Dáil Courts
During the Irish War of Independence
Irish War of Independence
The Irish War of Independence , Anglo-Irish War, Black and Tan War, or Tan War was a guerrilla war mounted by the Irish Republican Army against the British government and its forces in Ireland. It began in January 1919, following the Irish Republic's declaration of independence. Both sides agreed...

, the Dáil Courts were the judicial
The judiciary is the system of courts that interprets and applies the law in the name of the state. The judiciary also provides a mechanism for the resolution of disputes...

 branch of government
Separation of powers
The separation of powers, often imprecisely used interchangeably with the trias politica principle, is a model for the governance of a state. The model was first developed in ancient Greece and came into widespread use by the Roman Republic as part of the unmodified Constitution of the Roman Republic...

 of the short-lived Irish Republic
Irish Republic
The Irish Republic was a revolutionary state that declared its independence from Great Britain in January 1919. It established a legislature , a government , a court system and a police force...

. They were formally established by a decree of the First Dáil Éireann
First Dáil
The First Dáil was Dáil Éireann as it convened from 1919–1921. In 1919 candidates who had been elected in the Westminster elections of 1918 refused to recognise the Parliament of the United Kingdom and instead assembled as a unicameral, revolutionary parliament called "Dáil Éireann"...

 on 29 June 1920, replacing more limited Arbitration Courts that had been authorised a year earlier. The Dáil Courts were an integral part of the Irish Republic’s policy of undermining British rule in Ireland.

Precursor Arbitration Courts

The precursor of the Dáil Court system was a forum for arbitration
Arbitration, a form of alternative dispute resolution , is a legal technique for the resolution of disputes outside the courts, where the parties to a dispute refer it to one or more persons , by whose decision they agree to be bound...

 commonly known as the 'Sinn Féin Court'. In 1904, Arthur Griffith
Arthur Griffith
Arthur Griffith was the founder and third leader of Sinn Féin. He served as President of Dáil Éireann from January to August 1922, and was head of the Irish delegation at the negotiations in London that produced the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.-Early life:...

 had reiterated the idea of National Arbitration Courts in every county:

At a Ministry
The Aireacht or Ministry was the cabinet of the 1919–1922 Irish Republic. The Ministry was originally established by the Dáil Constitution adopted by the First Dáil in 1919, after it issued the Irish Declaration of Independence...

 meeting of 23 June 1919, it was decided to set up a committee on Arbitration Courts. Unlike the rules which then regulated who could become a Justice of the Peace
Justice of the Peace
A justice of the peace is a puisne judicial officer elected or appointed by means of a commission to keep the peace. Depending on the jurisdiction, they might dispense summary justice or merely deal with local administrative applications in common law jurisdictions...

, women were expressly eligible to become judges in the new courts. The general idea of Parish and District Courts on the lines of those then operating in (South Mayo) West Clare was approved. The Parish Courts were usually arbitrated by local Irish Republican Army
Irish Republican Army
The Irish Republican Army was an Irish republican revolutionary military organisation. It was descended from the Irish Volunteers, an organisation established on 25 November 1913 that staged the Easter Rising in April 1916...

, Catholic clergy, or Sinn Féin
Sinn Féin
Sinn Féin is a left wing, Irish republican political party in Ireland. The name is Irish for "ourselves" or "we ourselves", although it is frequently mistranslated as "ourselves alone". Originating in the Sinn Féin organisation founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith, it took its current form in 1970...

 figures who had authority in the area. In appearance they were less formal than the British civil courts and its officers did not wear regalia associated with the legal profession of the time such as gowns and wigs. They filled a vacuum which had been created by the conflict, and sought to persuade people who were inclined to fear the IRA's revolutionary nature that an independent Ireland would not set aside personal and property rights. During the war, the courts gradually extended their influence across most of the country, usurping the British law courts as the British government lost its authority in the eyes of the majority.

On the 4th March 1919, Austin Stack
Austin Stack
Austin Stack was an Irish revolutionary and politician.-Early life:Stack was born in Ballymullen, Tralee, County Kerry. He was educated at the Christian Brothers School in Tralee. At the age of fourteen he left school and became a clerk in a solicitor's office. A gifted Gaelic footballer, he...

 submitted a report regarding "courts with coercive jurisdiction". However, he did not think that it was yet feasible to make them immediately operational and pointed out that the Dáil Decree, (Decree No. 8, Session 4, 1919) only provided for Arbitration Courts. The Dáil Courts replaced the Sinn Féin Arbitration Courts, authorised in June 1919. The latter, only fully operational in the west of Ireland particularly, Mayo
County Mayo
County Mayo is a county in Ireland. It is located in the West Region and is also part of the province of Connacht. It is named after the village of Mayo, which is now generally known as Mayo Abbey. Mayo County Council is the local authority for the county. The population of the county is 130,552...

