Over 3,000 obsolete laws face removal from Irish statute books

Tooth theft law from 1836 among those Law Reform Commission wants abolished

An 1836 law to apprehend those who broke open vaults under the churches of St Andrew and St Mark in Dublin city “and opened several coffins and extracted the teeth from the bodies within” is among some 3,000 obsolete laws facing removal from the Irish statute books.

Another 1836 proclamation sought those “who blew up by explosion of gunpowder the statute of King William the Third in College Green, city of Dublin”.

More than 2,500 proclamations issued between 1821 and 1860 offered rewards for apprehending suspected criminals around the island of Ireland.

Tipperary has the most recorded proclamations, with 426, and Kerry has the fewest with 15.


County Dublin has 71 proclamations relating to all forms of criminal activity such as waylaying, robbing, attacking, wounding and murder; severe, inhumane and unmerciful beatings; causing death by throwing stones or with blows to the head with a pitchfork; setting fire to houses, outhouses, cowhouses, hayricks, barns and oat-mills; breaking eggs, posting threatening notices regarding land, voting and potatoes; and beatings with sticks and stones and nettles.

‘Purity and virtue’

In Galway, an 1835 proclamation sought to apprehend those who beheaded a woman on the Moylough Road near Dunmore and an 1839 proclamation sought the person who drowned a young female child near Donoughpatrick. Many proclamations in the county between the 1830s and 1850s expose much unrest, involving murders, shootings, arson and attacks on property and livestock.

Other instruments up for removal include orders promoting "purity and virtue", banning a monster meeting at Clontarf in Dublin by Daniel O'Connell in favour of Roman Catholic Emancipation, and offering rewards to anyone "who shall render efficient assistance to the crews of the Discovery ships under the command of Sir John Franklin, or who shall succeed in ascertaining their fate".

The Law Reform Commission (LRC), through the Statute Law Revision Programme (SLRP), has launched a public consultation, to run until April 5th, on statutory and prerogative instruments made between 1821 and 1860.

The period covers the Great Famine; the Tithe War, a campaign resisting payment of tithes – one tenth of income – on Roman Catholics for the upkeep of the Church of Ireland; and the struggle for Roman Catholic emancipation.

Legislative clarity

Established in 2005, the SLRP is the national programme to identify and remove obsolete and spent primary and secondary legislation here, and has so far repealed most of the primary legislation made before the State was founded.

The commission is recommending removal of more than 3,000 instruments which have ceased to have effect or have become unnecessary. Just two instruments from the period, relating to the limits of the river Shannon, need to be kept on the statute book.

The commission said, as well as contributing to legislative clarity here, the instruments would be a useful resource for historians, “including armchair ones”.

The SLRP has had consultations with Government departments and other key stakeholders and is now inviting views from the public and interested parties on the proposals.

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Michael McGrath, welcomed the latest phase in the SLRP “which will ensure a modern and accessible statute book in Ireland”. Following the consultation, the seventh Statute Law Revision Bill will be published later this year.

Fiona Carroll, project manager of the SLRP, said: "This has been a large undertaking and follows three years of intensive research completed by talented and dedicated full-time researchers."

Other instruments recommended for revocation include orders for prayers and fasts for the abatement of cholera, relief from crop failure and to give thanks for abundant harvests; orders imposing quarantine on cholera-afflicted ships; regulations establishing a board of health; warrants appointing certain places of confinement for transportation; warrants regulating postage duties; and orders amending county boundaries.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times