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Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright © 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and

Chapter Twelve

             Local Administrations I

Summary of chapter. The next subject to be considered is the government of the country. For most people the local administrations of their counties and towns affected them most. Also the local courts, the local police, the local militia in their counties were of the greatest importance in their lives. It was the counties and towns too which formed the basis of the basis of the electoral system. The franchise  was largely in the hands of the freeholders of the county. The sheriff was the chief officer in the county and had a role which he still has in the counties in the United States. The oversight of government of the counties was in the hands of the county Grand Juries, and the Governments in Dublin and London rarely interfered in local affairs.

i) The Organisation of Irish Society

(ii) Local Administrations

(iii) County Officials

(iv) Meetings of Freeholders and County Assizes

(v) Selection of Grand and Petty Juries

(vi) Duties of the Grand Jury


(i) The Organisation of Irish Society 

            In this section, which follows the description of the economy, is a description of the organisation of society. Two chapters are devoted to the affairs of the counties, local administration, the care of the poor and sick, crime, policing, and the penal system. The following chapters deal with central government, the supreme authority of the realm, the monarchy and Parliament, and related matters like legislation, elections and the franchise, and with the Irish Government and its administration. Finally another chapter deals with the courts of law and the administration of justice. [Top] 

(ii) Local Administrations 

            For centuries the basic units for local administration were the county and the corporate town. The counties numbered thirty two though some were sub-divided into 'ridings'. Despite its name the county was not presided over by a hereditary count, but by an elected official, the sheriff confirmed by royal authority. In the more primitive Gaelic system that preceded the county system, local semi-hereditary rulers swore allegiance to semi-hereditary higher chiefs, but it was commonly said that there was no allegiance without hostages. Twelve of the counties were formed or outlined by King John in the twelfth century, and the remainder was formed in the course of the Middle Ages. In the sixteenth century Clare was made into a county and the O'Brien chiefs paid taxes to the crown for the first time. James I. separated Wicklow from Dublin in 1605. When Ireland was completely shired there was a uniform system of administration throughout the island.

            The shiring made little practical difference in local administration, apart from the fact that the former chiefs had now to pay taxes. The sheriff was often chosen from among the former chiefs. Nor were jurisdictions like those of the manorial courts abolished.  It is worth remembering that practical rural problems change very little over the centuries, and it made little difference if a man approached his local chief, the lord of his manor, or the local magistrate regarding a stolen cow.  

            Corporate towns, i.e. those whose charters allowed them to elect a mayor and corporation of merchants formed a parallel system of jurisdiction not subject to the county authorities. Boroughs were towns with limited jurisdictions, and Liberties were ancient manorial jurisdictions derived from feudal lords with, like the towns, administrative powers and local courts. Many boroughs returned Members to Parliament. 

            The government of counties was in the hands of the wealthy gentlemen of the county, who formed the Grand Jury of the county, and from whose ranks the county officials were drawn. The government of the corporate towns was in the hands of the wealthy merchants. Medieval kings preferred to entrust power to men who had sufficient real assets that could be seized in cases of maladministration, particularly not paying the revenues of the county into the Court of Exchequer. County officials and revenue farmers were also required to be men of considerable substance for similar reasons. According to the ideas of the time those who contributed most to the costs of the county were allowed the most influence in decided how much was to be raised. [Top] 

(iii) County Officials 

            Each county was governed or administered by a single sheriff selected and appointed by the king, or Lord Lieutenant, from a list presented by the gentlemen of the county. A plurality of sheriffs remained only in Dublin city. The office of the sheriff was very ancient, and originally it was a financial one with the duty of collecting the king's revenue in the county. But over the years the powers of the office were whittled away, and in the nineteenth century the county Grand Jury supervised the exercise of its functions. The sheriff had a staff of deputies and bailiffs to assist him, besides other officers appointed to carry out specific duties like those of gaoler, turnkey or hangman. If necessary the sheriff could swear in a special posse comitatus of special deputies to enable him to legally apprehend those for whom a legal warrant of arrest had been issued by a magistrate. (This system survived longer in the counties in the far western states in America than elsewhere.) 

