The relative shortage of Irish sources makes every record linking a name to a place useful. One of the obscure sources which can be used are the Grand Jury Presentments. Grand Juries were the forerunners of the modern County Councils. They were a panel of major landowners established in each county to make decisions on legal and other matters. Although originally responsible only for the Justice system, their remit was gradually expanded to commissioning of local public works, i.e. building of roads and bridges, and maintenance of public buildings (infirmaries, courthouses, jails etc). It funded these works by means of a county tax on land, known as a cess or ‘rates’. Catholics could not legally serve on grand juries until 1793, and even after this date the jury lists were still predominantly Protestant. They met in spring and summer, just after the regular Assizes (local court) sessions. In these sessions they would hear ‘presentments’, i.e. proposals for grants for the construction or maintenance of roads and bridges etc; and they would also consider and approve payments to public officials, workers and tradesmen for services rendered. The family history relevance of these documents is that (a) the proposals usually include the names of proposed contractors and (in some counties) the names of the persons providing services (see example from Dublin in Figure 1 below) ; and (b) on occasion, they specify the work to be done by reference to the property of individuals. For example ‘to build a bridge over the river Lingane at Maurice Shea’s house’ or ‘to repair .. the mail coach road.. between Timothy Duggan’s ditch and Thomas Butler’s gate, all in the townland of Ballydrihid’ (Both from Limerick Grand Jury Presentments of 1831). These references usually include not only approved projects, but also those proposed, but not approved, for funding.
There was widespread corruption in the Grand Juries. As the members were local landowners, many sought to enhance the value of their estates by building walls, roads or bridges which made their properties more accessible or functional, but which were of little public benefit. Accounts of garden and demesne walls being built using public money are in the report of an 1827 Select Committee which investigated the system. A side-effect was that few roads or bridges were built in the more remote or wild parts of certain counties (e.g. Mayo or Kerry) because there were few local gentry resident in those areas. Improvement of infrastructure was therefore not a priority. Another abuse of the system was that landowners would themselves submit proposals to conduct work, often fronted by one of their staff. They would then contract their tenants to do the work and allow the payment against their rents. The system was effectively ended in 1898. The group in the illustration above shows the members of the last Grand Jury in Donegal.
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The records are in the form of a proposed list of payments to be made for work already done (as in the example above) or proposals for future work with a specification of the proposed contractors. The above example of salary and fee-payments by Dublin Grand Jury is usefully detailed. Not all Grand Jury records give the names of individuals. The list of proposed contracted for work usually state the names of the contractors, and a short specification of the work. Examples of proposed contracts for approval by the Limerick Grand Jury of 1831 include:
- KINGSTON, Earl; MONTGOMERY, Thomas; O’CALLAGHAN, Daniel; DONOHOE, John: to build a bridge of one arch over the river Barabee, on the road from Hospital to Clogheen, between the townlands of Skeheenarinky & Barabee
- LISMORE, Lord; TAYLOR, Edwin; GRUBB, Samuel; MURPHY, Martin: to build a bridge between Michael KENNELLY’S house and his land at Kilballyboy – road from Clogheen to Dungarvan
The proposed contractors for these two projects are local ‘gentlemen’ (who may also have been Grand Jurors) and also the tradesmen with specialist skills for the work. In this case it is bridge-building, but all forms of construction and maintenance are found. Other examples from Kerry Grand Jury are in the example below. Records which specify the names of individuals providing minor services within public buildings, as in the Dublin example above, are not as common.
Many of these records are available in county archives or County libraries, while some are in the National Library of Ireland. Examples of their location, and the extent of the records available are:
- Carlow County Library (1786-1895)
- Cork Archives (1834–1898)
- Donegal County Archives (1753-1899)
- Dublin County (1818-1895)
- Galway (NLI 1794-99)
- Kerry Library (1874-89 & 1892-97)
- LimerickCounty Library, Local Studies Dept. (1807-1900)
- Louth County Council (1713-1732, 1786-1810,1815 and 1823-99)
- Mayo (NAI 1792-94)
- Waterford Archives (years not specified)
- Wexford County Archive (1847-1900)
- Wicklow County Archive (1818-1899)
The website www.igp-web.com has also indexed these records for some counties (e.g. Tipperary). Others can be downloaded from www.archivecdbooks.com. However, they are increasingly being made available on-line. If you are interested in a particular county, it may be worth looking to see if these records are available from some source. A useful central resource for this purpose is the Irish Archive Resource.
This is an updated version of a blog first published by Jim Ryan in the In-Depth Genealogist in June 2016.
Further articles in our series on Irish Family History sources include:
- Petty Sessions– the records of local courts
- Catholic Church records
- Rentals – management of tenants by estates and the records created
- Middle names – the use (or non-use) of second or middle names in Irish records
- How comprehensive are Irish Civil Records?
- Census returns in Gaelic or Irish language
- 70+ blogs with names extracted from manuscript sources from many counties. A handy map index to these is available here.