Let off for Lunch: Pioneering Women Jurors, 1921

In 1921, Irish women became eligible for jury service on civil and criminal trials. This article by Anna Joyce from the Freeman’s Journal of 9 February 1921 brings us back in time to the very first High Court trial involving women jurors:

Some people suffer from boredom to an excessive degree, and some do not suffer from it at all.

None of the lady jurors at the Four Courts yesterday appeared to be its victims, and when I tentatively suggested to one of them that being on a jury was a tiresome business, her answer seemed to me at the moment irrelevant, not to say flippant.

“We were let off for lunch!” she exclaimed; and her tone was jubilant, her eyes bright, and her head held at a most unweary angle.

To me, after half an hour’s yawning in the stuffy court, while she and her confrères considered their verdict and lackadaisical men of the law chatted and laughed and yawned and strolled about, or writhed softly in their seats, such gratitude and good spirits over a long-past lunch hour was little short of blasphemous.

considered their verdict and lackadaisical men of the law chatted and laughed and yawned and strolled about, or writhed softly in their seats, such gratitude and good spirits over a long-past lunch hour was little short of blasphemous.

Those seven ladies certainly kept up an interest in the case from beginning to end.  Not one of them lapsed into an indolent or inattentive attitude – in fact, their manner was perhaps, laughably, the reverse.

At the beginning, when Mr Justice Dodd and learned counsel sought to salt the proceedings with humour, the ladies smiled, and even laughed.  Now and again, later on, Mr Justice Dodd attracted to himself their smiling glances; otherwise they gave a strained attention to the matter in hand.  Here a peering face, there a head tilted to listen; square shoulders which seemed to refuse to allow the droop of boredom to settle on them.

The five male members of the jury found no such novelty of interest in their work.  Now and again one might be caught endeavouring to curb restive limbs and stifle yawns.

These first lady jurors in the Irish High Court got off luckily on one point, if we take it as luck that yesterday’s case was in no way a test for a mixed jury.  It was about as simple a case as could well be, involving only an accident to a child in a disrepaired building, and the consequent claim against, and defence of, the landlord.  And the only original touch at the end of the affair was when the jury – and it looked as if the lady members started the idea – sent a message to the judge that their jurors’ fees (amounting to one guinea in all) should be given to the child.

Mr Francis Kennedy, the Associate, declared the jury he called was excellent; that the ladies were good citizens and jurors; and that his only complaint was in regard to their attendance.   The attendance of both men and women was bad and if not better next day, why there would be a goodly handful of fines.

Soft writhing, restive limbs, yawns and bright eyes – was there ever a more sensual account of jury service! How did the Irish legal system adapt to female jurors? Very slowly. For the first few decades, attendance was very poor – possibly due to family commitments, with ‘mixed’ juries still a rarity as late as the 1970s.

What a nice gesture on the part of the jurors to give their payment to the child plaintiff. I hope the tipstaff – who usually got an emolument of a few shillings out of every jury guinea – didn’t lose out as a result!

Image Credit