The Grand Juries of the County of Westmeath

Pdf The Grand Juries of the County of Westmeath from the year 1727 to the year 1853. Ledestown: John Charles Lyons, 1853.
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The Grand Juries of the County of Westmeath describes the selection and lists the names of members who sat on Grand Juries in Westmeath between the early 18th century and the mid 19th century.

The creation of shires or counties began under the reign of Edward the Elder of Wessex who divided up the ancient kingdom of Mercia in England . The tradition continued when the Normans invaded Ireland and extended their control over the country from the Pale into Leinster , Munster and Connaught . Between the late 16th and late 17th centuries, the Gaelic Irish chieftains were finally defeated in a series of wars and Anglo-Irish Protestant gentry became the landowners and therefore the government of the island of Ireland .

The evolution of the Grand Jury system and its functions was complex as it came into being over the centuries.

The panel for the Grand Jury was selected by the sheriff from the major ratepayers. The Grand Jury numbered between twelve and twenty three men with twelve men having to reach agreement. Their principle duty was to set the cess or rate. The members of the Grand Jury could make presentments of work (e.g. building a road on an estate) which were to be paid by the county. This gave great scope for corruption before controls were introduced in the 19th century. Many country gentlemen abused the system to cheat each other or accepting bribes for votes.

Other activities of the Grand Juries were the maintenance of militia lists, shire courts, provision and upkeep of roads and bridges, asylums, building and maintaining public buildings, infirmaries and hospitals, industrial schools, famine relief works and much more. Due to corrupt practises responsibilities for gaols and prisons and police were taken away from the grand juries in the 19th century. The raising of revenue was complex and problematic with differences between how much baronies and townlands could be levied. Rates were usually paid twice a year by an occupier of a property based on the net annual value of the rateable property.

The grand jury also decided if criminal cases would proceed and had to be convinced by the prosecutor that there was reasonable suspicion, probable cause or a prima facie case that law breaking had occurred. The jury could compel witnesses to make testimony but this was held in a closed session and it would be decided accordingly if cases had enough weight to proceed.

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