Among our latest additions to the Petty Sessions Order Books is the court of ‘Arran’ which served the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway. The extremely local nature of the petty sessions courts is brought home by these records. Petty Sessions were held weekly, fortnightly or monthly depending on the needs of the local community. On the Aran Islands they occurred on the second Thursday of the month. The court served a population of around 3,300 in the 1860s by the early twentieth century this had dropped to 2,700. The community lived on three islands: Inishmore, Inishmann and Inisheer. Inishmore, the largest of the three islands, had a population of around 2000 in the nineteenth century, dipping to around 1800 in the early twentieth century. The population of the two smaller islands was around 500 each. The economy of the Aran Islands was similar to that of many coastal communities at the time, subsistence farming (growing just enough to feed the family) supplemented by fishing and the sale of kelp (seaweed). The crops grown were mainly potatoes and rye, families also kept pigs, sheep and goats.
Our records currently cover the period 1859-1861 and 1870-1913, and provide a snap-shot of life in a rural, although by no means isolated, community in nineteenth and early twentieth century Ireland. From these cases emerge the inhabitants of this small island community on whom the pressures to survive occasionally resulted in recourse to petty crime.
Seaweed collection and selling was an essential supplement to the income of small-holders in the nineteenth century. Seaweed has a variety of uses: as a fertiliser, as food and fodder, and when burned it releases soda ash which is used in the manufacture of glass and soap. Gathering the heavy strands of seaweed while scrambling across slippery rocks must have been precarious work. Several entries in the petty sessions refer to the theft of seaweed. One example from February 1879 makes mention of a pre-dawn theft.
Pigs were another valuable commodity for subsistence farmers. Most were kept indoors, especially at night to prevent wandering and theft, until it came time to butcher them, usually around November. However as the century progressed this practice of housing animals in the same room as humans became less acceptable. One entry in the petty sessions in December 1902 illustrates this shift, one case is brought for the failure to remove pigs from a ‘dwelling house’ for which the defendant, failing to pay the fine, receives seven days in jail. Another is charged with failing to lime wash (white wash) their house which faces the public road. Lime-wash not only gave a house the classic country cottage look, lime acted as an insecticide helping to deter fleas.
On small farms the protection of crops from the depredations of livestock was vital and we see many cases in the petty sessions brought against neighbour for allowing their livestock to wander onto land and root up crops.
In a small community differences were often settled without the need for court intervention and cases brought in the heat of the moment are often subsequently dismissed, even for assault. A plaintiff may change their mind, or a defendant simply not turn up. This case of two women, one of whom hit the other with a sod of turf was dismissed after the complainant failed to make an appearance in court due to illness.
In searching the Petty Session Order Books we learn not just about the misdemeanours of our ancestors but also about the communities they lived in and what was important to them and what they would not tolerate.