            The sheriff's duties' were to keep the king's peace in the county, to execute royal writs, or the writs of the royal courts, to apprehend wrongdoers and keep them safely until the time appointed for their trials, to summon the juries when legal sessions were to be held, to prepare and organise the courts for the judges, and to execute the verdicts. In some of the lesser (county or municipal) courts he himself sat as judge. To him the king's writ was sent to organise and hold parliamentary elections, to preside over the voting, to adjudicate on votes, to decide the winner, and to send notification of the election to the crown. He was responsible for drawing up the lists of those eligible to sit on the various juries, and was required to have at hand panels with sufficient jurymen for Grand Jury, petty jury, and special jury functions. He appointed many of the lesser officials in the county like gaolers and bailiffs. He could call general meetings of the freeholders of the county and preside over them, for example to petition Parliament, and such meetings were specifically excluded from the scope of the Convention Act (1793). 

            By 1800 his duties had been considerably eroded and were to be reduced further still in the future. At one time he had been responsible for the county militia but this duty had largely devolved on the county governors. County coroners were also given powers independent of the sheriff. Judgement in most criminal cases by 1800 was reserved to the judges in assize. The high constables of the county were responsible for the policing. The county surveyor of roads was in charge of public roads within the county. The county treasurer was responsible for financial affairs, and for collecting taxes. But despite these ever-increasing inroads on the sheriff's powers the office was still on of central importance. The establishment of county council by the Local Government Act (1898) considerably reduced the influence of the sheriff, and by an Irish Act in 1940 the office was virtually superseded by that of county manager.

            In America the sheriff was responsible to the electorate. In England he was subject to the county lord lieutenant and the bench of magistrates. In Ireland, he was in theory subject to supervision both by the Lord Chancellor and the county Grand Jury, but this supervision was largely nominal at the beginning of the century. As the century advanced more and more controls were brought it by the central Government in Dublin. 

            The office was one of remuneration. The sheriff had a right to forty three different fees for the execution of various duties. The speed with which he discharged his duty was popularly regarded as corresponding with the speed with which the fee was paid. A sheriff might appoint bailiffs to execute writs, but on the other hand, he might not bother. A plaintiff could then hire servants of his own to execute the writ, but had first to write a letter indemnifying the sheriff against any liability for injury or damage caused by the said servants in the execution of the writ. Before 1838 the bailiff or process-server had to hand over the writ to the person, and not on a Sunday. After that it was sufficient to deliver it to the person's normal residence. Writs therefore could easily be avoided by locking the doors, and not going out except on horseback or on a Sunday, and it would take a very enthusiastic bailiff to persevere. When the new police was formed the Government insisted that they be not involved in writ-serving except when actual violence was apprehended. There was a gradual tendency to substitute fixed salaries for fees.ieutenant appointed sheriffs after a recommendation from the Lord Chancellor's office. As the sheriff was the returning officer for the county there were many allegations that undue political influences crept into the selection process. But the 'spoils system' which still continues in America was then in force in Ireland. In this system the successful candidate in Parliamentary elections was allowed to reward his helpers by appointing from among them properly qualified persons to the various public offices of remuneration. The real grievance was that the Tories were in office for so long that the Whigs did not get a fair share of the appointments. 

            In the eighteenth century a Member of Parliament for the county was made a county governor, and he recommended each year to the judges in assize a suitable person to be sheriff for the year. Early in the nineteenth century the Government instructed the judges to get at least three names from the county Grand Jury, and to add their own recommendations. Lord Manners, the Chancellor from 1807 to 1827 said that he was reluctant to interfere in the affairs of the county gentlemen and so invariably confirmed the first name on the list. Henry Goulburn, the Irish Secretary in the Twenties, said that he had personally investigated allegations of unsuitable appointments but could find none. The Whigs and the Catholics may have disliked the continuous appointment of members of the Ascendancy faction, but that does not mean that those appointed were incapable. When the Whigs returned to office in 1830 the normal oscillation of British politics re-asserted itself and complaints diminished. 

