rents; the Grand Jury also concurred and agreed that the exceptional powers given to the Executive Government under the Criminal Law and Procedure (Ireland) Act (1887) or Crimes Act would have to be used (Weekly Irish Times 15 Mar 1902).

In 1907 the Marquis of Londonderry in the House of Lords spoke on the anti-grazing campaign which consisted in driving off cattle so that the owners will be forced to sell the land at a reduced price and the taxpayer will provide the money; this was in fact robbery with violence. Lord Clonbrock pointed out that the intimidation was aimed not only at the larger farmers but also against those smaller farmers who held the land for 11 months. Notices to surrender their lands were sent to them even if they had held them for years. A man who refused to join the League had his cattle daubed with paint so that he was unable to sell them. It became an unpardonable offence to hold any property coveted by others; one magistrate could get no one to shear his sheep; and when he sent them elsewhere to be shorn the shearers were assaulted, and his sheep scattered (Weekly Irish Times 25 May 1907). The fact was that in any parish any group could set itself up as a body to redistribute property to their own supporters and get those supporters to back them in a campaign of intimidation to force the owners or tenants to part with their lands. The United Irish League had of course no money to pay compensation to those deprived of their land. It was as the Catholic Church explicitly recognised pure attempted theft.

In 1908 various Catholic bishops denounced the terrorism, and the bishop of Elphin pointed out a fatal flaw in the theory of redistribution; with regard to those who legitimately hold more than one farm, it is not lawful to establish a principle that he must give up one of them; if such a principle were established there is no knowing where it would end; the owner of two business houses could be forced to give up one, or the owner of two cows forced to give up one; communism, which is an extreme form of socialism, would result. If a present holder of two leases is prepared to give up one, for adequate compensation, that is all right, if not, any compulsion to force them to give into the clamours of the multitude is essentially immoral, and cannot be free from sin. If boycotting and cattle driving are to be condemned even in the case of untenanted lands [not leased out], it is much more so in the case of compelling lawful leaseholders to give up their lands. The bishop of Clonfert (Most Rev Dr. O’Dea) devoted his pastoral to the reserved sins recently adopted by the Connaught bishops; these included solemn perjury, wilful murder, drunkenness against a total abstinence pledge, distributing intoxicating drink at a wake or funeral, intentional house burning, serious damage to person or property at night as a result of a combination between two or more with the object of hindering the person damaged from exercising his lawful rights, and bribery. “There have been instances, I am ashamed to state, in which men and even women have been fired at by cowards from behind a hedge. Houses have been fired into at night. Occasionally there have been threats of murder, or incitements to it, with allusions of approval, more or less veiled, to deeds of blood now happily past....and though your sole object in firing be to frighten, nevertheless by firing you are guilty beyond doubt, of a mortal sin, and of a mortal sin too of exceptional malice. And why? If you fire at another, or into his house, your action implies a clear threat of murder, or of grave personal violence, which God has forbidden under pain of mortal sin, and because also to fire at a man, or into his house, is a grievous violation of the right to security, peace and freedom possessed by every man, and is utterly destructive of the peace and liberty of the community" (Weekly Irish Times 7 Mach 1908).

In 1920 cattle-driving was still rife. It was observed that the cattle-driving in the West was more widespread and better-organised than at first suspected. They aim to take over all grazing land; holders of even small parcels of grazing lands were obliged to sign papers saying that they would sell them as soon as they were compensated. Those aimed at especially were shopkeepers who had also small holdings. It was announced that in future such holdings by shopkeepers would not be allowed. Agricultural labourers are everywhere joining in this drive as they too want land, and they have been strongly organised by their trade union, the Land and Labour League, and by the General Workers Union. Many of them have considerable sums of money which they have earned in recent years by taking con-acre and rearing pigs and small cattle (Weekly Irish Times 20 April 1920). The following month it reported the new land hunger in the West, with wholesale cattle driving and intimidation. It gave a litany of outrages, lands stripped of their stocks, fences broken, gates smashed, walls demolished, pillars in pieces, graves dug, farmers threatened, houses of women fired at. In one district 1,100 acres were 'surrendered' by the owners. An owner is invited to surrender his land, and an arbitration court is appointed to fix the price; these proceedings take place under the 'Shawe-Taylor Act', called after a farmer who was shot for refusing to surrender his farm (8 May 1920).

