findmypast.ie, the Irish family history website, has launched the Petty Sessions Order Books (1850-1910) online for the first time, one of the greatest untapped resources for those tracing their Irish roots.
The original Petty Sessions records are held at the National Archives of Ireland were scanned by Family Search and have now been transcribed and made fully searchable by findmypast.ie. They cover all types of cases, from allowing trespass of cattle to being drunk in charge of an ass and cart. These were the lowest courts in the country who dealt with the vast bulk of legal cases, both civil and criminal. This first batch of entries contains details of 1.2 million cases, with most records giving comprehensive details of the case including: name of complainant, name of defendant, names of witnesses, cause of complaint, details of the judgement, details of a fine if any, and details of a sentence passed down if any. Another 15 million cases are to follow throughout 2012.
This first batch of records is particularly useful for areas of the country for which family history records are notoriously sparse such as Connaught and Donegal.
The reasons for cases being brought before the Petty Sessions Court are incredibly varied, but unsurprisingly the most common offence was drunkenness, which accounted for over a third of all cases. The top five offences tried before the courts were:
Drunkenness – 33%
Revenue/Tax offences – 21%
Assault – 16%
Local acts of nuisance – 5%
Destruction of property – 4%
The nature of these cases was significantly different from those in England. Figures show that the rate of conviction for drunkenness was three times greater, four times greater for tax offences, 65% higher for assault, and twice as likely for “malicious and wilful destruction of property” than that of our nearest neighbours*.
The records are full of the minor incidents which are representative of the vast majority of cases which were brought before the Resident Magistrates. For example, Michael Downey of Athlone, Co. Westmeath was charged with being “drunk while in charge of an ass and cart in a public area” and Pat Curley of Cloonakilla, Co. Westmeath who was charged with causing “malicious injury to a bicycle”.
Brian Donovan, Director of findmypast.ie, commented: “These court records open up a unique window into Irish society in the 19th century. Most families interacted with the law in one way or another, being perpetrators or victims of petty crime, resolving civil disputes, to applying for a dog licence. The records are full of the trauma and tragedy of local life, as family members squabbled, shop keepers recovered debt, and the police imposed order. These records help fulfil our mission to provide more than just names and dates, to get to the stories of our ancestors’ lives.”