The Petty Sessions Court records are one of the largest sources of evidence about the Irish population in the 19th and early 20th centuries available online. There are now over 21 million records dating from 1828 to 1912 covering all parts of Ireland available on Findmypast.
Irish Courts were obsessed with social order and security, and tried and convicted twice the rate of people than the English Courts. The court system was also formally established by statute significantly earlier than in England and was larger and more organised.
The Courts were historically presided over by two or more unpaid Justices of Peace, often local land owners, a system which led to regular charges of corruption and undue influence by landed interests.
Throughout the 19th Century, in an effort to bring the courts under control and improve the public’s faith in the legal system, the government systematically replaced the JPs with paid magistrates.More than 600 “Magistrate Courts” existed across the island at any one time.
The Petty Sessions Courts dealt handled the bulk of lesser legal cases, both criminal and civil in Ireland. Cases ranged from merchants who had not paid duty on their goods, to workers suing for unpaid wages. Farmers were fined for letting their cattle wander or for allowing their cart to be driven without their name painted on the side. Debts were collected and disputes settled. Public drunkenness was a common offence, as was assault and general rowdiness.
Political feelings were often volatile and there are frequent cases all over the country of people charged with putting up seditious posters or leaflets. The records kept were highly detailed and recorded the nature and circumstances of the offence, details of the verdict and sentence, and useful information about the witnesses, victims and accused, such as names and addresses.
The courts were also responsible for our other batch of records, the Dog Licences.