The Irish Grand Jury System

Updated: Jun 26

Figure 1: Grand Jury 1910, County Waterford (courtesy of Beyond 2022).


The grand jury system is the oldest form of local government in Ireland, the origins of which are obscure, however. Thomas Rice in An Inquiry into the Effects of the Irish Grand Jury Laws attempts to explain the history of the institution but concedes that the early origins were akin to ‘”a might maze, and all without a plan.”’[1] Whilst Rice continues to equivocate about the ‘phantasmagoria of acts of parliament’, E. A. Hackett, although unable to pinpoint the genesis of the system, is more succinct in his annotation and analysis.[2]

The origin of the Grand Jury is obscure, and lost in the prehistoric times of the British nation. It or a synonome, le Grande Inquest, is supposed to have been derived from the Normans. Yet it is certain that it or a prototype existed in England prior to the Conquest, in the times of the Anglo-Saxon kings, being then chiefly a criminal institution, its fiscal functions being limited to furnishing the profits of fines.[3]

When the Normans invaded Ireland in the twelfth century not only did they bring rabbits, new farming methods and feudalism, they also ‘brought with them the Grand Jury system’. ‘The first record of a Grand Jury in this country consists of a precept for the summoning of a Grand Jury for the County Cork in the reign of Edward I.’[4]

Figure 2: Grand Jury map of Cork City, North Liberties (courtesy of Cork Past & Present).

The grand jury process in Ireland was facilitated when ‘commencing in 1210 in the reign of King John, it was decided to divide the country into local administrative units, which were originally called shires and later counties.’[5] ‘Cork was this year, with eleven other counties, made shire ground by King John, who appointed sheriffs and other proper officers to govern them.’[6] Although the grand jury system originated in England, the system in Ireland was far more comprehensive. In England, ‘the functions … begin and end with finding or ignoring true bills against accused persons.’[7] In Ireland however, grand juries were responsible for managing a plethora of public functions, including maintenance of fever hospitals, other public charities, legal establishments and the road infrastructure. In fact, ‘the first mention of such a body in an Irish statute occurs in 10 Chas. I., c. 26 (1634), which directs judges to inquire regarding broken bridges and causeways, &c.’.[8]

‘Between 1716 and 1796 Ireland outside of County Dublin was divided into thirty-eight assize jurisdictions.’[9] The juries were located in each of the thirty-two counties of Ireland, as well as seven urban locations which were designated as county towns. The ‘grand jury was the foremost institution of local government of eighteenth-century Ireland … Grand juries could intrude upon the lives of almost every inhabitant within their jurisdictions’ whereas central government decisions had less of an impact.[10]

Figure 3: Grand Jury Panels, Dublin, 1803.

Membership of Jury and ‘Civil Servants’

The feudal system, introduced to England by William the Conqueror and used by the Normans in France since about 900 AD, eventually applied to Ireland. It was a relatively simple system; all land belonged to the king, some of the land was kept for royal use, some was given to the church and the rest was leased out under strict control. Typically, ‘Norman knights were given estates on the conquered lands and in return they were bound to give services to the King in times of war. They were also bound to pay the King certain dues.’[11] To administer these services a Sheriff was appointed. Additional functions of the Sheriff included inspecting his shire or county twice a year where feudal tenants were summoned to meet the King’s visiting judges. ‘The Sheriff was commanded to … make come 24 of the best, and most discreet, as well knights as others, of this county, to certify the Justiciar here on articles touching the tranquillity of the peace, to be required of them. ‘[12]

By the eighteenth century, and probably earlier, the county sheriff, or ‘high sheriff’, appointed a grand jury for the county before each assizes sitting. A high sheriff served a one-year term, and could propose his successor to the lord lieutenant, the king’s representative in Dublin Castle, when his term was ending. New sheriffs were appointed by the lord lieutenant in time for the spring assizes, the first of two assizes sittings held each year.[13]

