Find My Past launched a collection of Irish Petty Sessions records in 2008, which has since expanded to include transcripts of all 2.5 million records.
This article looks at how to make the best use of these records in your family research.
We also look at where you can find this collection elsewhere. You may not need a Find My Past subscription if these court records are all you want.
How To Find The Irish Petty Sessions Records On Find My Past
Use the navigation pane on the left to drill down to “Courts & Legal” by following these steps:
- Set the country to “Ireland”.
- Expand “Institutions & organizations
- Choose “Courts & Legal”
The search window has several input boxes, including “Record set”. Click on the “Browse Record Set” link beside this input box.
The picture below shows exactly how to access what you need.
The “Browse Record set” link opens a pop-up window that lists all the record sets under the Courts & Legal category within Ireland.
You’ll see “Ireland, Petty Sessions Court Registers” in the list (I’ve shortened the list in the picture below).
Select this record set and apply the filter.
Some record sets are small enough to browse through the entire collection at your leisure.
The Irish Petty Sessions have over 23 million records in the collection.
At this point, it’s a good idea to apply additional filters with a Location and Surname.
For the best choice of location, it’s important to understand how these courts were arranged throughout the country. That will help you zero in on your ancestors.
We’ll explain the geography in the next section that explains the background of the Petty Sessions.
What Were The Petty Sessions In Ireland?
The Petty Sessions were the lowest level of courts in Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries.
These courts presided over the least serious criminal and civil proceedings.
When were the Petty Sessions taking place?
Some form of these Sessions were around in the 18th century, but they were first legislated for in 1827. There was no jury in these courts. The judgments were handed down by the man appointed as Justice of the Peace (JP).
The role was unpaid and most would have had no formal legal training. The position was usually filled by a local landowner. This inevitably led to questionable justice in these times.
The Petty Sessions (Ireland) Act in 1851 was in response to growing complaints. By the late 19th century, paid and trained magistrates were more common.
The geography of the Petty Sessions courts
The 1851 act divided each of the 32 counties into districts. For example, Wicklow had 14 districts. Each court within a district sat once a fortnight.
When I’m using the search features on Find My Past, I like to filter by county when looking for specific ancestors.
Most of my miscreant relatives turn up in the single district nearest them, but I don’t want to miss any strays!
What kind of crimes were heard in these courts?
These are the criminal and civil proceedings in which my ancestors appear:
- Drunkenness in the street
- Cattle wandering into a neighbors land
- Cutting and taking turf
To be fair, they weren’t always the defendants! Sometimes they appear as witnesses, which can be a good indication of neighboring families.
Crimes involving drunkenness account for one-third of the cases in front of these courts.
It’s worth knowing that the Temperance movement was in full sway, which put pressure on local constabulary to crack down on drinking in public.
What kind of punishments were meted out?
The common punishment for milder offenses was to be bound to the peace.
Fines of a shilling or more were also often seen. But many of the poor folk in front of the courts would have no ability to pay a fine. This meant that prison was the option.
The maximum punishment that these courts could give was one year in prison. Higher punishments were reserved for the higher courts.
A prison sentence could also include hard labor.
Who Recorded The Petty Sessions?
We have the clerks of the courts to thank for these records. The details of each court session were recorded by an appointed clerk.
Each clerk documented the cases before the court into a daily ledger known as the Order Book. The images you’ll see in Find My Past are pages from these ledgers.
The role of clerk was sometimes passed down through generations. Let’s take a look at two notable figures who followed their fathers into the role.
Bram Stoker is famous for being the author of Dracula. But before he authored the famous novel, he followed his father into a role of court clerk.
Stoker rose in the ranks to become an inspector of petty sessions and wrote a textbook on the subject.
Georgina Frost made history by being the first female elected official in England and Ireland.
Georgie Frost’s father and grandfather had been clerks of the court. When the young woman sought the position in a district in County Clare, the local authorities duly elected her.
However, she was barred from taking the role by the higher authorities. Frost took her case to court and won the right to do her duties.
What Do We Learn From The Order Books?
The court records are thankfully very detailed. The main problem is that the clerk had to cram a lot of information into a small space.
This is where the Zoom function comes in handy!
What is in a Petty Session court record?
These are the details you’ll glean for a single case:
- Date of the offense
- Nature of the offense
- Details of the defendant(s)
- Details of the complainant(s)
- Details of witnesses
- The sentence
- Names of the judge and constabulary involved
Tips For Using the Petty Session Records
The civil complaints can be very useful for gleaning new information about family structures.
