"The radicals in these reform times”: politics, grand juries and Ireland’s unbuilt assize courthouses, 1800-50
journal contributionposted on 29.10.2015, 14:39 by Richard J. Butler
By their nature, courthouses were built in Ireland as throughout Europe by ‘the state’. They demarcate the visible and tangible presence of both the law and state-sanctioned justice in the Irish urban landscape. Laws passed by the Irish Parliament, and after its abolition in 1800, by Westminster, were enforced in assize courthouses by travelling judges on established ‘circuits’, visiting each county town or city twice a year – in the spring and summer. These judges travelled with great splendour through the countryside, and were welcomed by each high sheriff at the county border and escorted with military pageantry, ritual, and procession to the county towns. Assize courthouses, then, were temporary pauses in a near-continuous flow of judicial displays of power and authority, emanating from the superior courts in Dublin to the provincial urban nuclei. Persons accused of serious crimes, arrested and imprisoned, had to wait in some cases many months for the next assizes: those arrested, for example, in September, had to languish in gaol till the following March for the spring assizes. They would then be tried and if found guilty immediately given their punishments – often transportation or hanging – unless pardoned. In times of acute agrarian unrest or rebellion, as marked so much of early nineteenth-century Ireland, assizes could be extraordinarily busy occasions with, by modern standards, exceptionally brief trials. Much of this was also true in mainland Britain: what made Ireland unique in this period was the contested nature of government itself, and in particular the validity of the country’s status within the United Kingdom.