The Church of Ireland Gazette pointed out that farmers were voting for Sinn Fein hoping for protection from the farm labourers, yet Sinn Fein’s military branch, the IRA was largely composed of these same farm labourers. It would seem that most of the farm labourers supported Sinn Fein for exactly the opposite reason, Sinn Fein having held out the expectation that the ‘Land Question’ would finally be resolved in favour of the workers (Church of Ireland Gazette 7, 21 May 1920).

The political terrorist campaign was little different from the agrarian one. The attempt by the IRA at a swift military putsch was defeated within a week in 1916. There was nothing left to do but adopt the tactics of the agrarian terrorists. In places where land was not a major issue, the IRA terrorist campaign was directed against the police and their families, and also against those co-operating with the police or giving them information. Much has been written about the small numbers financed by Michael Collins with American money, but in most of Ireland the local parish units had to steal their own guns and ammunition, finance their activities by robbing the local post offices, and direct their activities against the local police. (The Government always replaced stolen pension money, so the pensioners had only to wait a few days to get their pensions.) It was a singularly ineffective campaign which as one of the leaders of the IRA admitted, the IRA did not succeed in driving ‘the British’ out of more than a few police stations. Nevertheless the IRA won because they had eliminated all opposition on their own side, and the British Government had already ten years previously promised an independent parliament to Ireland.

Not all in the Labour Movement came from the tradition of agrarian terrorism. There were some unions who pursued their aims without the slightest hint of violence. But the two labour leaders who are best remembered and venerated, James Larkin and James Connolly used intimidation and violence ruthlessly. James Connolly drilled a body called the Irish Citizen Army, anticipating Hitler’s SS by more than a decade. As mentioned above, Larkin’s General Worker’s Union was fully behind the violence and intimidation of the farm labourers in the West.[Top]

The Courts

Royal Courts

            There were traditionally four royal courts in Ireland which could hear cases from anywhere in Ireland. These were not established on any rational principle, but were set up to meet particular needs at different times. They were the Court of Chancery, the Court of King’s (Queen’s) Bench, the Court of Common Pleas, and the Court of Exchequer commonly called the Four Courts (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland 304-9). The oldest of the courts was that of the King’s Bench, the judge of which, the Lord Chief Justice, was the senior judge in Ireland. He was regarded as representing the king and judging in disputes, especially between great lords, in which the king was regarded as being an interested party. It had a criminal and civil side. By issuing a writ Coram nobis or of certiorari, this court could transfer the proceedings in any court in Ireland to itself. The Court of Common Pleas had only a civil side, and was presided over by the Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas. It originally dealt with disputes between individuals in which the crown had no interest. Chancery, or the Lord Chancellor’s Court, dealt with cases where common law did not apply and cases were decided by principles of equity ex aequo et bono, what is equitable and good. (It was called a prerogative court because it was established by the royal prerogative.) The Court of Exchequer was also an equity court, and dealt principally in financial matters, with common law, equity, and financial sides, but was originally administrative. The exchequer dealt with collecting the royal revenues, but was given judicial functions in matters dealing with money. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was a judge in this court, but it was presided over by the Chief Baron of the Exchequer, assisted by other barons. (Barons in this sense were not noblemen but Exchequer judges.) The Lord Chancellor was assisted by Masters in Chancery (until 1867) and by the Master of the Rolls. The Chancery had administrative functions as well, and these were dealt with by the Hanaper Office. The two Chief Justices were assisted by puisne judges. Over the centuries the lawyers in the various courts, by means of legal fictions, extended the scope of their courts. Some cases like that of high treason were invariably tried before the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. Apart from that it was largely a matter of legal tactics in deciding in which court a case should be brought, while observing the rules that no case could be brought in Chancery for which a common law remedy existed, that Common Pleas had no criminal side, and that cases in the Court of Exchequer should have some link however tenuous with taxes. For example, a refusal to pay tithes in a parish could be brought before this court rather than the assize or magistrates’ courts. Appeals on points of law were heard by the Court of Error. There was no appeal against the verdict of a jury, until at the very end of this period a Court of Criminal Appeal was finally established.

            In 1881 a special Land Court was established to deal with disputes with regard to land. The only legal language for all courts was English though interpreters could be provided in Gaelic-speaking districts. Magistrates were not allowed to use Gaelic even in Gaelic-speaking districts.

