There is a popular saying in politics sometimes attributed to Ronald Reagan ‘When you’re explaining,…
The memorial to the Offaly Volunteers who fought in the War of Independence was unveiled on the lawn of the county courthouse, Tullamore in 1953. It was Peadar Bracken (1887–1961) former OC Offaly Brigade and from 1922-3 the Tullamore district court clerk who ensured that the IRA Volunteer monument was placed on the lawn of the courthouse. Besides, a site in O’Connor Square was not an option from 1926 when the war memorial was completed. Given that it was principally to the Tullamore courthouse that the feared judges of the assizes would arrive it has strong symbolism. The Volunteer monument was completed in 1939 but not unveiled until 1953 due to the difference between the Free Staters (National Army) and the Republicans.
Memorial to members of the Old IRA at the county courthouse, Tullamore
As noted in an earlier article in Offalyhistoryblog the last of the assizes was held in July 1921 with Judge Wiley presiding and a large force of military to protect him as the symbol of the British state. Now with the marking the 100th anniversary of the Treaty and the departure of Crown forces from Ireland it seems appropriate to look again at the twice-annual display of British power in the assize towns of Ireland.
A rare view of the assize judges arriving with mounted escort of police with sabres drawn. Courtesy of Offaly Libraries. Possibly in 1914 or 1915. A mounted police force was not seen after 1921 at the courthouse until the opening of the renovated building in 2007 and more recently following the murder of Ashling Murphy.
Assizes had been held in King’s County (formed in 1557), and much of the rest of the country, from the 1560s but it was not until after 1610 that the circuit system with itinerant justices became firmly established. King’s County formed part of the Leinster circuit until 1796 when a new sixth circuit was established, known as the home circuit. This was to last until 1885 when the number of circuits was again reduced back to five and King’s County transferred to the Connaught circuit. Further changes followed in 1900 but King’s County remained in the Connaught circuit until 1922 when the system was suspended by the Provisional government and abolished in 1924. The assize courts which continued to operate until 1921 had full jurisdiction to deal with every department of the administration of justice at first instance. All indictable crime of a serious nature was tried at assizes. However, when the civil bill jurisdiction passed to the assistant barristers after 1796 much of the work on the civil side consisted of hearing appeals from the decisions of assistant barristers at quarter sessions and later county court judges (see below) to the assizes. The judge at assize sat by virtue of his commission from the monarch and not his office.
A rare view of the ceremonial to present arms at the railway station on the arrival of the assize judges. This view from the railway bridge looking into Cormac Street. Courtesy of Offaly Libraries
The ceremony of the judge being met at the edge of the town, or later the railway station, was to emphasise the degree of authority he had as the monarch’s appointee for effecting justice at county level instead of the case having to be heard in the Dublin superior courts. Delany has described the ceremonial and formal aspects of the arrival of the judges in the assize town and how ‘the judge in commission’ was conducted to the crown court by the sheriff. When the formalities were concluded the judge who was to sit in the civil court then took his place. Hence the two semi-circular courtrooms in the original Tullamore courthouse and others like it. The grand jury was sworn in the crown court and the judge would address the twenty-three members of the grand jury presided over by the high sheriff on the state of the county. This was sometimes a political statement as in the charges of Baron Smith, a judge of the assize, who resided at Newtown, Geashill, County Offaly. Smith’s charges or statements to the grand juries and the replying addresses of loyalty from grand juries have been published. The Smith charges are with reference to the turbulent period in the early 1830s when there was intense local opposition to tithes and a determination on the part of the county oligarchies to suppress agrarian violence without any concomitant willingness to deal with its source. A local example of the workings of the assizes in an Irish county in the 1830s is available for the county of Longford. With a Whig government in power, supported by O’Connell, it was a time when the landowners felt somewhat isolated and unsupported by central government as can be seen in the response of King’s County magistrates to the murder of the second earl of Norbury at Durrow, Tullamore in 1839.
The two fine houses of the 1740s in O’Connor Square, Tullamore. The large house was that of the Tarleton family, demolished in 1936 and now the site of the county library. That to the left demolished c 1985. Now TSB and Tullamore Library. Courtesy of Fergal MacCabe.