Take a careful look at the list of witnesses. In my experience, these are often family members. There’s nothing more fun than spotting a new person with the same surname that you’ve been researching.
If there’s a woman with a surname you don’t recognize, it’s worth investigating if she is a family member who had since married.
The civil cases are usually complaints and squabbles between neighbors, who may also be extended family.
If your ancestor is fined for straying livestock causing damages, this can help you draw up a rough map of adjoining farms. If you want to go further, the census records of 1901 and 1910 can help with this.
It’s also worth noting that petty sessions were rich pickings for local newspapers. After all, people love to read about their neighbors’ troubles!
Check out our review of the newspaper collection on Find My Past.
How Did Find My Past Get The Petty Sessions Collection?
The original order books are held at the National Archives Of Ireland.
These were microfilmed in one of the massive archiving projects of FamilySearch.org. The images are available to view at their Family History centers.
If you’re not familiar with FamilySearch.org, it’s the genealogy division of the Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (perhaps more commonly known as the Mormons). As a non-profit organization based in Utah, they make their content available for free.
But if we only had the images, we’d have to browse through 22.5 million records. So, the images are vital – but we also need indexed transcripts.
What are transcripts in genealogy?
A transcript is a copy of an original document.
Many volunteer members of FamilySearch.org are engaged with preparing the transcripts of the organization’s massive collection of images.
This is a painstaking task of viewing an image and writing what you see either exactly as it is in the document or into a standardized form (or both).
What are indexes in genealogy?
If we only had the transcripts of the images, we wouldn’t be much better off. We’d still have to browse through the content.
If you’ve used the search features on Find My Past, then that is based on indexation of the transcripts. Basically, indexation turns the millions of transcripts into searchable lists of entities like surnames, locations, dates, etc.
These lists are known as indexes.
How Find My Past got involved
It became clear to the FamilySearch.org authorities that their fast-growing image collections would take centuries to transcribe and index using only their volunteers.
So, the organization entered into a partnership with several companies to help with transcripts and indexation.
The way this works is that FamilySearch.org allows the partner to have exclusive ownership of the searchable indexes for a period of time. When that period lapses, FamilySearch.org puts the new indexes and transcripts onto their own website with free access.
The Utah organization engaged Find My Past to index the Petty Sessions images (amongst some other collections).
The English company is a specialist in indexation, but not in preparing the transcripts. They engaged a company called IIMI to prepare the transcripts of the images.
Side note: who is IIM Inc?
IIM Inc (Intelligent Image Management) has been around since 1996. The company specializes in transcribing documents.
Their workforce is spread across Bangladesh, India, Singapore, and Sri Lanka. This should give you an idea as to how they can keep their costs down when doing work for organizations in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Find My Past and indexation
As IIMI produced the transcripts, Find My Past deployed their indexation technology to produce searchable indexes.
This is what you’re using on the Search pages in Find My Past.
Are The Petty Sessions Available Elsewhere?
The Irish petty sessions records are available online in multiple places:
- Find My Past (paid subscription)
- Ancestry.com (paid subscription)
- FamilySearch.org (free membership)
I’ve already covered Find My Past in this article. Let’s look now at your other choices.
Ancestry.com (paid subscription)
I’ve ket a copy of my family tree on Ancestry.com for years. For most of that time, the company did not have the Irish Petty Sessions records in their own massive archive.
So, I painstakingly copied details from court records on Find My Past into entries in my Ancestry family tree.
Then in 2020, I logged into Ancestry.com to see a gazillion new hints (record suggestions) in my family tree (this may be a slight exaggeration).
As I followed each hint to open a record on Ancestry.com, I realized I was seeing the same Petty Session details that I had manually copied from Find My Past.
A little research into the Ancestry catalogs told me that the company had added the Irish Petty Sessions to their archive.
You can search the catalog, view the transcripts, and see the original images on the Ancestry.com website.
FamilySearch.org (free membership)
I already mentioned that FamilySearch.org enters partnerships for a specific period – after which they can also provide the indexes for free.
That period has lapsed for Find My Past. This means that you can search the indexed transcripts on FamilySearch.org with a free membership.
Want To Know More About Find My Past?
If you’re interested in the history of the English company, check out our article on who owns Find My Past.
We’ve also got a review of using the family tree features on Find My Past.