            Among the other county officers the county governor had been appointed originally to take charge of the militia, but Petty noted in the seventeenth century that the sheriff still maintained a rival militia. There were usually two governors in a county, one a county MP, the other a militia colonel. Besides making a recommendation with regard to the appointment of the sheriff the governor also was supposed to recommend to the Lord Chancellor those suitable to discharge the office of magistrate. The custos rotulorum was charged with keeping the records of the county court safe, both those of the sessions of judges in assize and of the record court of the county. The original qualification for this office was the possession of a defensible house. A county MP was often given this office which he paid a clerk to discharge, for it was one of emolument, fees being paid when records of judgement were transcribed. 

             The clerk was called the Clerk of the Peace, an office for which the original qualification was an ability to read and write, and so in medieval times was discharged by a cleric or clerk. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the county records or rolls (rotuli) were kept in the Clerk's house, and he was supposed to hand them over to his successor. The Clerk's duties were to keep a record of matters concerning the administration of the county, especially the verdicts of the courts. To him the Government sent the circulars concerning administration in the counties, and he furnished the Government with such information it required. He kept the registry of the freeholders, and entered the names of those who had qualified and registered themselves, collecting the appropriate fees. (It is not clear if he administered the oaths as well, and collected the fee for that.) This connection of the Clerk with the electoral register was the reason why Sir Henry Parnell objected to the appointment of the Clerk by the Custos who was usually a sitting member. 

            The Assistant Barrister was a qualified lawyer appointed by the Government to assist the sheriff with legal expertise in the county courts when no judge in assize was present. He acted as chairman of the bench at the judicial sessions of the county magistrates, the quarter sessions, and so was often called the County Chairman. The office was legal rather than administrative. The first Barristers were appointed in 1787, and their powers were increased in the nineteenth century, they being eventually given power to try transportable offences. They were also made the independent assessors of the qualifications of electors. Though after 1829 there were few Catholic barristers with qualifications equalling those of Protestant barristers, the office of Assistant Barrister was one to which they could be plausibly appointed, and this was done. In 1877 they were given the title of County Court Judge, and the office was abolished in a general reform of the judicial system in the Irish Free State in 1924. 

            The county treasurer was responsible for seeing that the county cess was collected. Before taking office he had to put up sufficient personal sureties as a guarantee against fraud, but it is not clear if the full sum was always exacted. He had to make up and present the accounts of the county once a year to the Grand Jury. By an Act of 1801 he had to send an account of the presentments each year to the Government in Dublin. He, along with the Clerk of the Peace, was responsible for keeping the official list of registered freeholders of the county. (There were numerous rumours concerning abuses of public funds, but it is difficult to ascertain if there was much actual abuse or peculation.) The Treasurer was appointed by the county magistrates in session. The Government, in the first half of the nineteenth century, made many laws to control this office more closely. The sheriff was still responsible for the payment of traditional royal revenues like crown and quit rents into the Exchequer Court. 

            The County Surveyor (supervisor) of Roads was responsible for the upkeep of roads within the county, and the removal of encroachments, obstructions, or nuisances like piles of manure, excluding private roads and turnpike roads. Most of the present Irish roads were built in the first half of the nineteenth century as measures of public relief, so the public road system was much smaller in 1800.  In the eighteenth century the parish corvée for the maintenance of roads was abolished and the duty transferred to the county. The repairing of roads was still rudimentary, consisting largely of filling up the biggest ruts or holes with stones, but the Surveyor’s men did the job more systematically. But gradually the practice of 'Macadamising' road surfaces; i.e. covering them with small stones that could be compacted by the traffic, spread. The county Grand Jury could present for the construction of new roads, and there were many allegations that much of the money voted was misused. The constabulary was responsible for the removal of obstructions. At first no professional qualifications were required for holding the office. In the course of the nineteenth century those with practical engineering experience became more numerous, and the Government began to insist on such qualifications, and also on the exact specifications of tasks that were presented for. 