, Galway
County Galway
County Galway is a county in Ireland. It is located in the West Region and is also part of the province of Connacht. It is named after the city of Galway. Galway County Council is the local authority for the county. There are several strongly Irish-speaking areas in the west of the county...

 and Clare
County Clare
-History:There was a Neolithic civilisation in the Clare area — the name of the peoples is unknown, but the Prehistoric peoples left evidence behind in the form of ancient dolmen; single-chamber megalithic tombs, usually consisting of three or more upright stones...

, and with limited jurisdiction in property disputes, had been coming under pressure to try criminal cases. The critical difference between the two systems was the power to adjudicate assumed by the new courts regardless of the wishes of the parties
Party (law)
A party is a person or group of persons that compose a single entity which can be identified as one for the purposes of the law. Parties include: plaintiff , defendant , petitioner , respondent , cross-complainant A party is a person or group of persons that compose a single entity which can be...

. While the Arbitration Counts could have been characterised as within the tradition of contract
A contract is an agreement entered into by two parties or more with the intention of creating a legal obligation, which may have elements in writing. Contracts can be made orally. The remedy for breach of contract can be "damages" or compensation of money. In equity, the remedy can be specific...

 law, the latter assumed powers of coercion characteristic of a state
Sovereign state
A sovereign state, or simply, state, is a state with a defined territory on which it exercises internal and external sovereignty, a permanent population, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states. It is also normally understood to be a state which is neither...

. The new system of Dáil Courts established on 29 June 1920 was therefore much more ambitious and more geographically widespread than its predecessor. A proposed amendment, by Ulster deputies Joseph O'Doherty
Joseph O'Doherty
Joseph O'Doherty was an Irish politician. Born in Derry, Ireland, he was a teacher and a barrister and a member of the Irish Volunteers Executive from 1917–21....

 and Ernest Blythe
Ernest Blythe
Ernest Blythe was an Irish politician.Ernest Blythe was born to a Presbyterian and Unionist family near Lisburn, County Antrim in 1889, the son of a farmer, and was educated locally. At the age of fifteen he started working as a clerk in the Department of Agriculture in Dublin.Blythe joined the...

, to remove the right of Clergymen to sit as ex-officio members, was defeated.

The first Sinn Féin/Republican court ever to be held in Ireland was in Ballinrobe, South Mayo. In his Witness Statement, (Bureau of Military History) William T. O'Keeffe, a Staff Officer with the South Mayo Brigade, IRA, credited men from the Claremorris Battalion, Commandant P.R. Hughes in particular, (Officer in Command of IRA Intelligence and Communications) along with solicitor, Connor A. Maguire (Later to be appointed as Attorney General of the Irish Free State in March 1932) as being responsible for the establishment of the Sinn Féin courts in South Mayo. (ergo Ireland) Subsequently, Comdt. P.R. Hughes and Connor A. Maguire sat as Judges presiding over Republican Courts.

A book published in 1953 called; The Four Glorious Years, by Frank B. Gallagher, (pseudo. David Hogan) said... On the 27th of July 1920, a Republican Land Court in session in Claremorris, Co. Mayo was raided by the Royal Irish Constabulary. The judge rebukes them and orders them to remove their hats. The RIC duely remove their hats. (page 82)


Henry Hanna KC, of the High Court of the Irish Free State explained some of the reasons why the Dáil Courts successfully took root as follows:
The system consisted of:
  • Parish Courts having ordinary and Petty Sessions Criminal jurisdiction, with power to deal with civil claims under £10;
  • District Courts, the equivalents of County Courts having a civil jurisdiction of up to £100, with circuit sittings for criminal trials and appeals from the Parish Court; and
  • a Supreme Court having unlimited original jurisdiction.

Judge Hanna, in his overview of the Courts, illustrated the anti-British nature of the 'movement' by referring to this provision of the Code of Rules of the Dáil Courts:

Disputes heard

The extent of the operation of the Dáil Court system may be judged from the fact that 900 Parish Courts and 77 District Courts came into operation.
Among the offences dealt with by the courts were "rowdyism", larceny
Larceny is a crime involving the wrongful acquisition of the personal property of another person. It was an offence under the common law of England and became an offence in jurisdictions which incorporated the common law of England into their own law. It has been abolished in England and Wales,...

, breaches of the licensing laws, damage to property, 'abusive language towards women', bank and post-office robberies and assaults. Punishment for these offences varied, including the returning of stolen property, repairing damage, fines, and other means of restitution
The law of restitution is the law of gains-based recovery. It is to be contrasted with the law of compensation, which is the law of loss-based recovery. Obligations to make restitution and obligations to pay compensation are each a type of legal response to events in the real world. When a court...

 and awarding damages
In law, damages is an award, typically of money, to be paid to a person as compensation for loss or injury; grammatically, it is a singular noun, not plural.- Compensatory damages :...