By the end of the nineteenth century and, in stark contrast to the 1880s, there was a substantial reduction in ‘crime’ and the role of the presiding crown court judge was largely to receive the report of the county inspector of the constabulary and to congratulate the members of the grand jury on how peaceful the county was. After these formalities the trial of the prisoners began. Almost at the end of the century and just before the passing of the legislation setting up the county councils, the practice of a mounted police escort for the assize judges on arrival at the Tullamore railway station was largely discontinued. One of the last to get such fine treatment were Mr Justice Madden and Mr Justice Andrews in March 1897 when they were met at Tullamore railway station by the then high sheriff, the Tullamore distiller and lover of the turf, Bernard Daly, and were then escorted to lodgings at Tarleton’s residence in Charleville (now O’Connor) Square. The house where the judges stayed was demolished in the 1930s to make way for a new school that now houses Tullamore library. The work of the policeman during the assizes week twice a year, and the additional workload preserving the majesty of the law entailed, has been vividly portrayed in the memoir of Thomas Fennell of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Fennell was stationed in King’s County from late 1884 to 1897 where he was a sergeant for most of the period. The county grand jury would usually meet several days before the arrival of the judges in the town to deal with the fiscal or county business of the grand jury. It was this involvement in local government that was swept away by the passing of the local government act in 1898 with the ushering in of the new county councils the following year. The grand jury remit in reviewing criminal bills continued until 1921. Having heard the charge of the judge at either quarter sessions or assizes and the report on the state of the county the bills of indictment were put before the grand jury. The grand jury, sitting in secret, listened to the prosecution evidence or as much of it as the jurors wanted to hear, and then decided whether the accused ought to be tried or not. Up to the 1800s the prosecution of a crime was by way of private prosecution but in 1801 crown prosecutors were appointed for the assize circuits. By 1830 a similar function was carried out at quarter sessions by the sessional crown solicitor who might also conduct cases at the petty sessions. However, many of the summary cases were conducted by police officers.
Baron Palles in Tullamore in 1903
Delany recalled the assizes in his chapter on the home circuit in his biography of Baron Palles, and perhaps, regretted the loss of the pageantry and dignity of the assize. Before leaving Dublin for their progress round the circuit the judges signed a series of precepts to the sheriff of each county calling on them, inter alia, to summon jurors to try all such matters as might come before them. The authority to hold the assize came from the reigning British monarch. After 1837 this was from the queen’s commission and the initial business in the crown court was the reading of the commission. The design of many courthouses provided for the crown and civil courts with the grand jury room for the twenty-three members of the grand jury to be sworn in. In that context it is worth reproducing Delany’s description of the opening of an assize to see how the architecture of the Tullamore building fitted seamlessly with the grand opening ceremony. All that was missing for the judges was residential quarters during their stay. But true to other travellers, such as Arthur Young, the judges preferred to stay in the best country or town houses in the assize town rather than a local hotel. Not surprisingly, some visiting justices, such as Smith and Norbury, greatly valued mixing with the local landed gentry. Delany’s description of the typical assize was as follows:
Baron Palles and Peter the Packer (Sir Patrick O’Brien) with ‘moustache’ with Naish to centre. Courtesy of The Clongownian
When the judges arrived in the assize town and went straight to Court, they did so robed, having been met at the railway station, or the outskirts of the town, by the Sheriff with a police escort. The judge who was to try crime – “the Judge in Commission” – wore scarlet robes trimmed with ermine and full-bottomed wig. The other judge wore black robes trimmed with ermine, and a bob-wig, and carried his three-corner hat, or “tricorne”. At the courthouse, the judge in commission was conducted to the Crown Court by the Sheriff, while the other judge was taken to his room by the Under-Sheriff. On entering the Crown Court, the judge in commission stood at his desk, on which his three-cornered hat had been placed. His crier then made two proclamations:
“All persons having anything to do before my Lords, the Queen’s Justice of Assize, Oyer and Terminer, and General Gaol Delivery for this County of – , draw near and give your attendance;” and “My Lords, the Queen’s Justices, do strictly charge and command all persons to keep silence whilst the Commission of our Sovereign Lady the Queen is produced and read. “
The Clerk of the Crown then read a condensed version of the commission. When he reached the passage which included the phrase “Our Judges for the time being of our Courts of….., “ the Clerk of the Crown substituted the name of the judge who was standing above him, and turned and bowed to him. The judge in return raised his three-corned hat to his head, bowed, and replaced it on his desk. When the commission had been read, the judge’s crier said “God Save the Queen!” and the judge then took his seat. A message was then sent to the other judge, who had been waiting in his room, that the commission had been opened, and he then went into his court to start the civil work. The crier in the Crown Court then said “Mr. High Sheriff of this County, be pleased to return the several precepts and writs to you directed and delivered or returnable here this day that my Lords the Queen’s Justices may proceed thereon”. The Sheriff then handed to the judge a roll of papers tied up with tape. The judge received them with a bow, and handed them to the Clerk of the Crown.
There followed the swearing of the Grand Jury. The crier said “Gentlemen of the Grand Jury, be pleased to answer your names and save your fines. “The Clerk of the Crown then read out twenty-three names, and each in turn said “Here”. The oath was administered to each by the judge’s registrar, and there then came an admonition from the crier “My Lords the Queen’s Justices do strictly charge and command all persons to keep silence whilst the charge is given to this Grand Jury upon pain of fine and imprisonment.” The judge then addressed the Grand Jury on the “state of the county” the members of the Bar, by custom, being absent. Although the address was intended to deal with the business in hand, some judges used the occasion to unburden themselves of their views on the state of the country at large. Thus, Mr Justice Fletcher of the Court of Common Pleas, delivered a fiery political charge to the Grand Jury at Wexford in 1814, and Baron Smith was accused by O’Connell of replying from the Bench to speeches in Parliament. He was also charged by O’Connell with trying prisoners at night!
