In praise of the Petty Sessions registers.

The Petty Sessions court registers records available on findmypast.ie are a great resource for genealogical research and those interested in the social history of Ireland. Petty Sessions dealt with trying lesser offences both civil and criminal, licence applications, etc. The Sessions were presided over by Justices of the Peace, later to be replaced by magistrates, and sat, depending on the amount of cases, daily, weekly or monthly. The date range and breadth of the registers varies from county to county but findmypast’s earliest records date from 1828 and go up to 1921. 

The information you can garner from a record can vary to something as simple as an ancestor’s address in 1921 in Waterford to vivid descriptions of internecine strife between two families – suddenly explaining why a family left Ireland for the States in the late 19th century. Cases of assault, drunkenness, trespass of livestock, and tenancy disputes feature frequently. 

It’s a mistake to dismiss these records as somewhere that your law-abiding ancestors will not feature. The records are indexed by defendant, complainant, or witness so a person does not have to have committed a crime to appear in the records.   

Yesterday was the birthday of Charlotte Grace O’Brien (1845-1909) the social reformer and author. Charlotte, a daughter of Young Irelander and politician William Smith O’Brien, campaigned for better conditions for women emigrants travelling to America, prior to their passage, on board ship and on arrival in the States. She established a boarding house in Queenstown [Cobh] in an attempt to give women the best accommodation and advice prior to their journey. Her application for a ‘Licence to carry on the business of a passage Broker…’ can be seen in the April 1882 Petty Sessions for Queenstown.

By Helen Moss