• -
  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 5, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

    Court records from the 1850s

    John Grenham

    Findmypast.ie launched their transcripts of Irish prison registers last October, and they were a revelation, a treasure-trove of circumstantial detail that fleshed out the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Now the site has followed up with the first instalment of the Petty Session Order Books. The detail has become even more circumstantial.

    The Petty Sessions were the District Courts of their day, dealing with minor offences and civil proceedings, and the Order Books cover the nitty-gritty of court business between 1850 and 1910. Inevitably, alcohol is the single largest problem. Many a great-grandfather is recorded here “drunk while in charge of jennet and cart in a public area”.

    These are not primary records, such as censuses, that permit the initial identification of families and individuals. But the light they cast on everyday lives is extraordinarily vivid. My own grandfather is here, testifying for the prosecution at the age of fourteen in a case involving two individuals in court for stealing a half-pint of whiskey “valued at one shilling and two pence” from his employer. They ended up with a month’s hard labour in Tullamore jail.

    A veil of discretion is required for less upright members of the family, but among the reasons for their appearances before the Justice of the Peace are: allowing a dog on the byroad without being efficiently muzzled; a refusal to quit licensed premises when requested to do so; “having charge of an ass with cart attached and not keeping same on the left side of the road”; and refusing to pay for the damage caused by the trespass of three lambs on a neighbour’s land.

    Currently online are records of 1.2 million cases. More than ten times as many, another 15 million, are to follow over the next year. The mind boggles.