Commission Courts 

Commission courts were those established by commissions of the Lord Chancellor. These were usually circuit courts where the judges of the royal courts in Dublin went sent twice a year on circuits to the assize towns in each county. After 1877 judges from the Queen’s (King’s) Bench division of the High Court were sent. Grand Juries had to be summoned by the sheriff, and petty juries by the sheriff’s officer, who summoned both to quarter sessions. The Grand Jury consisted of from 12 to 23 gentlemen; the indictment being read they reviewed the evidence set by the committing magistrates and decided by a majority if there was a true bill. Neither the prosecution nor the defendant were represented before them. The verdict of the common jury or trial jury of twelve men must be unanimous; if they were not unanimous a new jury was selected, and the trial repeated; if they were unanimous the verdict can only be set aside by the Court of Criminal Appeal (Constabulary Gazette 9 July 1921). In 1919 women were allowed to serve on juries.

A jury can only be challenged if there is an issue to be decided; juries for enquiry, like coroners juries cannot be challenged, nor juries summoned merely to assess damages. There were two kinds of challenges, challenge to the array and challenge to the polls. The challenge to the array is because of some defect on the part of the sheriff in drawing up a panel; challenge to the polls [persons] is more common and more practical; the challenge must be made before the juror is sworn. If for example it was found after he was sworn that a juryman was a close relative of the accused there is no remedy; but the judge can always discharge the entire jury, and the other eleven would be re-called. The challenge to the polls is divided into two kinds, the peremptory and for cause. The peremptory challenge could be on general grounds, not specified, such as membership of the Orange Order where a Catholic was being tried. Challenge for cause, for example, if the juryman was related to the accused or was a member of the same branch of the Freemasons (New Irish Jurist 20 Aug. 1921). In the trial of Arthur O’Connor in 1798 at Maidstone, Kent, the crown challenged 25 jurors, and the defence exhausted their entire allowance of 35 challenges; in 1820 at the trial of Thistlwood there were 25 challenges on each side; challenges by the crown have nowadays almost ceased (New Irish Jurist 39 Jan. 1903). Consequently, charges of jury-packing could no longer be sustained. Still the problem identified in the 1840s persisted, that if one man in twelve shared the political beliefs of the accused it would be very difficult to get a unanimous verdict.

The counties were divided into six circuits, and the assizes were held in the assize town of the county. These had formerly been the most important town in the county, but were often much decayed. The commissions were of Oyer and Terminer, or general gaol delivery (criminal charges), and Nisi prius (civil cases. The first dealt with all criminal charges especially those involving capital punishment, and was intended to clear out all the county gaols twice a year. Cases were dealt with briskly, and all the cases were heard within a week. At times, usually in connection with murders committed during agrarian disturbances, Special Commissions were given to hear these cases, either in Dublin, or in the county involved at times when the county assizes were not being held. Judges had some administrative duties to perform on their circuits, namely to ascertain from the Grand Jury the names of the gentlemen being proposed to be sheriff for the coming year. They had to address the Grand Jury on points the Government wished to call to their attention, like the building of gaols or lunatic asylums, and approve the presentments of the Grand Jury before a rate could be struck. These were purely formal acts and took little time, and, with the exception of the appointment of sheriffs, ceased when the county councils were established in 1898. In some counties there was usually a heavy calendar of crimes, largely associated with agrarian crime, while in others criminal trials were rare.

There were many civil actions at the assizes and work for ejectments whether by action or civil bill comprised much of the business at assizes (New Irish Jurist 6 Mar. 1903; ejectment: an action for the recovery of possession of real property and damages and costs). In Ireland the circuit court is the court of the poor litigant, for it hears appeals from the county court quarter sessions in common law, equity and probate cases, and this privilege of a speedy and cheap appeal is commonly resorted to. In many counties civil bill appeals constitute the vast bulk of the business. Several other classes of action are also heard at the Irish assizes; appeals regarding the compensation for compulsory purchase, appeals with regard to compensation for malicious damage, applications for powers to make compulsory purchases of lands for roads and such like. Altogether in Ireland the assize court, far from being, as is often alleged regarding the English assize courts, a survival of antiquity which has outlived its usefulness, it is the most used and most useful court in the country, especially by the poorer litigant (New Irish Jurist 24 June 1904). The appeals were of course from the assistant barrister/county court judge to a judge from the royal courts, but heard locally.