When the charge was over, the Grand Jury retired to their room, and the judge retired to his, where he put off his full-bottomed wig and replaced it with his bob-wig, He waited until the Grand Jury were ready with a “true Bill” of indictment. When they returned with an indictment, indorsed “true Bill” or otherwise, it had to be handed direct by the foreman to the Clerk of the Crown. The judge in commission then began trying prisoners.
Most of the judges of the old regime were retired in 1924 (the new circuit court judge for the midland circuit, John Wakely was an exception), but the era of the Dáil courts was over and the old legal system was back, albeit with new courts at district and circuit level. The judicial establishment was smaller and cheaper to run. The grand jury went and with it the system of trying criminal cases on assize – the central criminal court would now answer for the more serious cases. The old assize system was abolished. It would be recalled from time to time such as with the demolition of the Tarleton house in O’Connor Square in 1936. Here the assize judges had stayed when not visiting the more aristocratic gentry.
Tullamore courthouse and jail dating from 1830 and 1835 with warders’ houses to the right.
Midland Tribune 5/3/1898.
OPENING OF THE COMMISSION.
A SMALL CALENDAR.
On Monday morning the Spring Assizes for King’s County were opened in the courthouse, Tullamore, by the Right Hon. Lord Justice Walker, and the Right Hon. Mr. Justice Madden. Their lordship arrived by the 11 a.m. train from Dublin, and were met on the railway platform by the sub-sheriff, Mr. Richard Bull, and a guard of honour of the Royal Irish Constabulary in charge of District-Inspector W. J. Byrne , Shinrone. The judges immediately proceeded to their Lodgings in Charleville Square escorted by three mounted police who came down for the purpose from the constabulary depot, Phoenix Park. The High Sheriff’s equipage, which in former times was remarkable for its style and splendour, consisted on the present occasion of an ordinary hackney coach hired for the purpose; while the place of the gorgeous footman who usually occupied a seat on the box, resplendent in a new outfit, was usurped in this instance by a liveried bailiff who looked clumsy and uncomfortable enough in his post as lacquey. At half past 11 o’clock Lord Justice Walker, entered the Crown Court, and the Grand Jury having been sworn, the Commission was opened.
KING’S COUNTY ASSIZES.
On this Wednesday Judges Gibson and Madden arrived in Tullamore for their assize duties, which commence in the King’s county as first on the Connaught Circuit. The usual attentions marked their appearance. On alighting from the train at 11 a.m. they were waited on by High Sheriff Mr. Toler and his Under Sheriff Mr Bull, and immediately the R.I.C. guard of honour presented arms. Having robed at their lodgings in Charleville Square they re- entered the Sheriff’s carriage, and by half-past eleven each was in his respective Court. From the flag staff over the building floated the Union Jack. Mr. Fagan having read the King’s Commission, all standing he called the Grand Jury, and they were sworn, viz.
Judge Gibson addressed them briefly in congratulatory terms generally on the light number and quality of the bills which would give little trouble in dealing with them. His Lordship enumerated them in outline. One indictment was a case against persons named Dowling, Carbery, and Byrne for breaking into premises at Kilmalogue. The two latter were sent to an industrial school, and the first named also pleaded guilty. One indictment charged G. Mullen, Tullamore, for cruelty by neglecting his young son, and the jury acquitted him.
One was a charge against James Cleary alias Clarke, the indictment against whom was for occasioning the death of his employer, John Dooly, at Ballygaddy, near Birr, when returning from Roscrea fair on the 25th November. The Grand Jury found a true bill.
The courthouse at Philipstown (Daingean) is use for assizes until c 1900, as was that at Birr until 1921.
Judges of all three courts have frequently been met by a garda escort car at the boundaries of Tullamore in the interest of security up to recent times.
For a view of the ceremonial arrangements from the perspective of the judiciary see the recently published memoir of Ignatius O’Brien , Hogan and Maume (eds), (Four Courts Press, 2021).
 Desmond McCabe, ‘ “That part that laws or kings can cause or cure”: crown prosecutions and jury trials at Longford assizes, 1830-45’ in Raymond Gillespie and Gerard Moran (eds), Longford: essays in county history (Dublin, 1991), pp 153-72.
 Delany, Palles, pp 36-39. For Baron Smith see Charges of Baron Smith, Dublin, 1834. These charges arose out of the Castlepollard trial which took place in Mullingar in 1831and attacks on Smith in the House of Commons.
 Midland Tribune, 6 March 1897.
 Rosemary Fennell (ed.), The Royal Irish Constabulary: a history and personal memoir, Thomas Fennell (R.I.C. NO. 41310), (Dublin 2003), pp 78-88.
 V. T. H. Delany, Christopher Palles: lord chief baron of her majesty’s court of exchequer in Ireland, 1874-1916 (Dublin, 1960), pp 37-39. For his note on the criminal jurisdiction see pp 46-47. Oyer and Terminer meant to hear and determine while gaol delivery was literally to try prisoners held in gaol and of assize meant civil suits.
The parade of RIC at Cormac Street possibly c 1914-15 with the Acres_Pierce built terrace to the left and the railway bridge in the foreground.