‘In England, a decision of King’s Bench in 1761 effectively fixed the number of grand jurors for each county in that kingdom at twenty-three.’[14] The same terms were applied in Ireland ensuring that twenty-three of the most county’s most wealthy and powerful men were appointed to the grand jury. Typically these individuals were Protestant and always male. In general, familial, religious and patronage were important dictates in selection for the grand jury. ‘At the County Louth Lent assize of 1770, ten of the twenty-three grand jurors were directly linked, by kinship or marriage, to the sheriff. In this case, even one of the justices of assize was a near relation.’[15] Ordinarily, the grand jury members made decisions ranging from whether a case went forward for trial to setting the annual rate of county taxation. The decisions of the grand jury had far-reaching for public services in the county as the group decided on transport infrastructure expenditure, the funding of the county gaol and hospitals and the employment of various county officials. These resolutions were made at the two assizes held each year at spring (Lent) and summer (Lammas).

Residency was not the determining factor for membership of the grand jury. Property ownership was the main criteria for being appointed; this meant that jurors could serve on more than one Jury provided they had land in the applicable counties. In 1708, an act ensured ‘no Papist shall serve or be returned to serve on any grand jury … unless it appear to the court that a sufficient number of Protestants cannot then be had for the service’.[16] It was not until the late eighteenth century that the religious ban was lifted and in 1793 Catholics could become jurors, although this situation was rare.

The twenty-three men did not run the county single-handed. Various grades of staff acted on decisions made at the biannual assizes. A secretary dealt with the administration, a treasurer managed the cess (local tax) and in turn paid contractors. Other staff included the road inspector, a gaoler and chaplains to manage the moral wellbeing of prisoners. To further aid the administration, each barony within a county had its own high constable. These men were responsible for all logistical matters relating to suspected and convicted criminals. The other very important member of the support team was the interpreter as the Irish language was still widely spoken in many areas.

The end is nigh

‘Despite the incorporation of Ireland as a constituent component of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland through the 1801 Act of Union, for much of the early part of the nineteenth century, British policy towards Ireland retained its colonial overtones. However, from the late 1860s a subtle shift began to occur as successive British governments attempted to pacify Irish claims for independence.’[17] The passing into law of the Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898 streamlined local government. It abolished the governing, though not the legal, functions of the grand juries and established county, urban and rural district councils. During a House of Commons sitting on Monday 21 February 1898, the chief secretary for Ireland, Gerald Balfour explained that ‘you cannot put new wine into old bottles, and in my judgement the reform of local administration in Ireland has now become almost a condition of the further reforms which I hope ultimately to see accomplished.’[18] J.C. Flynn, a solicitor based in South Mall, Cork and MP for North Cork replied ‘politics have been defined as the science of compromise, and as a compromise between classes hitherto hostile in Ireland, and a compromise in the direction of peace, I join in welcoming the Bill.’[19]

The adoption of the bill meant that the grand jury was superseded by the county council system in 1898 but retained its judicial function until it was abolished in 1924. The creation of the new institutions was a momentous occasion and brought about social and political change. Women were eligible to vote in the local elections and the political landscape shifted with nationalism dominating the councils apart from five Ulster counties.


The Grand Jury in Ireland, in addition to their criminal functions, had the whole administration of the civil affairs of the country entrusted to them. They fixed the salaries of public officers; they regulated prisons and houses of correction; they levied funds for the support of hospitals; they made and repaired roads and bridges, and they framed accounts of the expenses incurred in these matters. They had, in fact, not only to transact the business which was usually performed by an English Grand Jury, but they exercised, at the same time, many of the functions of the English Legislature. They determined what public works should be undertaken—what price should be paid for them, and who were the individuals that should undertake them, and be responsible for their completion. They settled the amount of the local taxation of the county, and, under their direction, it was levied from the actual occupiers of the land.[20]

Unfortunately, many of the records of the grand jury were lost due to fire; arson and accidental. In 1891, a fire ravaged the courthouse in Cork City, destroying many of the records, those saved were sent to the Public Records Office (PRO), Dublin. Thirty years later, more grand jury records fell foul to fire, this time due to arson when the Custom House, Dublin was set alight by the Irish Republic Army during the War of Independence, May 1921. A year later, a significant archive was lost during the Irish Civil War. The grand jury records located in the PRO were reduced to ashes when ……. Despite the volume of records lost in these conflagrations, many documents and other evidence of the grand jury survive.