Abolition of Four Courts

            The Supreme Court of Judicature (Ireland) Act (1877) followed a similar Act in England in 1873 and rationalised the system of the courts. The Court of Queen’s Bench, the Court of Common Pleas, the Court of Exchequer, and the Court of Chancery, along with minor courts like the Probate Court and Matrimonial Causes and Matters (both ecclesiastical courts), the Court of Admiralty and the Land Court were technically abolished and were replaced by a Supreme Court of Judicature divided into a High Court and a Court of Appeal. The suppressed courts, with all their judges and personnel became divisions of the High Court. The Chancery division had the courts of the Lord Chancellor, the Vice-Chancellor, the Master of the Rolls, and the Land Court, all equity courts. The Queen’s Bench division had a Crown (criminal) Side and a Civil Side, a Bankruptcy division, an Admiralty division, a Land Commission Court, and a Probate division. By the Supreme Court of Judicature (Ireland) Act (1897) the Exchequer Court was merged with the Queen’ Bench division of the High Court, becoming Court no. 2 Queen’s Bench division. Its functions were divided among the other courts, no new barons being appointed but existing ones keeping their title as long as they were members of the court. Common law and equity cases were heard indiscriminately in the Queen’s Bench division. The Exchequer Court under Christopher Palles had just reached its peak, and was much frequented by junior barristers anxious to improve in their profession. The last Chief Baron, Palles, continued to sit until his retirement in 1916. The Court of Common Pleas became the civil side of the Queen’s Bench division. Divorce and the probate of wills became civil, not ecclesiastical matters (Legal Diary 1900, DNB, Palles). (The Church of Ireland had been disestablished.) It should be noted that the Land Commission Court was in both the Chancery and Queen’s Bench divisions, the hearings in the Queen’s Bench division being heard by commissioners, while those in the Chancery division were heard by the Land Court judge. Between 1896 and 1921, the Land Court judge was Sir John Ross, who in 1921 was appointed the last Lord Chancellor. The House of Lords never overturned any verdicts of his in the Land Court (DNB, Ross). The Appeal Court was presided over Lords Justices in Appeal, the chief of whom was the Lord Chief Justice. Appeals could be made from there to the House of Lords. When a Court of Criminal Appeal was established in England in 1907 a similar measure for Ireland was blocked by Irish MPs, as was another Act which allowed the accused to give evidence on his own behalf (Irish Law Times 12 Feb. 1921). It should be noted that the changes in the court system begun in 1887 were only the beginning of a process, and minor changes were introduced from time to time. With the setting up of two Governments in 1921 more drastic changes were made.

Ecclesiastical and Admiralty Courts

            These courts were peculiar because Roman Law, not Common Law or equity, applied in them. A degree in Roman civil law as well as canon law from a university was required to practise in these courts. The Consistorial Court was the court of a bishop, and the Prerogative Court was the court of an archbishop, the latter term implying discretion with regard to dubious law. It was established at the Reformation when appeals to Rome were forbidden. The highest court of appeal was the Court of Delegates. In the King's Inn in Henrietta Street, Dublin were held the Consistorial Court and the Prerogative Court presided over by a judge appointed by the Lord Primate (Warder 7 Sept. 1901). Up until 1857 they dealt with ecclesiastical matters and also with divorces and probate of wills. In that year their jurisdiction in these matters was transferred to the Probate Court. So even before the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland its jurisdiction in lay matters ceased. After 1870 the Church of Ireland reorganised its system of courts, as it had now to deal only with its own affairs.

            As the Admiralty Court dealt with matter of the sea, by custom between the various seafaring nations a form of Roman civil law was used in it. This too was a prerogative court and appeals were made to the Court of Delegates. Most of those practising in these courts were laymen who were Doctors of Law (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland, 309-10).

