People, Place and Power – The Grand Jury System in Ireland

4 Introduction: The Origins of the Grand Jury in Ireland People across Ireland identify strongly with their local county. This is not without irony, because Ireland’s counties were the products of the medieval conquest of Ireland. As a form of local administration, the county was introduced by the Anglo-Normans. The earliest county for which we have evidence is county Dublin in the 1190s, about twenty or so years after Ireland became a dominion of the English crown in 1171–2. As more of Ireland fell under English royal government, Irish territories were ‘shired’ — that is, structured into units of local administration called ‘counties’ or shires, which were run on the English model and followed English common law. At its greatest extent during the Middle Ages (c.1300), there were a dozen royal counties. In order of appearance, they were: Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Kerry, Louth, Limerick, Tipperary, Connacht, Roscommon, Kildare and Meath. The existence of the shire implied the creation of a royal official to administer it. This official (or ‘reeve’) was the sheriff (or ‘shire-reeve’). The sheriff was crucial to local administration from the late thirteenth century onwards. He had many duties. He collected revenue for the crown, waged war in defence of the county, and upheld royal justice. The law within the county was the common law of England, which applied to conquered parts of Ireland. Here lie the medieval origins of the grand jury in Ireland. In the Middle Ages, serious criminal offences were tried by royal judges, who toured from county to county. When the justices appeared, the sheriff was instructed (in the words of a late- thirteenth century record): ‘to summon 24 of the best and most discreet men of the county, both knights of the county and other men; and they are to provide information to the judge about matters concerning the tranquillity of the king’s peace’. This is the system that became known as the ‘grand jury’ of 23 or 24 men (as distinct from the smaller, or ‘petty’, trial jury of twelve jurors). The jurors provided information on the truth, or otherwise, of evidence ‘presented’ to them by the king’s officers. In doing so they helped the king and the king’s justices prosecute royal justice. ‘County Lowth Grand Jury’: Leather-Bound Volume of Presentments Courtesy of Wexford County Archive