This week Fiona Fitzsimons takes a look at the Petty Sessions orders books, available exclusively on findmypast.ie, and explains their immense value as a source of genealogical information for those tracing their Irish family history.
A consequence of the destruction of the 19th century Irish census is that Irish genealogists are always on the look-out for any other records that can be used as census substitutes. One such source is the Court of Petty Sessions records.
Between c.1822 and 1924 the Courts of Petty Sessions were the lowest level of the court system in Ireland. They were presided over by Justices of the Peace or magistrates, who sat in session without a jury to hear minor criminal and civil cases from the locality. On the formation of the Irish Free State, the Petty Sessions courts were replaced by the District Court system, still in place today.
What were the Petty Sessions?
In Ireland, the Petty Sessions system developed at first informally. The earliest surviving Petty Sessions records held in the National Archives of Ireland date from 1822 for the district of Castlemartyr in County Cork. This has previously been taken as evidence that the Courts of Petty Sessions were first introduced into Ireland in the southern province of Munster and then gradually into other parts of the country. However the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (P.R.O.N.I.) also holds Petty Sessions records from this time – their earliest volume (1822-26) covers districts in Antrim. It is probable that the system of Petty Sessions was introduced on a more formal basis than is generally thought, although these courts sat irregularly before 1827.
In 1827 Parliament passed an Act to place Petty Sessions on a more regular footing. This Act (7&8 George IV, chapter 67), established procedures for the appointment of clerks of the courts and for proper record-keeping, as well as setting out the various fees for warrants, recognizances (bail), convictions and rights to appeal to the Quarter Sessions. In pursuance with this Act the Grand Jury was required to set out the Petty Sessions districts within their own counties and fix on a suitable place within the district where the court could be held. Between 1828 and 1851 the jurisdiction of the Petty Sessions Courts were built up by statue and usage. In 1851 Parliament enacted the Petty Sessions (Ireland) Act to consolidate and amend all previous legislation regulating the courts, in a bid to remove any inconsistencies in the system caused by its piece meal introduction.
The 1851 Act governed how Petty Sessions districts were formed – a good rule of thumb is that from 1851 Petty Sessions districts corresponded to Poor Law Union districts, with market towns as the administrative centre where the court sat. The Act also tried to standardise record keeping with the introduction of printed ‘Order Books’ to record all cases tried before these courts.
How can they help my Irish family history research?
To the genealogist, the critical information contained in these books includes:
- the date of the case
- the name, address, occupation or rank of the complainant(s) and defendant(s)
- the names of witnesses for the complainant or defendant
- the cause of complaint as set out in the summons
- the case outcome, conviction or dismissal
- he fine or term of imprisonment (if convicted)
Approximately 13,000 volumes of the Petty Session records survive in the National Archives of Ireland*. Of these, 1,200 volumes comprise the dog-license books, which record the name, address and sometimes also the occupation of the person taking out a dog-license between c. 1850s and 1924. Even these have a value as a census substitute for rural Ireland, as virtually every farmer or smallholder would have kept a dog. However, the real prizes in the Petty Sessions records are the remaining books, a little less than 12,000 volumes, which record the business of the courts. These books document an estimated 12 million cases heard in Petty Sessions Courts across Ireland between c. 1822 and 1924. It is these books which are currently being digitized, indexed and made available exclusively on findmypast.ie. So as not to mislead the researcher, it should be noted that fewer than 200 of these books predate the 1851 Act.
Types of cases
The types of case heard before the courts vary enormously. Some of the most common cases are petty-theft, assault, and drunk-and-disorderly offences. Other cases that recur frequently are:
- non-payment of the county cess
- ‘unjust’ weights and measures (i.e. too light, too small) being used in a commercial premises
- breach of the licensing laws (after-hours lock-ins, early openings especially on Sunday mornings, selling alcohol on Christmas day or Good Friday)
- trespass by individuals, their children and also their animals
- illegal betting and begging
The Petty Sessions Records also contain breaches of law specific to a time and place, for example in 1921 the breach of military curfews imposed upon the civilian population during the War of Independence is regularly recorded.
The real value of the Petty Sessions records is that they provide a window into the past for even the most remote communities in Ireland. Human nature being what it is, it’s almost inevitable that everyone has an ancestor who at some stage committed a misdemeanour or broke the civil law. It’s not impossible that you may find a record of an ancestor scrumping apples from a farmer’s orchard; making an ice-slide on a public path; or being fined because their donkey got onto the road.
* Other volumes for Petty Sessions districts in the counties of Northern Ireland are held in P.R.O.N.I., and some original manuscript records have been deposited in county libraries or archives, for example the Donegal County Archives holds Petty Sessions records for Ballyshannon from 1828
I’d like to thank Gregory O’Connor of the National Archives of Ireland for his advice in preparing this article.
- Fiona Fitzsimons