            As noted above, the Probate Court, the Matrimonial Matters Court and the Admiralty Court by the Supreme Court of Judicature (Ireland) Act (1877) were transferred to the new High Court.[Top]

County Courts

            Every county had a quarterly court presided over by the sheriff, but they were eclipsed by the assize courts held twice a year. In the other two quarters, the sessions were called quarter sessions. These tried cases of indictable offences, namely those requiring a jury. The grand and petty juries had to be summoned to all four sessions, but capital offences were not tried at the quarter sessions. The sheriff was replaced by a qualified lawyer called an assistant barrister. These were originally appointed to assist the sheriff and Grand Jury, and then were increased in status to county chairman, and finally by the County Courts (Ireland) Act (1877) made county court judges, and were no longer allowed to practise as barristers. The administration of the Land Act (1870) was given to the assistant barristers, later called county court judges (DNB Hemphill). When the government of the counties was removed from the Grand Juries in 1898 the county court judge became responsible for compensation chargeable on the county for malicious and criminal injuries. Indictable offences were referred from magistrates courts to the county courts, and indeed it was normal procedure where an accused person had to be held in lawful custody to bring him at the earliest opportunity before the magistrates where he was ‘remanded in custody’ to appear at the county court or other court. In those cities or towns which had separate quarter sessions they were presided over by a judge called a recorder, because records of their proceedings had to be kept, as in the county courts.

The office of coroner throughout history ran parallel to that of the sheriff, and acted as a check on the sheriff. The coroner had to pronounce on all suspicious deaths, even on those lawfully executed (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland, 213). He also was charged with investigating treasure trove (finds of hidden treasure), to discover if an owner or heir could be found, and if not to claim the money for the crown. Originally, in England most finds dated from the Roman period, and resulted in a steady supply of gold for the crown. The coroner could summon a jury of 13 men, and accept a majority verdict. The coroner’s jury was inquisitional [an inquest] as to fact not judicial. Even if the jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against a named individual, the judicial process had to be commenced from the start by bringing the accused before the magistrates.

Martial Courts

            Though at times these were referred to as courts martial, this latter term properly refers to the internal discipline of the army. Military courts were courts of military officers to try civilians, even in capital cases, and to ensure that no prisoner was summarily executed without a reasonable trial before senior military officers. The cases envisaged were those of high treason where the accused was captured with his weapons in his hands, and about whose conduct there could be no reasonable doubt. They were also used in very disturbed areas where the intimidation or murder of witnesses was highly likely. In Ireland the military courts, even in areas where martial law had been proclaimed, did not supplant the ordinary courts, but supplemented them. (In the general panic after Easter 1916 when the senior civil officers including the Lord Lieutenant were forced to resign, a court martial duly found those using arms against the crown guilty of high treason and sentenced them to be shot. It was several days before anyone in London issued a stay of execution, though the president of the court martial would have had no objection to a stay of execution pending an appeal to the king for clemency: see Fingall, Seventy Years Young, 376.) However, in 1921, the GOC forbade the county courts to hear claims for damages against the military. In the same year the Master of the Rolls issued a writ of Habeas Corpus to the military authorities to release to his court two men sentenced to death in a military court. With reluctance the general complied. Nevertheless, a spokesman for the Government made it clear that a civil court could not over-rule a martial court in an area under martial law. The Irish High Court, King's Bench division, held that a court-martial is an inferior court under the control of the King's Bench Division, and the Court of King’s Bench can exercise its controlling authority by means of writs of certiorari, Habeas Corpus, or prohibition; however, if the military court is acting intra vires, it does not lose its jurisdiction because of any error in the interpretation of the law or the admission of illegal evidence. It is clear that when martial law exists this court [King’s Bench] has no jurisdiction, while the war continues, to question any acts by the military authorities, but when the war has ended the individual members may be made liable civilly and criminally for any acts which they are proved to have done in excess of what was reasonably required by the necessities of the case unless these acts have in the meantime been covered by an Act of Indemnity. The Irish Parliament passed an Act in 1799 which made it clear that martial courts could act side by side with the civil courts (Irish Homestead 23 April 1921; New Irish Jurist 30 July 1921, 6, 20 Aug. Reports pp 60, 98, 107, 197). In the event, by the treaty (1921) the Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of the Irish Free State provided mutual indemnity, and all claims against the other side were dropped. The Irish Free State immediately established its own military courts composed of IRA officers.