            The High Constable of the county was in charge not only of matters of law and order but also for the general policing of the county. Roads, to some extent, formed part of his responsibility especially with regard to the removal of obstructions. The general question of 'policing' will be dealt with in a separate chapter. Each barony had its own Head Constable, and these were assisted by several petty constables. 

            The office of coroner was an anomalous one. As the name implies his function was to protect royal interests within the county especially where money was involved. There could be more than one coroner in a county. The crown always claimed finds of gold or silver (treasure trove) and it was the duty of the coroner to enquire if an owner or heir could be found. If none were found the treasure was claimed for the crown. The coroner was given the additional duty of determining the cause of death if this was in doubt, including the deaths of those who died in the sheriff's gaol. The coroner therefore acted as a kind of watchdog on the sheriff's administration. If necessary he could summon a jury and hold an inquest into the cause of death. As the name implies this was an enquiry or inquisition into the cause of death, not as in common law courts an adjudication between adversaries. The coroner could institute the enquiry himself. The enquiry was into fact not guilt even if the jury named a specific person as the killer. (It is not clear to whom the coroner was directly responsible apart from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In England the Chief Coroner was the Chief Justice of the King's Bench.) 

            In England the office of Custos Rotulorum was always joined to that of the Lord Lieutenant of the County. The latter's duties included presiding over the bench of magistrates, acting as representative of the crown in the county, and being the sole channel of communication with the Government. This office was introduced into Ireland in 1831, being modified because the governing body in Irish counties was the Grand Jury, not the bench of magistrates. The office of Custos was at the same time annexed to that of Lord Lieutenant of the county. The Lord Lieutenant henceforth was the person authorised to inform the Lord Chancellor regarding the fitness of individuals to serve (or continue to serve) as magistrates in the county. 

            There were various minor county officials employed by the county such as bailiffs, gaolers, process servers, turnkeys, criers, clerks, medical officers, and cess-collectors. The holders of the more ancient offices were paid by fees, the turnkey being paid a fee both to admit a person to prison and to let him out again. In the nineteenth century it was enacted that such officials should be paid from the county cess. The gaoler was allowed to keep his traditional right of hiring out rooms to gentlemen prisoners. Daniel O’Connell and his associates, when in prison, were lodged in the gaoler's own house. 

            About 1830 it was prescribed that the sheriff should keep a public office in the principal town in the county to which the public should have access at convenient times. The Clerk of the Peace, too, was directed to obtain from the cess-collectors up-to-date lists of those qualified by income for the various grades of jury service. Those seeking employment in an official capacity in the county, like surveyors, medical officers, etc., were required to produce proofs of professional competence. Literacy was made an essential qualification even for the lowest grades of the county constabulary.[Top] 

(iv) Meetings of Freeholders and County assizes 

            The sheriff could convene general assemblies of the freeholders of the county or city and this was done fairly frequently chiefly to hear proposals for presenting petitions to Parliament. There was no way of deciding if the meeting was representative or if there was opposition to the proposals, who formed the majority. Elections followed the same procedure with the sheriff summoning the freeholders of the county. If the election was uncontested the sheriff declared the proposed candidate elected. Otherwise a ballot had to be held. Possession of freehold property in the county gave a right to speak. 

            The actual government, or more precisely, consent to royal government of the county, was entrusted to a twice-yearly assize of the freeholders of the county. (Assize, assessment, cess, and session are derived from the same root sessio a sitting, and referred to related things.) Assize is defined as the sitting of a consultative or legislative body. The sheriff was obliged to summon representative freeholders to an assize twice a year before a judge of the royal courts. Because the judges held sessions of the civil and criminal courts at the same time the sessions were called the assizes in the plural. 

              The assize of the county closely resembled the court leet of the manor when the lord of the manor summoned the tenants to his court. Assizes were derived from the Magna Charta one of the stipulations of which was that the king would send judges periodically to each county to hold local sessions in order to avoid the expenses of following the royal courts. The king thus called the assize. 

