“This fine building, which is superior to most provincial seats of justice, stands at Newtown-Smith, on the site of the ancient and venerable abbey of the Franciscans, which by the Charter of Charles II ‘is to be and remain part of the County of Galway forever’. It was commenced in 1812, and on 1st of April, 1815, was opened for the reception of the then going judges of assize.
“Besides two spacious and well-appointed courts for transacting the civil and criminal business, with grand and petty-jury rooms adjoining, there are several commodious offices and apartments for the High Sheriff, Treasurer, Clerk of the Peace and other Law Officers. The lofty portico, entrance and extensive hall of this fine structure will immediately attract attention. It is altogether an edifice highly creditable to the County and considerably ornamental to the town.”
That was how Hardiman described the then new courthouse in his History in 1820. It replaced the Tholsel which had acted as a courthouse/town hall/market house and was situated on Shop Street (where Flanagan’s Chemist is today ) since 1641.
The administration of the law became very severe in Galway in the 18th century with many people being sent to the gallows having been given sentences such as, in 1791/2/3: Richard Powell sentenced to be executed for highway robbery; John McDonough sentenced to be transported for seven years for stealing a pair of shoes, the property of James Brenan; Henry Nowlan, sentenced to be burned in hand and imprisoned for a week for stealing a pair of shoes; Thomas Flaherty, found to be a vagrant, sentenced to be whipped and to be transported immediately.
Whipping, be it in public or private (in jail ) was quite common at the time, as were stocks and the pillory. Because of all this severity, many jurors were far more merciful than the law, refusing to hand out heavy sentences. Sometimes, the results were funny as in the case of two notorious Galway characters being tried for highway robbery (punishable by death ). 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 addressed the gaoler and said, “Mr Walsh, you will greatly ease my mind if you would keep these 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 was also said of the same judge, that when trying a case involving a right of property to a number of pigs, he said, “Gentlemen of the jury, there were just 24 pigs in that drove, just 24 gentlemen, exactly twice the number as there are in that jury box.”
Our thanks to the National Library for this photograph, taken c1870.