The administration of Ireland was based on that in England. The revenue and military enforced tax collection and order. There were juries, petty and grand constables, vestries, overseers of the poor, manorial courts, informal committees of villages. There were officials of vestries, wards, manors, baronies and boroughs.  There was thought to be approximately 3,500 working on behalf of the state in 1670.

Until the middle of the 17th century, much of the local network of parishes, manors and baronies were manned by catholic incumbents. During the latter half of the century, Catholics re-entered local government.  However, after the Battle of the Boyne, Catholics were excluded from national county and municipal offices.

Thereafter, Catholics were supplanted by more reliable protestants as local magnates who had fought against parliament and later William of Orange suffered the consequences of their defeat.

The Test Act 1704 in effect,  excluded  Catholics from the administration. It  exempted high constables responsible for baronies, petty constables, tithingmen, head-boroughs, poor overseers, church wardens and surveyors from the requirement to produce a certificate of having taken communion according to the rights of the established church.

A middle-class of quasi-gentry of middleman evolved.  They were widely seen amongst the catholic population as oppressors and petty tyrants. Some Catholics remained as agents and seneschal and maintained senior positions, even  throughout the 18th century.

The established church had a pervasive role that extended beyond its religious functions. Townlands and parishes had secular responsibilities.

The townland was the  smallest unit in Ireland in the 17th and 18th century.  There were up to 62,000 townlands which varied from 2000 acres to 5 acres.  There were approximately 2,300 parishes.

Manorial Courts

Manor courts declined in number over the 17th and 18th Centuries. By the middle of the 19th century 204  manor courts still existed.  Their functions were both administrative and judicial below certain levels .Lords of the manor commissioned their agents as justice of the peace in order to discipline their tenantry.

Manorial courts heard disputes between tenants.  This could range from boundary disputes, land disputes, disputes over cattle, goods et cetera. Within the towns, borough courts had similar powers. Until the late 17th century, Brehon law was utilised in some courts and in some instances.

The nobility sought to protect their manorial privileges against encroachment by the state.  On occasions, sheriffs with their tourn  courts in each barony challenged manorial courts.


The assizes exercised social, administrative and judicial functions in the early 18th century.  They attracted magistrates, jurors, miscreants and notables from across society.

The assizes were presided over by higher court judges on circuit. Itinerant higher court judges tried crimes.

The assizes also transacted administrative and other business.  By the 18th century, purpose-built  courtrooms were provided in which to  hold proceedings with greater solemnity,  formality and comfort.


Each county had a high sheriff.  The lord lieutenant prepared lists from whom the sheriff was picked.  The role was held for a year during the 17th century and was seen to be financially burdensome.

The sheriff had the possibility of earning fees and commissions but had to account for monies  raised.  It was a calculation as to whether it was profitable. Numerous former sheriffs failed to clear their accounts and fell into default, for which they were subject to prosecution. Bribery and corruption were widespread. Sheriffs were frequently accused of partiality and exceeding their powers.

By 1679, the system of county governance, by the sheriffs was reasserted. It was extended from 13 shires to all 32.  The governors were concerned principally with raising and maintaining the militia.  They were assisted by deputies.

The sheriff had judicial powers. The sheriff courts with limited jurisdiction survived. The sheriff and his deputies enforced decisions of the higher court.  They also enforced the civil bill courts or decrees and received fees.  They did not receive fees for enforcing criminal decision.

Grand Juries

The sheriffs chose grand jurors who acted as returning officers for parliamentary election.  This enabled them to have a significant influence on the outcome of elections.  Steps are taken to have allies named as sheriffs and grand jurors.

The sheriff as presiding officer could determine the place, duration and time of the poll.  He could assist a particular candidate.  He judged whether a person qualified as a 40-shilling freeholder.

The sheriff picked the grand jury members usually up to 23.  They were picked form lists compiled by high constables in each barony.  They must generally have had a freehold of a certain valuation or lease of a minimum length.  Catholics were barred as of 1708.

Through the 18th century, more powers were conferred on the grand jury.  Grand juries are subject to pressures from their barony. They  had powers under Acts of parliament to direct public money into schemes.  The magistrates and grand juries were accused of being a self-interested clique.  Many criticised their operations.

Justices / Magistrates

Outside of Quarter Sessions, panels of justices had wide powers. In effect, Justices had significant discretion to what laws should be enforced. The range of criminal statutes increased significantly in the 18th century from the Irish and English parliaments.  An ever-increasing range of statutory offences were placed within the  justice’s/ magistrate’s jurisdiction.

Justices of the peace were appointed by the central government on the basis of their political reliability.  Catholics were barred by the end of the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th century, signed testimonials were required for persons  recommended for office, such as Justices of the Peace.  A recommendations from the county governor was essential.  This brought the magistry more into the spoils  system where connections and lobbying assisted appointment.


Many towns had long-established boroughs. Some boroughs were old and anachronistic, but yet retained power to return to members to parliament.  Many new boroughs were established during the Stuart  period.

Sixty parliamentary boroughs were established in the 17th century.  Many of them returned members to parliaments.

Municipal elections took place.  The boroughs operated borough courts and corporations.  The Test Act 1704 removed persons who were not member of the established church from office/.


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