             The sessions were presided over by the judge, not the sheriff, acting in the name of the crown. He addressed the Grand Jury on such points of civil administration he thought fit to call their attention to, perhaps the need to stamp out agrarian crime, or to repair the county gaol. This address to the Grand Jury was called the charge. He could reject a jury if he considered it wrongly constituted, or reject the presentments of the county. He was also charged by the Lord Chancellor with ascertaining the views of the gentlemen of the county regarding the suitability or acceptability of those to be appointed sheriff. In practice the Government in Dublin interfered very little in the affairs of the county, and routinely accepted the first choice of the local gentlemen when appointing a sheriff. The Lord Chancellor's office increasingly insisted on strict accounting and financial control. The holding of these sessions was one of the last relics of civil administration by judges of the royal courts. To enable them to so act a third commission, in addition to those of Oyer and Terminer and Nisi prius, namely a Commission of Assize, was issued to the judges on circuit and to the Clerks of Assize. 

            The Grand Jury dealt with the civil business of the county by means of resolutions, called presentments.  Such were the voting of moneys for the construction of roads, building of gaols, payment of officers and the expenses of the officers, removal of nuisances, maintenance of the militia and the police, management of dispensaries and lunatic asylums, and in general, the carrying out of all duties with which they were legally charged. The Grand Jury was the ultimate financial authority in the county. It determined the county rate and what the county rate could be spent on. The County Treasurer laid the accounts before it for its approval.  Presentments were acts of the Grand Jury itself and not responses to questions put to them by the sheriff or judge. Grand Jury presentments were approved by the judge in assize on the part of the crown but could be challenged in the Court of King's Bench. 

            It also considered all the affidavits sworn before the magistrates in criminal or civil cases. (Affidavit is the Latin for 'He swore' or testified under oath.) If it found true bills (accepted the affidavits) the accused were brought to trial in the assize courts. Otherwise they were released. [Top] 

(v) Selection of Grand and Petty Juries 

            The legal governing body of the county in Ireland was the county Grand Jury, though as it met but briefly four times a year, the administration of the officers was virtually unsupervised. (In England the administration of the counties was entrusted to the bench of magistrates.) It would be more to say it was the body whose assent was required for measures concerning the county. If it ever had powers to make ordinances or by-laws for the county they would appear to have become obsolete by the nineteenth century. The idea of entrusting the supervision of the administration of justice and civil affairs to a jury (or vestry) selected or chosen out of a larger number of equally qualified persons goes back to the Middle Ages. It is to be found in manorial courts, market juries, and select vestries of parishes, and in the king's great council called Parliament. 

            A jury was originally a body of freeholders summoned to answer particular questions put to them. A coroner's jury was asked to decide the cause of death, a Grand Jury to decide on the reliability of affidavits sworn before magistrates, petty or trial juries to decide questions of fact or guilt. They were never asked to decide questions of law. 

             Before 1832 the selection to the Grand Jury was conducted on the same principles as to the petty juries. It was left to the sheriff to assemble juries of civic-minded freeholders as best he could. Those who objected to the list, or any name on the list, could issue a challenge, for example, alleging a lack of a freehold in the county. The qualifications, according to the medieval formula, were that jurymen should be liberi tenementi (freeholders) worth quadraginta solidi (forty shillings) per annum, who were also probi, legales, et liberi (honest, not outlaws, not serfs). In 1832 the qualification for service on the Grand Jury was raised to £10. 

