Guide to National Archives of Ireland

Courts and Probate Registries


Older Superior Courts

Before 1877 there were several superior courts, the oldest and most important of which were the Courts of Chancery, King's or Queen's Bench, Common Pleas and Exchequer (the 'Four Courts'). These courts dealt with administrative as well as legal matters and their records dated from medieval times, but few of them survived the destruction of 1922. Finding aids to extant material include Miscellaneous Index, Strong Room Shelf List and List of Salved Chancery Pleadings. See Philomena Connolly, 'The Medieval Irish Plea Rolls: an Introduction', Irish Archives, Spring 1995, pages 3-11.

High Court

The High Court was established in 1877, but few records before 1922 survive. Most records are open to public inspection, but access to files relating to matrimonial and revenue cases is restricted. Finding aids include High Court Index, and Annual Indexes of Cause Books and Court Orders from 1922.

Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeal

These two courts were established in 1924, replacing the Court of Appeal set up in 1877, and their records commence in 1922. See Supreme Court Index.

Circuit Court, County Courts and Grand Juries

From 1924 onwards a Registrar in each county has been responsible for keeping the records of the Circuit Court in that county. Prior to 1924 a Clerk of the Crown and Peace in each county maintained the records of the County Court (Court of Quarter Sessions), as well as the records of the Assizes (see below). The Clerk of the Crown and Peace was also responsible for keeping the records of the Grand Jury, the functions of which body were administrative and financial as well as legal. Most surviving court records are of twentieth century date, although there are earlier records for some counties. As well as court documents, the surviving records include Grand Jury Presentment Books, voters' lists, registers of trees planted, and maps and plans concerning roads, railways and other public works. See Circuit Court Indexes, arranged by county (Case 11).

Crown and Peace - see Circuit Court, etc, above

Assizes and Central Criminal Court

Prior to 1924 serious criminal cases were dealt with at Assizes in each county, the records of which were maintained by the Clerk of the Crown and Peace. From 1924 onwards serious criminal cases have been tried in the Central Criminal Court in Dublin. See Circuit Court Indexes, arranged by county, and for the period after 1924 see the Circuit Court Index for County Dublin.

Petty Sessions Courts

Prior to the 1920s, the lowest courts were the Petty Sessions. The National Archives holds most Petty Sessions Court Books for the period 1858-1924 (see Lists of same).

Dáil Éireann Courts (Winding Up) Commission

During the revolutionary period 1920-22 Dáil Éireann established courts in competition with those of the British Crown. A Commission was set up in 1923 to wind up the affairs of the Dáil Courts, and its records include registers and accounts of these courts (see List).

Incumbered and Landed Estates Courts

The Incumbered Estates Court was established in 1849 to oversee the sale of estates burdened with unsustainable levels of debt. Legislation of 1858 and 1859 replaced the Incumbered Estates Court with a Landed Estates Court, which was in turn incorporated into the Land Judges Court in 1879. The main surviving records in the National Archives are two sets of printed rentals relating to sales of estates, the O'Brien Rentals 1855-85 and the smaller set of Quit Rent Office Rentals. These records are known as 'LEC Rentals' for convenience, and there are further holdings in the National Library of Ireland and Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. The O'Brien Rentals are indexed by estate owner, date and townland, and the Quit Rent Office Rentals by estate owner only (Case 5). The National Archives also holds deeds relating to some estates which had been lodged in court by former owners.

Testamentary Records

Before 1858 wills and administrations were processed in the Prerogative Court and the Consistorial or Diocesan Courts of the Church of Ireland. From 1858 onwards grants of probate and administration were made in the Principal Registry and District Probate Registries, which were adjuncts of the civil court system. For convenience, the two systems of processing wills, church pre-1858 and civil post-1858, are considered together here.

Nearly all original Prerogative Wills and Administrations were destroyed in 1922, but the indexes have survived, and there is a considerable quantity of copies and abstracts, mostly notably the Betham Abstracts of pre-1800 wills. Again, original Diocesan Wills and Administrations were lost in 1922, and while the indexes have survived, fewer copies and abstracts of this class of record are to be found. The Index to Prerogative Wills 1536-1810 and the indexes to most Diocesan Wills have been printed and are widely available. The position with regard to post-1858 Wills and Administrations is more positive, as transcripts had been kept in the District Registries, and the surviving Grant Books are now divided between the National Archives and Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. In addition, printed Calendars of Wills and Administrations were produced from 1858 onwards containing brief details concerning the deceased and executors, and these are on the open shelves with a master index for the years 1858-77.

Various copies and abstracts of all classes of wills have been and continue to be acquired by the National Archives, and these are covered by a Testamentary Card Index (note that this index does not include entries in the Betham Abstracts and District Registry Grant Books). Other important accessions include Inland Revenue Registers containing abstracts of wills and administrations 1828-39, and Charitable Donations and Bequests Books abstracting wills which mention charitable bequests from 1800 onwards. It should also be noted that copies and abstracts of wills are held in other repositories, particularly the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, the National Library of Ireland, the Genealogical Office (indexed in Analecta Hibernica, 17), the Registry of Deeds (abstracted in three volumes published by the Irish Manuscripts Commission) and the Representative Church Body Library. For further information on the complicated subject of wills, see Rosemary ffolliott's and Eileen O'Byrne's chapter in Irish Genealogy: A Record Finder.

Locations of Court and Testamentary Records

Surviving Court Records are still stored in the Four Courts, and must be ordered a day in advance. Pre-1900 Testamentary Records are kept in Bishop Street, but Wills, Administration Papers and Schedules of Assets post-1900 are stored in the Four Courts and in the Bishop Street Warehouse.