Law and Order in Galway

By Samuel J. Maguire

Juries Being Merciful

The administration of the law became atrociously severe after 1688. From reading the Galway newspapers of the Georgian period one is led to believe that the number of people who perished on the gallows was only a portion of those offenders against whom the law enforced capital punishment. If one examines the calendars of crime - these calendars are frequently printed in the papers - one is amazed at the numbers, which were raked together for the assizes. Many of the jurors seem to have been more merciful than the law. They refused to find more than a low value on goods stolen, when the law inflicted the death penalty on stealing over I/I0d from a dwelling-house.

In consequence, the administration of the criminal law became exceedingly uncertain, and crime was stimulated rather than checked by severity. The forgery of bank notes and Exchequer Bills was made a capital felony. In other offences of the same kind, such as will and deeds, the offender was left to the statute of Elizabeth which prescribed the pillory, mutilation and branding.

Judge Fletcher

The following story is recorded of the merciful act of a Galway jury. Knowing the penalty following a verdict of guilty they against the weight of evidence found the prisoners not guilty:- A story is told of Judge Fletcher before whom two notorious Galway characters were being tried for highway robbery at Galway. To the astonishment of the court, as well as the prisoners, they were found not guilty. As they were being removed from the dock, the judge addressing the jailer, said, "Mr Walsh, you will greatly ease my mind if you would keep those two respectable gentlemen until 7 o' clock or half-past 7; for I mean to set out for Ennis Assizes at 5, and I should like to have at least two hours start of them".

It is also related that when trying a case involving a right of property to a number of pigs, he said: "Gentlemen of the jury, there were just twenty-four pigs in that drove - just twenty-four, gentlemen - exactly twice as many as there are in that jury box". Let us glance at the administration of law and order up to the end of the first quarter of the last century.

The Law as an Instrument of Repression

Parliament went on adding statute after statute to the code of English law in Ireland enlarging the long list of offences punishable by death. By 1830 they numbered 200. Not only were horse and sheep stealing and coining capital crimes, but stealing in a shop to the value of five shillings, and stealing anything privily from the person, were it only a handkerchief. The administering of unlawful oaths was also punished with death.

The governing class added new felonies. Judges and magistrates, with few exceptions, regarded themselves as the policemen of the existing order. The law put unlimited powers into their hands, and in using these powers they looked on the plain men and women as a body of rebels dangerous to society. It may be claimed from the following extracts from contemporary newspapers that the law was treated as an instrument not of justice but of repression, and the courts as instruments or a machinery of a class supremacy.

The Connaught Telegraph of November 8, 1792, reports: Early this morning was committed to the County Jail, by Mansergh St. George, Esq., (who may be described as a truculent magistrate); John Enaghan and Ushan, charged with violently assaulting Mr. Carroll of Headford, sometime ago, and making their escape for said offence out of the County Hall, at Lent Assizes, 1791. - Too much praise cannot be bestowed on Mr. St. George for his spirited and persevering exertions on all occasions.

Galway Town Gaol

A photograph of Galway Town Gaol.

The magistrate sought credit for his ability to commit as many people as he could. He had the glory of being congratulated at the Assizes before the Judge, the Sheriff, and the Grand Jury, and all who read the Crown Calendar. He gained favour among his neighbours into whose pockets he put money by making them prosecutors and witnesses in petty criminal cases. The people, on the other hand, were "unfortunately true to each other", and the magistrates had consequently to resort to craft to surprise them into disclosures. One method was to arrest a number of men, and then try to make them compromise each other. The use of unscrupulous characters as spies by the law stamped the poor as a population amenable to no influence but that of terror.

Examples of Sentencing

As already stated the sentences were out of all proportion to the offences. For example, in 1791-92 and 93; the following were some of the sentences:

Whipping-publicly and privately (in the jail) was quite common.

Stocks and Pillory had Fallen into Disuse by 1820

By the end of the first twenty years of the last century the use of the stocks and pillory had fallen into neglect, and one could not be found in the town as shown in the following case:

A poor man was summoned for selling apples on a Sunday. The members of the Bench were for punishing him under the Statute 3 and 4 William III. John Andrew Kirwan, a witting and popular man, and known as 'the poor man's magistrate', being in the chair was obliged, though dissenting, to pronounce judgement of the Court: "My good man, you have been found guilty by the majority and not the minority of the Bench, under a statute of William III, of the very desperate offence of selling apples on a Sunday. You are not aware, very likely, of who William III was because you are only a common apple man; but if you were an Orangeman you'd know it. You must understand that their worships don't like people eating apples on a Sunday, although 'tis likely that some of them, however pious, will have an apple-pie for dinner next Sunday. And now, as you have been summoned under a certain Act, you'll be punished under that Act, and I sentence you under that Act to be put in the stocks for the next two hours; and I don't think there are any stocks in the town; and if there are not, you must be discharged".

Some Strange Customs

When a jury disagreed carts were provided to carry the jurors to the bounds of the county, where they were discharged. They were attended by the Sub-Sheriff and escorted by a troop of cavalry. As most of the carriages in use in the county to the end of the seventeenth century possessed wheels, which revolved on, wooden axels and which were seldom, if ever, oiled, such journeys must have been painful.

Another curious custom existed of the presentation of black gloves, by the High Sheriff, to the bench and bar, on a criminal-receiving sentence.

Our authentic materials such as State Papers, Grand Jury Presentments and newspapers are scanty. Many of the newspapers of the time are so steeped in party and sectarian animosity that one has difficulty in bringing together with impartiality the conflicting statements.