            The sheriff had to compile a list of at least a hundred persons to form a panel from which the jurors could be selected. Jury service was universally disliked. The judges in assize were empowered to fine those summoned who did not turn up, but they never did. If the panel was not sufficiently large to allow challenges the assize judge could suspend the session. The order of names on the list seems to have been at the discretion of the sheriff. When drawing up the list for the Grand Jury he would begin with the wealthier ratepayers in the county. If some of these expressed a wish not to serve the sheriff picked others. Normally, for presentment sessions, the sheriff had no difficulty in compiling his list, for there were usually several gentlemen who wished to propose presentments from which they hoped personally to benefit. (The presentments had to be for public purposes of course!) Grand jurors could, like other jurors, be challenged on the grounds of inadequate freehold in the county, or failure to take the oaths, but this was unusual. For petty juries the sheriff had a list of those of more moderate means, and those on this list could also asked to be excused. Catholic farmers frequently asked so to be excused if a man from their own neighbourhood was due to stand trial. Catholics had never been excluded from jury service. The sheriff then substituted a juror from a local town. It was noted at the end of the eighteenth century that sheriffs in Dublin had great difficulty in getting sufficient jurors to attend Nisi prius cases, and so they kept a list of hangers-on, nicknamed 'talismen' who, for a shilling a time, were prepared to sit on any case. It is not clear if this difficulty of finding willing jurors persisted into the nineteenth century. Allegations however continued to be made that especially in cases of seditious libel the sheriff packed the jury with his talismen. There is no evidence to support these allegations. A separate list of freeholders worth more than £50 p.a. had to be kept in case a trial by 'special jury' was called for. 

            In Dublin two Grand Juries had to be provided by the sheriff, one for fiscal or administrative purposes, and the other for judicial purposes. The latter jury also had to examine cases due to appear before the king's judges in the Four Courts. It is worth noting that neither the administration in Dublin Castle, nor the Lord Chancellor, nor the Crown Prosecutor, the Attorney General or Solicitor General, had any part in selecting these juries.

             The system for selecting a jury was very informal, and we may presume that each sheriff (or indeed deputy sheriff) had a number of 'reliables' (apart from the impecunious talismen) he could call on regularly without causing too much ill-feeling. Gavan Duffy vigorously denounced the system, at the same time making numerous unsubstantiated assertions. It was more consonant with conditions at the time that the system was haphazard rather than that any conspiracy against Catholics existed.  His account of the procedures for empanelling a jury is vitiated by his assumption that such a conspiracy existed.   Theoretical standards of fairness might not have been reached, but it would seem that the sheriffs and judges were doing their best in existing conditions. During O’Connell's trial the Lord Chief Justice ruled, in accordance with both law and practice, that a list of seven hundred and seventeen names from which a jury could be drawn was adequate, even if some (Catholic) names were omitted from the list (Duffy). People like Sir Henry Parnell wished to remove the possibility of suspicion; people like Duffy confused suspicion with fact. 

            If a woman was sentenced for a capital offence, and she pleaded she was pregnant, the judge issued a writ de ventre inspiciendo. The sheriff then assembled a jury of matrons from married women who were supposed to be knowledgeable in such matters. If the jury of matrons agreed she was pregnant she could not be executed until after the birth of the child. 

            For trials before the judges both the prosecution and defence lawyers could challenge individual jurors. Early in the century it would seem that the prospective jurors were called in the order in which they appeared on the sheriff's list, but by the 1840's a shorter list was formed by drawing names out of a hat, the jurymen being called in the order in which their names were drawn.  

            The defence lawyers could challenge the entire array and maintain that the sheriff's list was not adequate or complete. But Irish law did not require that name of every qualified juryman be on the list, still less the name of every person who had the qualifications but was never registered. Judges were normally satisfied if the sheriff produced a list of a hundred possible jurymen actually in attendance. Nor was it sufficient to object to the absence of jurymen drawn from a particular social or religious group, for example, Catholics, for this would mean affirming that no Protestant juryman would carry out his sworn duty. When the array was challenged the judge consulted barristers from the county in question who were present in the court. (This did not inhibit some Catholic nationalist leaders from affirming just that.) So, though occasionally attempted, a challenge of the entire array was unlikely to succeed. 

            The lawyers on both sides could then challenge individual jurors either 'peremptorily' or 'for cause'. In the latter case the prosecution or defence might point out, for example, that a juryman was related to the defendant. More important was the peremptory challenge. The idea behind this was to try to remove from the jury people who might be prejudiced in one direction or another. So, for example, barristers defending Catholics might challenge those believed or known to be members of the Orange Order. The prosecution lawyers did not challenge jurymen just because they were Catholics. They much preferred to have some Catholics on a jury. 

