JURIES IN IRELAND: laypersons and law in the long nineteenth century

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

Four Courts Press,
ISBN 9781846826214

By Dean Jobb

Dean Jobb teaches journalism and non-fiction writing at the University of King’s College in Nova Scotia.

‘In a case on which religious animosities prevailed,’ a member of parliament declared in 1824, he ‘would infinitely rather trust the life of a man to one of the judges of the land than to an Irish jury.’ A decade later, Earl Grey bemoaned ‘a system of intimidation’ in Ireland that prevented jurors ‘from giving honest verdicts’. And future prime minister Arthur Balfour was convinced that in times of turmoil ‘Irish juries could not be trusted to give verdicts according to the evidence’. Were such attacks justified? Was the jury system in nineteenth-century Ireland dysfunctional and flawed? These are questions tackled by legal scholar Niamh Howlin in Juries in Ireland, a comprehensive analysis of the Irish experience with one of the cornerstones of the common-law system of justice.

‘The jury was a fundamental element of the administration of justice in Ireland until its decline in the twentieth century,’ Howlin notes, ‘adding a modicum of community sanction to decision-making.’ There were the familiar juries chosen to decide guilt or innocence in the criminal courts. Coroners empanelled juries to certify the cause of a suspicious or sudden death. Members of grand juries were asked to review evidence and to decide whether a suspect in a serious crime should stand trial. The jury, one observer noted in the 1880s, was an essential cog in Ireland’s machinery of justice, ‘preserving harmony between the action of the law and the sentiment of the people’.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the period covered in this thoroughly researched, solid study, citizens were also expected to do the heavy lifting as jurors in a surprising array of public endeavours. People with no expertise in mental health were asked to decide whether someone should be locked up as a lunatic. Other jurors calculated how much a property-owner should be paid as compensation for land expropriated to widen streets or for other purposes. There were even juries to regulate markets and fairs. ‘The purposes for which a jury may be called together,’ a parliamentary committee noted with considerable understatement on the eve of the First World War, ‘are far more numerous than might be supposed.’

The Irish jury system mirrored England’s, but Ireland’s demographics and social conditions created tension and conflict along class and religious lines. The population was as much as 80% Catholic during the 1800s, yet most Irish were excluded from jury service based on their religion or because they were too poor to meet property-ownership requirements. The landowning Protestant upper class dominated legal and administrative juries, just as they controlled the political and economic life of the country. Howlin explores how jurors were selected, how they did their jobs and how qualifications for jury duty changed over time, to uncover the ways in which ordinary people serving on juries influenced public life ‘at a time when most power lay in the hands of the elite’.

Howlin, a lecturer in the Sutherland School of Law at University College Dublin, is a specialist in the history of the Irish justice system, and her deep knowledge and insights pervade the book. With its focus on the laws governing juries and the legislative changes made over time, this is a work aimed at a specialist audience of legal historians and scholars. She accomplishes her stated goals—to contribute to the body of work on jury systems worldwide and to ‘add another layer to our ever-increasing understanding of Ireland’s complex legal history’.

In the process, Howlin features cases that show juries in action. One of the most fascinating sections deals with the ‘jury of matrons’—panels of married women and widows assembled to confirm, through a private examination, whether a female offender sentenced to death for murder or other capital crime was pregnant. ‘Pleading the belly’ was rare, but it could delay execution until after the baby’s birth and often earned a pardon for the mother. Matrons were sometimes empanelled in civil disputes as well, when evidence of pregnancy might affect an inheritance or a marriage annulment. It was, Howlin notes, the only nineteenth-century jury composed of women. Such decisions were eventually left to medical experts. The last recorded use of a jury of matrons in Ireland was in 1841, in a murder case in County Mayo.

Trials of Fenians and members of other rebel factions were flashpoints. Prosecutors sometimes abused their power to disqualify jurors and excluded those thought sympathetic to a Catholic accused. One man found guilty in the 1860s complained that ‘the government which had so safely packed the bench, could not fail to make sure of its juries’. Jurors were intimidated, too. In another trial, placards appeared warning jurors who voted to convict that ‘the blood of that innocent man’ would ‘be on you and yours to all eternity!’ Some jurors were threatened with violence, property damage or boycotting. The Invincibles attacked one as he walked home, in retaliation for his role in convicting one of their members for the murder of a policeman. Such incidents fuelled the rhetoric of politicians but they were exceptions, not the rule. After sifting through a mountain of historical evidence, Howlin’s verdict on the role of the jury is clear. ‘Despite several tumultuous periods’, she concludes, Ireland’s nineteenth-century justice system ‘can be described as fit for purpose and well-regarded’.


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