Local authorities conducted a great deal of the limited public administration that existed in the 18th century.Local government was notionally the same in Ireland and England.

The 32 counties of modern Ireland had been created by the early 17th century.  Each county was divided into Baronies and civil/Church of Ireland parishes.

Some of the parliamentary boroughs which have been chartered were small and were little more villages.  Some had no inhabitants at all. In some county boroughs, Aldermen and other members of the governing council held office for  life.

There were a number of special authorities within Dublin including the Wide Streets Commissions, Commissioners with planning power, the Paving Board, the Ballast Board, directors of the watch and the Police magistry .  Similar authorities were constituted in other larger cities.

In the larger towns, paving, cleansing and lighting powers were vested in Commissioners.  Police and water commissioners existed in certain towns, as of the late 18th century.


Until the 1770s the Chief Secretary’s office was a single unit.  It was then split into a civil and military side.  The civil department dealt with the supervision of local government.

Local government was largely run by the gentry land owning classes.  Appointments were in one sense an honour but offered opportunities for profit and corruption.

Members of local government were unpaid.  Members of the grand jury met twice yearly at the time of assizes.  There were summoned by the sheriff and were selected from persons holding freehold property above certain high values.

The established church had an administrative role.  It dealt with wills and matrimonial matters.  The parish was responsible for the upkeep of the church and collected tithes.  It implemented much local government.  Until the middle of the 18th century when reorganized in 1760 it was responsible for road labour service.  It levied tithes on the locality.

Certain towns and their districts comprised manors.  These had been granted by royal patent to individuals and acted as  local government authority.  The seneschal was appointed by the Lord of the Manor.

Vestries were empowered to levy parish cess for maintaining by road.  They appointed constables and overseers.

The Grand Jury

The most important local government body was the Grand Jury.  It was comprised of local Justices of the Peace  together with a number of cess payers  selected from a panel prepared by the Grand Jury. The bailiff summons the Grand Jury.

It conducted civil and criminal business in the county at assize time. Prior to assizes, a presentment session was convened for each Barony in the county.

The Grand Jury appointed the officials, such as petty constables, overseers for work, jailor and way masters.  They made presentments for repairs of bridges and roads.

The grand jury employed officials, generally a county treasurer and clerk of the Crown.  The treasurer managed the property, collected the cess and distributed the payments, keeping accounts.

They considered matters of public works in the Barony and submitted proposals or presentments to the Grand Jury.  The Grand Jury could accept, reject or modify it.  Once the presentments had been viewed, they were laid before the justices of the assize for approval.

County Cess

The grand jury’s administrative functions were financed by the county cess.  In some cases, particular projects or schemes might receive a parliamentary grant. E

This was levied on the  entire County cess or on the Barony, Barony cess.  The cost of roads was born by the Barony.  Bridges and county buildings were assessed on the entire County.

Cess was payable by the occupier.  The assessments were made on the basis of the Stratford and Petty surveys made in the 17th century.  The basis of assessment varied in different areas.

Grand Jury Officials

The Grand Jury of each county had two full-time officials, namely the treasurer and clerk of the crown.  The treasurer oversaw collection of the county cess and was responsible for making disbursements on the instructions of the foreman of the Grand Jury.  The clerk of the crown kept records, received presentments and drafted orders.

The clerk of the Crown kept records, received presentiments and objections and drafted orders.  Another official was the coroner who inquired into deaths, wreckages and treasure troves, investigated prisoner escapes and had certain duties in relation to fatal nuisances.

Municipal Authorities

The powers and authorities of boroughs varied considerably.  In some places, they transacted all administrative business, whereas in other authorities, their power  were more limited.  It might range from management of some corporation property to a much wider range of law and order matters , prevention of nuisance and similar functions.

The corporation comprised the Lord Mayor, sheriffs, aldermen and a common council. The board of aldermen, and common council was the governing body.  Quarter assemblies were held.  Standing committees dealt with special aspects of business.

Dublin also had Grand Juries.  The Grand Juries comprised an authority distinct from the corporation assembly. There was an significant overlap in membership.

City parishes performed certain functions.


The state of roads in Ireland was very poor at the start of the 18th century. Legislation in the 1730s and 1740s encouraged roadbuilding.  Numerous acts were passed to support roadbuilding. In the course of the century, roadbuilding spanned out from Dublin at first towards the economically developed south and east and later to the west and north.  As towns developed more minor local roads spanned through the country.

Turnpikes were built privately  toll roads.  The tolls represented a return on capital for the initial builders and paid for maintenance.  Many turnpikes did not prove profitable and the roads went to ruin.  Numerous statutes were made to build new roads and improve existing roads.

Ordinary roads were constructed by petition or presentiment to the grand jury.  After the assizes the grand jury convened to consider roads and public works, including bridges, jails and workhouses.  The petitioner would present the merits of a road, by using maps and estimates to of valuation.  Generally, petitions were laid by agents, resident gentry, clergy or substantial tenants. Many roads were built to the houses of gentries or detoured around estates.

Until 1759 roads were a local responsibility depending on compulsory labour locally.  After 1760 they were paid for by the county cess.  The county cess fell largely on tenants, which was unpopular.

Road Building

A statute from the early 17th century had placed the general charge for roadbuilding on each parish, requiring it to supply the necessary labour and equipment.

Legislation of 1710 limited labour to six days per year but extended to works within 2 miles of the parish boundary.  The works traditionally took place within the summer month with the parish being obliged to provide tools.

In the earlier part of the 18th century, roads were of standard size with the main road 18 to 20 feet with stones 8 inches deep in the centre and 5 inches deep in the gravel shoulder.  Second class roads were 15 to 18 feet and minor roads 12 to 15 feet with metaling 6 inches deep in the centre and 4 inches up the side.  The materials used depend on local availability.

Transport was by horse-drawn cars for carriage for goods and persons and by larger carts for the transport of coal and corn,


The military performed a preeminent role and law and order.  The standing army comprised British regiments.  Local land owning aristocracy were frequently officers in the army. Most regiments were generally recruited in Britain.  The army in Ireland was supported by the Irish Exchequer.

Barracks were built in the larger towns. The army supported security of the state and also supported civil magistrates and collection of revenue.

Throughout the country, constables, either high constables, baronial, petty, or sub-constables  were appointed by the grant jury. Parish  constables were appointed by justices of the piece.  The position was untrained, poorly paid and largely part time.

In each  Dublin Parish, parishioners  elected directors of the watch who appointed and supervised constables and watchmen, North and south of the Liffey,  there was a divisional justice with a high constable, chief peace officer and 25 sub constables.

Policing duties rested with the high constable in each barony and county.  Petty constables were responsible in manors and parishes.  They were not paid.


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