. Incarceration was not a commonly available option to the court during the conflict but it was imposed by the courts. The problem of incarceration then fell to the IRP
Irish Republican Police
The Irish Republican Police was the police force of the 1919-1922 Irish Republic and was administered by the Department for Home Affairs of that government.-Foundation:...

 despite the fact that no government funds were made available for costs incurred. Serious offences could merit exile from Ireland, which increased the workload of some English
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 courts dramatically as those condemned sometimes resorted to the 'enemy courts'. Treason
In law, treason is the crime that covers some of the more extreme acts against one's sovereign or nation. Historically, treason also covered the murder of specific social superiors, such as the murder of a husband by his wife. Treason against the king was known as high treason and treason against a...

, as interpreted by the IRA, was punishable by death, and was not part of the Dáil courts' remit, being dealt with summarily
Summary jurisdiction
Summary jurisdiction, in the widest sense of the phrase, in English law includes the power asserted by courts of record to deal brevi manu with contempts of court without the intervention of a jury. Probably the power was originally exercisable only when the fact was notorious, i.e. done in...

 by court-martial
Martial law
Martial law is the imposition of military rule by military authorities over designated regions on an emergency basis— only temporary—when the civilian government or civilian authorities fail to function effectively , when there are extensive riots and protests, or when the disobedience of the law...

 in absentia
In absentia
In absentia is Latin for "in the absence". In legal use, it usually means a trial at which the defendant is not physically present. The phrase is not ordinarily a mere observation, but suggests recognition of violation to a defendant's right to be present in court proceedings in a criminal trial.In...


The laws and precedence of the Irish Republic were taken from the law that existed in Ireland on the day Dáil Éireann first sat (21 January 1919), with the addition of all Dáil decrees issued from that date. It was theoretically possible to cite Brehon
Brehon Laws
Early Irish law refers to the statutes that governed everyday life and politics in Early Medieval Ireland. They were partially eclipsed by the Norman invasion of 1169, but underwent a resurgence in the 13th century, and survived into Early Modern Ireland in parallel with English law over the...

, French
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 and Roman law
Roman law
Roman law is the legal system of ancient Rome, and the legal developments which occurred before the 7th century AD — when the Roman–Byzantine state adopted Greek as the language of government. The development of Roman law comprises more than a thousand years of jurisprudence — from the Twelve...

, although this rarely happened in practice. In some areas where the British military
British Army
The British Army is the land warfare branch of Her Majesty's Armed Forces in the United Kingdom. It came into being with the unification of the Kingdom of England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. The new British Army incorporated Regiments that had already existed in England...

 presence was especially strong (such as County Cork
County Cork
County Cork is a county in Ireland. It is located in the South-West Region and is also part of the province of Munster. It is named after the city of Cork . Cork County Council is the local authority for the county...

), the courts could only meet intermittently. It was while presiding at a District Court on 12 August 1920, that Terence MacSwiney
Terence MacSwiney
Terence Joseph MacSwiney was an Irish playwright, author and politician. He was elected as Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork during the Irish War of Independence in 1920. He was arrested by the British on charges of sedition and imprisoned in Brixton prison in England...

 was arrested. The courts' rulings were enforced by IRA Volunteers and the Irish Republican Police
Irish Republican Police
The Irish Republican Police was the police force of the 1919-1922 Irish Republic and was administered by the Department for Home Affairs of that government.-Foundation:...

, the former often viewing the courts as a distraction from what they considered their main task.
The courts were important in bringing the IRA further under the authority of the Dáil in some parts, which hitherto had been little more than nominal, as some commanders were overly inclined to prize their autonomy.


Hostility to the courts was not confined to those against the Irish Republic. Peadar O'Donnell
Peadar O'Donnell
Peadar O'Donnell was an Irish republican and socialist activist and writer.-Early life:Peadar O'Donnell was born into an Irish speaking family in Dungloe, County Donegal in northwest Ireland, in 1893. He attended St. Patrick's College, Dublin, where he trained as a teacher...

, a socialist and senior IRA officer in north-east Donegal
County Donegal
County Donegal is a county in Ireland. It is part of the Border Region and is also located in the province of Ulster. It is named after the town of Donegal. Donegal County Council is the local authority for the county...

, attempted to subvert its decisions when he felt that the interests of large estate-holders were being upheld. He prevented Republican Police in his Brigade area from enforcing such judgements, particularly of the Land Arbitration Courts. O'Donnell's insubordination finally provoked the intervention of Headquarters.
After the Truce declared between the British and Irish sides in July 1921, difficulties crept into the Dáil Court system. Abuses crept in, and in many instances litigants who anticipated an adverse decision in the British Courts resorted to the Dáil Courts to restrain their opponents from the continuance of the proceedings in the other Court. There were traces that the Dáil Courts were used as channels of corruption, and by persons not in search of justice but anxious for the obstruction of justice.

Soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, the Provisional Government refused to observe an order for habeas corpus
Habeas corpus
is a writ, or legal action, through which a prisoner can be released from unlawful detention. The remedy can be sought by the prisoner or by another person coming to his aid. Habeas corpus originated in the English legal system, but it is now available in many nations...

 that was granted by Judge Russell in July 1922 in favour of a son of George Plunkett. Russell had been appointed a judge of the republican courts in 1920, and thereafter the Provisional Government largely reverted in criminal and security cases to judges formerly appointed under the former British administration, until the enactment of the Courts Act 1924.

Winding up

To deal with the anomalous state of affairs arising from there being two rival systems of Courts, within months of its establishment the Executive Council of the Irish Free State
Executive Council of the Irish Free State
The Executive Council was the cabinet and de facto executive branch of government of the 1922–1937 Irish Free State. Formally, the role of the Executive Council was to "aid and advise" the Governor-General who would exercise the executive authority on behalf of the King...

 appointed a Judicial Committee chaired by Lord Glenavy to decide upon the best system for the new state. The Executive Council then tabled and the Dáil passed the Dáil Éireann Courts (Winding Up) Act 1923. The full title of the Act summarises how the Dáil Courts were wound up:
The expression "Dáil Court" was defined under the Act as meaning:
The winding-up of the Dáil Courts was undertaken by Judicial Commissioners appointed under the Act over a two year period. When only relatively few cases remained to be disposed of, the Judicial Commission was abolished and its jurisdictions and powers were transferred to the High Court. During this period the Courts of Justice Act, 1924 was debated and enacted, creating the Irish courts hierarchy that still largely exists today.

Representations in popular culture

  • Seán Keating’s
    Seán Keating
    Seán Keating was an Irish romantic-realist painter who painted some iconic images of the Irish War of Independence and of the early industrialization of Ireland...

     painting, A Republican Court, 1921, completed 1946, now hangs in Collins Barracks, Cork
    Collins Barracks (Cork)
    Collin's Barracks is a military barracks on the Old Youghal Road on the north side of Cork in Ireland.Originally erected between 1801 and 1806, the works were completed by Abraham Hargrave to designs by John Gibson in a prominent position on the hills overlooking the city and the River...

  • Ken Loach's
    Ken Loach
    Kenneth "Ken" Loach is a Palme D'Or winning English film and television director.He is known for his naturalistic, social realist directing style and for his socialist beliefs, which are evident in his film treatment of social issues such as homelessness , labour rights and child abuse at the...

     film The Wind That Shakes the Barley
    The Wind That Shakes the Barley (film)
    The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a 2006 Irish war drama film directed by Ken Loach, set during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War...

    , features an extended fictional scene from a Dáil Court in session. The presiding judge, Lily, (Fiona Lawton), is undermined by Teddy O'Donovan, (Pádraic Delaney
    Pádraic Delaney
    Pádraic Delaney is an Irish actor best known for playing Teddy O'Donovan in the Ken Loach film The Wind That Shakes the Barley, for which he earned an IFTA nomination as well as being named Irish Shooting Star for the 2007 Berlin Film Festival...

    ), the local senior IRA officer. Rather than enforcing the decision of the court, Teddy releases a convicted prisoner because he has been financing the purchase of rifles. He is publicly challenged by Lily to return to the Court, where the IRA rail against the Gombeen man's
    Gombeen man
    A Gombeen Man is a pejorative Hiberno-English term used in Ireland for a shady, small-time "wheeler-dealer" or businessman who is always looking to make a quick profit, often at someone else's expense or through the acceptance of bribes. Its origin is the Irish word "gaimbín", meaning monetary...

     conviction (charging a poor old woman an exorbitant rate of interest). The script indicates how the more 'pragmatic' militants were prepared to subvert other institutions of the Republic when they deemed it expedient. This duplicity is a portent of the 'practicality versus principles' dilemma that soon leads to Civil War
    Irish Civil War
    The Irish Civil War was a conflict that accompanied the establishment of the Irish Free State as an entity independent from the United Kingdom within the British Empire....



  • Dept. of Home Affairs: Rules and Forms of Parish and District Court: 1921:File located at National Archives of Ireland: Dept. of Justice Files H 140/5 also DE 47/17 Republished ,Gaunt, Incorporated, 1999 ISBN 9781561695096
  • Podcast by Mary Kotsonouris Thomas Davis Lectures RTÉ Archives. Scroll to #7.
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