The Restoration of Order (Ireland) Act (1920) was introduced because of the collapse of the Assize Courts in July when the jurors in many parts of Ireland refused to attend; the chief provision of the Act was the establishment of military tribunals to try all cases where the civil courts cannot act. They were not courts martial in the ordinary sense, for legal representatives of the crown attended to see that all the ordinary legal formalities were observed; the decisions too were subject to the usual course of appeal and revision (Witness 13 Aug. 1920). Civil barristers were admitted to martial courts to help with the defence by pointing out the insufficiency of the evidence. These were appointed by the Lord Lieutenant in capital cases.[Top]

Other Courts

            The lowest rank of the courts, the courts of first instance, or courts of summary jurisdiction, were the magistrates’ courts (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland, 314-5). These dealt without juries with non-indictable petty crimes of all kinds. Magistrates were mostly unpaid and untrained apart from studying books. Some however were paid lawyers appointed to improve the knowledge of the law in a county. These were called stipendiary magistrates, and often in Ireland resident magistrates RM. Magistrates or justices of the peace (JP) were appointed by the Lord Chancellor, and were responsible to him. In the twentieth century some men were appointed magistrates in virtue of their office and while they held that office. Under the Local Government (Ireland) Act (1900), the chairman of a council of a district of more than 5,000 souls was ex officio a justice of the peace, women and legally disqualified persons excepted. They might sit at quarter sessions for the county, but otherwise act only within their own districts. In the case of urban districts of less than 5,000, the chairman of the town councillors or commissioners were likewise JPs as if they had been appointed by the Lord Chancellor under the Towns Improvement (Ireland) Act (1854). Justices appointed under that Act have jurisdiction only within the town boundary and for the purposes of the Act. Ex-officio magistrates took the usual oaths, and were subject to the same rules as the other JPs, and might be dismissed by the Lord Chancellor (Constabulary Gazette 19 May 1900). Mayors of chartered cities and towns were magistrates and could not be dismissed from the magistracy while they held office. In 1919, following the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act (1919) women were appointed to the magistracy.

In certain large cities and boroughs stipendiary magistrates were appointed by the crown and paid by the local authority. In keeping with the general raising of standards in local courts, by 1920 they must have been barristers of seven years standing. The magistrates must appoint as their magistrates' clerk a barrister of at least 14 years standing, a solicitor of the Supreme Court of Judicature, or a person with at least 7 years experience as a clerk or 14 as deputy clerk; in a summary court he is the most important individual for he must have a wide knowledge of the law in order to instruct the magistrates on the points of the law involved. In all police cases the court prosecutor was the chief police officer of the district and the actual officer in charge of the case was a witness solely (Constabulary Gazette 9 July 1921).

Though each magistrate could hold his own court, two or three magistrates usually sat together in what were called petty sessions as opposed to the quarter sessions of the whole county. In the course of the nineteenth century, petty sessions courts were built, and the petty sessions were held on regular days. Some magistrates’ courts were called police courts, and were in or near police stations. They were presided over by stipendiary magistrates and dealt with cases brought by the police. There were 608 petty sessions districts in Ireland. A parliamentary return on the numbers of justices of the peace for Ireland has been made; there were 1,272 in total of whom 807 were Episcopalians, 157 Presbyterians, 38 Methodists, 9 Society of Friends, 3 Unitarians, 251 Roman Catholics, six to other denominations, and one unknown (New Irish Jurist 14 Nov. 1902). By 1912 the number of Catholics being appointed had risen. Since 30 November 1912 a total of 290 appointments were made, including 45 Episcopalians, 25 Presbyterians, 7 Methodists, 1 Unitarian, 207 Roman Catholics and 5 others. There were 7 landed proprietors, 8 land agents, 102 farmers, 1 barrister, 1 solicitor, 13 from the armed forces including militia, 1 from the constabulary, 13 civil servants, 13 of the medical profession, 97 merchants or manufacturers, 21 of other professions or occupations, and 12 unknown (Weekly Northern Whig 14 Nov. 1914).

            There was a civil side to the petty sessions. In the civil business in the petty courts there were 105,289 summonses issued in the course of the year of which 43,846 were against cottiers or weekly tenants under particular Acts. The Landlord and Tenant Amendment (Ireland) Act (1860 allowed a landlord to proceed against cottiers with under half an acre and under £5 rent in the petty sessions court for waste, non-payment of rent and over-holding (OED delaying or neglecting); 1,288 summonses were issued under this Act. Under the 14/15h Victoria (1851), there were 42,557 summonses for eviction of weekly tenants in towns (New Irish Jurist 16 Sept 1904). In Irish law it was necessary to get an eviction notice from a court to regain possession even from an absconding tenant. These were numerous in the famine period. The 1851 Act allowed a cheaper process for tiny usually abandoned properties the tenants of which had either emigrated or gone into the workhouse. In the towns the property rented was often a single room.