Figure 4: Painting of the Cork Courthouse fire 1891 by Eugene McSwiney.

Cork City and County Archives, for instance, hold a variety of records, including forty-four volumes of Printed grand jury Schedules of Presentments for County Cork.[21] Other local archives throughout Ireland also retain various schedules and the Irish Archives Resource website provides a central location to discover more records, including indictment and presentment books. In both cases, these books are accompanied by a list of the names of the grand jurors. Finally, visual legacies in the form of grand jury maps exist for every county in Ireland, dating typically from 1780 onwards, the scale being 1½ inches to the mile. Additionally, the twice-yearly assizes were widely reported in local newspapers thereby persevering the legacy of the grand jury.

Many of the roads, bridges and piers still in use today were originally built under the aegis of the grand jury. These records also provide evidence of the building of railway lines in the county, many of which are no longer in use or existence. The grand jury, therefore, was the most important local body in rural Ireland during the late 1700s and early 1800s and as a result, the archives of the institution are a valuable resource as they provide evidence of the beginning of the county infrastructure, as we know it today.

You can view the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute presentation People, place and power: The Grand Jury System in Ireland

You can find a full list of preserved records of the grand jury here (pdf)


[1] T. Rice, An inquiry into the effects of the Irish grand jury laws (London, 1815), p. 10. [2] Ibid. [3] E.A. Hackett, The Irish grand jury system : with a note on the Irish poor law system, 1898 (London, 1898), pp 3-4. [4] Ibid., p. 4. [5] David Broderick, The First Toll Roads: Ireland's Turnpike Roads 1729-1858 (Cork, 2002), p. 8. The last county in Ireland to be shired was Wicklow in 1606. [6] Francis H. Tuckey, The county and city of Cork remembrancer : or, Annals of the county and city of Cork (Cork, 1837), p.14. [7] Charles H. Foot, The grand jury laws of Ireland : comprising all the statutes relating to the powers and duties of grand juries, including orders in Council relating to presentments and all matters connected therewith : to which are added copious notes, tables of cases reported under various acts, forms of procedure, criminal jurisdiction, and an index (Dublin, 1884), xvii. [8] Hackett, The Irish grand jury system, p. 4. [9] Neal Garnham, ‘Local Elite Creation in Early Hanoverian Ireland: The Case of the County Grand Jury’ in The Historical Journal, vol. 42, no. 3 (Sep., 1999), p. 625. [10] Ibid. [11] P.J. Meghen, Roads in Ireland (Dublin, 1965), p. 2. [12] James Mills (ed.), Calendar of the Justiciary Rolls: Or, Proceedings in the Court of the Justiciar of Ireland Preserved in the Public Record Office of Ireland. Edward I. Part 2. XXXIII to XXXV years. (Dublin, 1905), p. 168. [13] Brian Gurrin et al, People, place and power: The Grand Jury system in Ireland (Online, 2021), p. 6. [14] Neal Garnham, The courts, crime and the criminal law in Ireland 1692-1760 (Dublin, 1996), pp 121-2. [15] Garnham, ‘Local Elite Creation in Early Hanoverian Ireland, p. 631 [16] Quoted in Thomas Clarke Luby, The life and times of Daniel O'Connell (Glasgow, ????), p. 50. [17] Arlene Crampsie, ‘Creating Citizens from Colonial Subjects: Reforming Local Government in Early Twentieth Century Ireland’ in Historical Geography, 42, p. 208. [18] HC Deb 21 February 1898 vol 53 c1228. [Available] [19] Ibid., c1276. [20] Quoted in HC Deb 19 February 1833 vol 15 c956. [Available]. [21] For more information

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