Chief Justice of Munster
The Chief Justice of Munster was the senior of the two judges who assisted the Lord President of Munster: despite the Chief Justice's title, full judicial authority was vested in the Lord President, who "had power to hear and determine at his discretion all manner of complaints in any part of the province of Munster", and also had power of oyer and terminer and gaol delivery.
Role of the Chief Justice
It is likely that the hearing of judicial business was delegated to the Chief Justice and second justice, who were members of the President's council and always travelled with him on circuit. There was no central judicial seat: the court could be convened wherever the President thought necessary. Due to the chronic disturbances in Elizabethan Munster the office could be a hazardous one: there was a serious riot in Tralee in 1579 in which several officials were killed. In 1601-2, during the crisis surrounding the Battle of Kinsale, the Lord President's Court temporarily assumed the powers of the courts of common law.
The width of the powers given to the President's court led to clashes with the older courts, especially the Court of Chancery (Ireland). In 1622 a sharp instruction was issued to the Court of Munster, and its fellow court in Connacht, not to "intermeddle" with cases which were properly the business of another court.
The office was an onerous one and it was generally considered inadvisable to combine it with any other: William Saxey aroused much indignation in 1599 when he refused to resign on being appointed to the Court of King's Bench (Ireland), especially as he apparently never sat in the latter Court. On the other hand it was understood that the office holder could expect to be promoted in due course to one of the courts of common law, and possibly become its Chief Justice, as Dowdall, Sir Nicholas Walsh and Lord Sarsfield did.
An exception to the ban on holding two offices at once seems to have been made for Gerald Comerford, who was appointed both Chief Justice of Munster and a Baron of the Court of Exchequer (Ireland) shortly before his death. There was apparently no objection to holding another local office: Henry Gosnold, through much of his long career, was also the Admiralty judge for Munster. This was at the time the only local section of the Irish Admiralty Court: the judge in Munster was a deputy to the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, acting in his role as Admiralty judge.
Civil War and Restoration
During the disturbed period following the English Civil War the office of Chief Justice seems to have simply lapsed, although Henry Gosnold, the nominal holder of the office, who had been appointed in 1624, reached a great age and may still have been alive in 1658. It was briefly held by the regicide John Cook, who in 1655 abolished the provincial court and replaced it with a series of county courts. William Halsey, the second justice of Munster, served under the Cromwellian regime in a number of capacities, including his old office of second justice.. The office was revived at the Restoration: perhaps surprisingly the new Chief Justice was Halsey, despite his record under the previous regime. He was to be the last holder of the office, which was abolished in 1672.
List of Chief Justices of Munster 1569-1672
- George Walshe 1569
- James Dowdall 1570
- Sir Nicholas Walsh 1576
- Jesse Smythes 1584
- William Saxey 1594
- Gerald Comerford c.1603
- Dominick Sarsfield, 1st Viscount Sarsfield 1604 or 1605
- Edward Harris 1608
- Henry Gosnold, or Gosnell 1624
- John Cook 1650
- William Halsey 1660.
Office abolished 1672
Notable Second justices
- Luke Gernon : was appointed second justice of Munster in 1619. He is now remembered chiefly for his curious manuscript, Discourse of Ireland (1620). He was still alive at the Restoration, when he received a pension, and died at a great age about 1672.
- John Nayler of Gray's Inn: was appointed second justice in 1660 and seems to have ben the last holder of the office.
- Ball, F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221-1921 John Murray London 1926
- Costello, Kevin The Admiralty Court of Ireland 1575-1893 Four Courts Press Dublin 2011
- Crawford, Jon G. A Star Chamber Court in Ireland-the Court of Castle Chamber 1571-1641 Four Courts Press Dublin 2005
- Cross, Kevin S.C. History of the Munster Circuit from its beginnings to the foundation of the State" - The James O'Driscoll Memorial Lecture 12 June 2010