            Magistrates also issued warrants for the arrest of individuals, though in cases of disturbance, danger to others, or flight, a police constable could make an arrest on the spot. With the development of the police the practice of laying information before the magistrates in the first instance declined. They could still be called on to read the Riot Act declaring an assembly unlawful, that further participation was an indictable felony, and that force could be used to disperse it. They had also the duty of licensing the sale of alcohol, and one Irish bishop expressed his belief that bribery was involved in these cases (New Irish Jurist 28 Feb. 1902). Every man had the right to bear arms, and after the Arms Act (1881) was allowed to lapse in 1906 it was lawful for every man to possess a weapon in his home. To carry it he needed a 10 shilling licence. To drill with arms, the permission of two magistrates was required. This permission was readily given in Ulster in 1912 when the Ulster Volunteer Force was established (Weekly Irish Times 13 Jan. 1912).

            Apart from the magistrates’ courts almost all the other traditional local courts disappeared. However there were eight local courts of conscience in Clonmel, Drogheda, 2 in Dublin, (the Lord Mayor’s and the Dublin Courts), Kilkenny, Limerick, Londonderry, and Wexford (New Irish Jurist 17 June 1904). These dealt largely with the recovery of small debts usually not exceeding £2 (about £100 today) especially by tradesmen. Manor courts and liberty courts which were much the same thing virtually came to an end in 1828 when the Exchequer Court ruled that the boundaries of their jurisdictions were imperfectly known (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland, 312-3). The seneschal of the manor of Newry in 1847 and 1848 lost cases regarding jurisdiction before the Court of the Queen’s Bench, and the authority of the manor court was undermined. Finally in 1859 by the Probate Court Act (1859) all irregular courts in Ireland were abolished, and the last vestige of exempt jurisdiction in Newry which had been granted to the Cistercian abbot of Newry in the 12th century ended (Canavan, Frontier Town, 153).

Personnel of the Courts

The attorneys who appeared in the crown and commission courts were called barristers. They normally practised in Dublin, but each had to belong to a ‘bar’ appertaining to a circuit, and they accompanied the judge when he set out on his circuit. The training of these barristers was very sketchy. They were entered as apprentices to existing barristers in the King’s Inn in Dublin and the Inns of Court in London where the only actual obligation was to eat a certain number of dinners. The amount of instruction they received could vary immensely. They learned the law by attending courts, and if they did not know the law (and the judge did not know either) they put in a plea to traverse in prox (imo), i.e. to have the case put off until the next session, giving them an opportunity to study the law on the point in the meantime (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland, 310-11, 315-18). Daniel O’Connell, a very successful Nisi prius lawyer with a retentive memory, had a scant knowledge of the law beyond what he learned while practising in the courts. The Crown Prosecutor could be relied on to expound the law on any unusual point. The Commentaries on the Laws of England, by Sir William Blackstone, could always be consulted, even by the judge, but they were not as widely used in the United Kingdom in the 19th century as they were in the United States, where the 4 volumes of Blackstone could form the entire legal library of an attorney.

After practising in the courts for some years and having attained some eminence the crown retained some of them to assist the prosecution in cases where the crown had an interest. These were then called Queen’s (King’s) Counsel, and were allowed to wear silk gowns in court, and had precedence over other barristers. In other words, cases in which they were involved were called first (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland, 315-18). Eminent QCs could be promoted to 3rd, 2nd, and 1st Serjeants at Law. They took precedence over QCs and unlike them did not have to seek permission to appear in court against the crown. Before 1846 Serjeants at Law had the exclusive privilege of practising in the Court of Common Pleas. There were several grades; the first chief serjeant was created in 1321; the plain serjeant of later years occupied an intermediate position between barristers and Queen's Counsel. The Court of Common Pleas was thrown open to the whole bar in 1846, and the rank was abolished in 1875 (Irish Law Times 4 Aug 1900). Promotion to the rank of 1st Serjeant or Prime Serjeant was the first step on the way to a judgeship, and they could be given commissions of assize.

