County Longford Grand Jury
The grand jury was the earliest form of local government at a county level. Grand juries operated in Ireland from Medieval times, and the archives related to them help us to learn more about the social and political life of the time.
The grand jury structure consisted of twenty-three of the county's landowners who were summoned twice annually (at Lent and during the summer) by the high sheriff to serve as members. Initially, their role was to decide on which cases should be referred to the assize court (presided over by judges on circuit), where serious cases were heard.
Later, they were given responsibility for the building and maintenance of roads and bridges (1634), jails and courthouses (1708), and county infirmaries (1765). The grand jury financed these works from a local tax, the county cess, levied on occupiers of property. It was an oligarchy, being confined to male landowners, who were mostly Protestant (Catholics were barred from membership during most of the eighteenth century).
Its responsibilities as a local authority ended in 1899 with the election of county councils, rural district councils and urban district councils.
Archives of the County Longford Grand Jury
The archives of the County Longford Grand Jury are the oldest public records in the county, beginning in 1759.
There are two manuscript volumes (LGJ/1/1-2), covering the period 1759-1907.
These record, for each session, the signatures of the jurors, the list of cases presented, and (up to about 1780), details of 'presentments' (works and payments) approved. There are also seventy-one volumes of printed 'abstracts of presentments' (LGJ/2/1-71), 1817-99, which include all works and payments approved.
The archives are important in that they show the development of infrastructure in the county. They document aspects of the history of institutions like the courthouse, the county gaol and the diocesan school (all in Longford town). They show payments that were made to named office-holders (including the clerk of the crown, clerk of the peace, barony constables and sub-constables, the gaoler and gaol chaplains) and others.
They document aspects of local life and society. Importantly, in specifying road works and other projects, they often include topographical details such as the locations of houses, forges, churches and streams, and they give placenames.
In a general sense, they are significant copies of, or substitutes for, archives destroyed in the Public Record Office of Ireland in 1922, and also the Custom House in 1921.
Images of the two manuscript volumes have been submitted to Beyond 2022: Ireland's Virtual Record Treasury, and are available at virtualtreasury.ie.
For an introduction to the grand jury system, see People, Place and Power: The Grand Jury System in Ireland, by Dr Brian Gurrin et al.