Irish Grand Jury Presentments


Extract from the Grand Jury Presentments of Kilkenny in Spring 1832.

Extract from the Grand Jury Presentments of Kilkenny in Spring 1832.

As I have said in previous blogs, the relative shortage of Irish sources means that every record linking a name to a place is potentially useful. I therefore offer you a few obscure possibilities from time to time. One such source is Grand Jury Presentments. Grand Juries were the forerunners of the modern County Councils. They were a panel of major landowners in each county formed to make decisions on legal and other matters. They were originally responsible only for the justice system, but this was gradually expanded to commissioning of local public works, i.e. building of roads and bridges, and maintenance of public buildings (infirmaries, courthouses, jails etc). It funded these works by means of a county tax on land, known as a cess or ‘rates’. Catholics could not legally serve on grand juries until 1793, and even after this date the jury lists were still predominantly protestant. They met in spring and summer, just after the regular Assizes (local court) sessions. In these sessions, they would hear ‘presentments’, i.e. proposals for grants for the construction or maintenance of roads and bridges etc. The family history relevance is that the proposals include the names of proposed contractors. On occasion, they may also specify the work to be done by reference to the property of individuals. For example, ‘to build a bridge over the river Lingane at Maurice Shea’s house’ or ‘to repair .. the mail coach road.. between Timothy Duggan’s ditch and Thomas Butler’s gate, all in the townland of Ballydrihid’ (Both from Limerick GJP 1831)

There was widespread corruption in the Grand Juries. As the members were local landowners, jurors could enhance the value of their estates by building walls, roads or bridges which made their properties more accessible or functional, but which were of little public benefit. Accounts of garden and demesne walls being built using public money are in the report of an 1827 Select Committee which investigated the system. A side-effect was that the more remote or wild parts of certain counties (e.g. Mayo) in which there were few resident local gentry, remained without any roads or bridges. To add to this, the landowners would themselves submit proposals to conduct work, often fronted by one of their staff. They would then contract their tenants to do the work and allow the payment against their rents. The system was effectively ended in 1898.

The records state the names of the lead contractors, and a short specification of the work. Some examples from the Limerick Grand Jury of 1831 are;

KINGSTON, Earl; MONTGOMERY, Thomas; O'CALLAGHAN, Daniel; DONOHOE, John: to build a bridge of one arch over the river Barabee, on the road from Hospital to Clogheen, between the townlands of Skeheenarinky & Barabee

LISMORE, Lord; TAYLOR, Edwin; GRUBB, Samuel; MURPHY, Martin: to build a bridge between Michael KENNELLY'S house and his land at Kilballyboy - road from Clogheen to Dungarvan

So, who were these people? The lead persons are local ‘gentlemen’ who may also have been Grand Jurors. The others are likely to be tradesmen with specialist skills in bridge-building.

Many of these records are available in county archives or County libraries, while others are in the National Library of Ireland. For instance, Cork Archives has records from 1834–1898; Louth (1815 and 1823-99); Wexford (1847-1900); Limerick (1809-1900); and Donegal (1753-1899). Ireland Genealogy Projects has also indexed these records for some counties (e.g. Tipperary). Others can be downloaded from Archive CD Books. However, they are increasingly being made available on-line. If you are interested in a particular county, it may be worth looking to see if these records are available from some source.

Caption for illustration: Extract from the Grand Jury Presentments of Kilkenny in Spring 1832.


Dr. James Ryan

About Dr. James Ryan

Dr. James Ryan is a writer and publisher who has been active in Irish genealogy for the past 25 years. He founded Flyleaf Press – www.flyleaf.ie - in 1987, provided research services for clients for many years, and has lectured widely in North America and Ireland. His book ‘Irish Records’ (published by Ancestry Inc.) has been a standard guide for Irish genealogists since its publication in 1987. Jim is the author of IDG’s monthly column, The Emerald Isle.

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