There was only one Inn of Court in Ireland, called the King’s Inns. The ruling body of the Inn called the bench or benchers, called students to the bar, after they had been registered for five years in an English Inn of Court, and had eaten the requisite number of dinners. There was no training in the King’s Inns, but only in the Inns of Court in London (Kenny, King’s Inns, passim). Barristers worked from the Law Library in the King’s Inns, and so had to apply to be members of the library. Being called to the bar only meant that a barrister could plead in the higher courts. But it did not mean that he would get any work. Work only came when solicitors gave him ‘briefs’, namely summaries of cases they were involved with which were coming before a higher court. Frequently people like newspaper editors or those seeking to become MPs qualified for the bar though they had no intention of pleading.

Solicitors or attorneys originally belong to the King’s Inns, but later were excluded. They practised in the lower courts, and assisted in various transactions like drawing up wills in legal form, and the conveyance of property. They took the initial statement of a case for presentation to a barrister for pleading in the higher courts. They received their training by apprenticeship to a practising solicitor. In 1841 the Law Society to regulate the affairs of solicitors came into being as a professional body and in 1852 the Society obtained a Charter of Incorporation and the body hitherto known as the Committee became the Council (Irish Law Times 15 Oct. 1921). The crown also employed several solicitors to help prepare its work. In 1920 the first woman was appointed a clerk of petty sessions.

The Irish bar and Irish bench probably reached its greatest heights in the second half of the nineteenth century. Among the greatest of its members was Charles Russell, Baron Russell of Killowen, from Newry. Though he practised as a solicitor in Ireland he was later called to the English bar rising to become Lord Chief Justice of England. Thomas O’Hagan from Belfast became the first Catholic Lord Chancellor of Ireland since the 17th century, the exclusion clause in the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829) being removed to allow him to take office. He had already been Irish Solicitor General and Irish Attorney General. Christopher Palles of Dublin, another Catholic, became Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, the last person to hold that title. Another notable Baron of the Exchequer was Rickard Deasy from Cork, also a Catholic, who was later a Lord Justice of Appeal. He is chiefly famous however for his activities in Parliament, getting legislation on reformatories, and land tenure. Richard Dowse from Co. Tyrone was the last to be appointed a baron of the exchequer.  

Michael Morris, Lord Morris and Killanin, (called Mickey Morris by everyone from the Lord Lieutenant downwards) was born in Galway and always spoke with a strong Galway brogue. He was a Catholic, was called to the Irish bar, and was elected an MP supporting the Conservatives. In 1866 he was appointed Irish Solicitor General, the first Catholic appointed to that post by the Conservatives. He became Chief Justice of Common Pleas in 1876 and Lord Chief Justice of the Queen’s Bench in 1887. In 1889 he was appointed to the judicial committee of the English Privy Council. He had no pretence to legal erudition and boldly scorned precedent, but argued each case carefully. Though he opposed the Nationalists he could speak the Gaelic language which they could not. Edward Gibson, Baron Ashbourne, was from Dublin. He became Lord Chancellor of Ireland and so President of the Court of Appeal. He was Lord Chancellor in three Conservative administrations, and held the office for 18 years. In the Court of Appeal he was assisted by the eminent judges, Walker, Fitzgibbon, and Holmes. Peter O’Brien, Baron O’Brien, was a Catholic from Co. Clare. He was called to the Irish bar and ‘devilled’ (acted a junior and researcher) for Christopher Palles, thus learning the law. He became Solicitor General and Attorney General and led the Government’s campaign against the terrorists of the Land League. As his lieutenants he had Edward Carson (later Lord Carson) and Stephen Ronan (later Lord Chief Justice). In 1889 he became Lord Chief Justice, and remained in the post for 24 years. In his later years he was just referred to as Peter (DNB, Irish Truth 1900 passim). Edward Carson, a Protestant from Dublin, was highly regarded by Peter O’Brien. He was briefly Solicitor General, before deciding to practice at the English bar, where his outstanding ability for the Marquis of Queensberry in a libel case brought by Oscar Wilde led to a lucrative career. He accepted the post of First Lord of the Admiralty during the First World War, and later became a member of the war cabinet.

            These men were very close to the centre of the Irish Government. Indeed it could be said that they were the Irish Government. Lords Lieutenant and Chief Secretaries came and went, but they formed the permanent core. Not only did they act as judges and Lord Chancellors, but before that they often filled the posts of Attorney General and Solicitor General and Crown Prosecutor. It was they who led the fight against terrorism. In addition, they often sat on commissions and boards, especially in connection with education.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.