             A particular difficulty arose in 1848 when it was pointed out in the newspapers that if support for the idea that the armed struggle against the Government was just was found in one twelfth of the population, on average no jury would convict those put on trial. (Verdicts had to be unanimous.) So naturally great care was taken by the crown to exclude jurymen (Catholics) who were known to expressed support for Young Ireland as a means of shortening the odds. 

             On two occasions, the trials of members of the Catholic Committee in 1813 and of O’Connell in 1843, it was alleged that Catholics were systematically removed from jury service. Yet in both cases the allegation remained unproven. (Gavan Duffy made much of the fact that the prosecution lawyers were shown the list of prospective jurymen sooner than the defence lawyers. This allowed the prosecution more time to find out who the jurymen were and sound out their opinions. But, it is not unlikely that both in 1813 and 1843 the prosecution lawyers took some advantage.) The rules for selecting all juries, and for challenging all jurors, seem to have been more or less the same.  

            Trial juries consisted of twelve men and they had to be unanimous in their verdict. Grand Juries and coroner's juries could consist of any number between 12 and 23 men of whom 12 had to agree. [Top] 

(vi) Duties of the Grand Jury 

             The duties of the Grand Jury were twofold, judicial and fiscal. Judicial duties will be described under the judicial system.  

            The procedure for bringing matters before the Grand Jury was the same in fiscal and judicial matters. Testimony was sworn before a local magistrate, who was supposed personally to investigate the witnesses under oath, but did not do so. The magistrate it would seem was required not as a judge but as a qualified commissioner for oaths. Affidavits regarding valuations and costs were accepted without question by the magistrate. The Grand Jury was supposed to re-examine the witnesses under oath but did not do so. It was then, in both fiscal and judicial matters, left to the judge in assize to judge the cases.  Occasionally, the assize judge did reject the accounts, or the presentments. At the beginning of the century estimates were vague and maps and plans were rudimentary, but the Government gradually insisted on improving standards. Though there was doubtless some abuse and milking of public funds, it was observed that the county gentlemen were also the chief ratepayers and would not have tolerated excessive abuse or robbing of one another. 

            At no stage in Irish history did local government attract large numbers of capable and public-spirited persons. Even when directly elected county councils were formed (in 1898), and an independent state was established in 1921 the problem remained. The Irish Free State Government finally took powers to interfere directly, and in 1940 an Act was passed to allow the appointment of competent county managers.  (I speak here in general, for it is likely that in Ulster the behaviour of the county gentlemen more nearly approached that of their English and Scottish counterparts. But even in Ulster in the 1960's before the re-organisation of local government one might find a district council composed of the butcher, the grocer, the coalmerchant and a few others, chiefly interested in maintaining their contracts to supply county institutions.) 

            As a general rule the county gentlemen were averse to anything which added to the rates or cess, so time after time the Government was forced to pass legislation making this or that mandatory. New courthouses and gaols were ordered to be built and maintained, payment by fees was replaced by payments from the rates, and greater care of the sick, the destitute, and the insane made obligatory. The patience of the Government with regard to policing ran out, and a new and expensive police force was devised in 1822 and imposed on the counties, though eventually the Government had to take over the cost of this latter. The amount of rates collected consequently gradually increased as the century advanced.  

            The Grand Jury cess or rate was a property or land tax imposed on the various townlands within the county. Each townland was assessed as being able to pay so much tax. Some of these assessments were more than a hundred years out of date, being unchanged since the seventeenth century. It seems that only tilled land (carrucata or ploughland) was counted in some cases. In other cases land reclaimed from bogs since the original valuation was not counted. The system was so uneven that in the 1820's Parliament voted money for a general civil survey and a uniform valuation throughout Ireland. The Survey is always called the Ordnance  (Military) Survey because it was carried out by officers seconded from the Board of Ordnance.  

            In 1836 an Act was passed consolidating existing legislation concerning the Grand Jury. When the Dublin Corporation Act (1850) was passed establishing a directly elected municipal body with unified powers to administer the city it was assumed that a similar Act would shortly be passed establishing county councils. It was not however passed until 1898. 



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