Announcement of the inaugural ILHS Student Essay Prize Winners (2022)

In 2021, the Irish Legal History Society announced its inaugural student essay competition. This initiative seeks to showcase and celebrate the rich scholarship being carried out in this field by students in Ireland and around the world. The Society invited all students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, and based in any institution, to submit essays on the topic of Irish legal history. Applicants were asked to submit works no longer than 5,000 words, and were judged on criteria including their contribution to knowledge, the clarity of the argument, use of literature and the quality of writing.

We were thrilled to receive a fantastic response to this competition. Spoiled by choice, and the standard of the entries received, our judging committee decided to split the prize, awarding an undergraduate and a postgraduate winner.

Jessica Commins (University of Amsterdam, formerly University College Dublin)

‘On Both Sides of the Aisle: Ireland and the Abolition of Slavery Act 1833’

This essay seeks to rectify a key gap in the historiography of the Abolition of Slavery Act 1833 by exploring the role of the Irish public, MPs and West Indian Interest in the lead up to and the passing of the Act, demonstrating that Irish involvement was evident on both sides of the debate. While ordinary Irish men and women were key participants in the great parliamentary petitioning campaign of 1833 and a small group of Irish MPs led by Daniel O’Connell made commendable efforts to eradicate slave holding,the darker legacy of the Irish West Indian interest is rarely discussed. Analysis of the Houses of Parliament petitions and debates of 1833 demonstrate Irish MPs played a key role in the decision to grant twenty billion pounds in compensation to the slave owners, as well as a continued form of servitude for a number of years. The one hundred and ninety Irish men and women who received compensation demonstrate the slaveholding interest played an important role in Irish involvement in the Act, with evidence of this legacy still present in the Republic today.

As a young woman educated in Ireland, the prevailing narrative of Irish history is that of a plucky young nation shaking off the shackles of the colonial oppressor. This narrative often obscures the complex relationship that Ireland has historically had with colonialism and does not recognise Irish complicity in that system. While the narrative of ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ and Daniel O’Connell’s friendship with Frederick Douglass remains well known by the Irish public, our involvement in slavery is not. In the wake of campaigns demonstrating comtemporary instances of racism in Ireland, such as injustices caused by the Direct Provision system, it is clear attention needs to be paid to Irish involvement in colonial slavery and to wider participation in British imperialism.


Andrew Byrne Keefe (Harvard University, formerly University of Dublin)

‘An Act, a Fact, or a Mistake?: How Martial Law Contoured the Irish Rebellion of 1798’

Early modernists have identified the implementation of martial law as a key development in the history of the Irish Rebellion of 1798.  Curiously, this punitive turn in Ireland’s legal history happened well before the rebellion’s most iconic moments, raising an important historiographical question: was the uprising consciously premeditated or were the rebels goaded by the British military?  Relying on court-martial records from The Rebellion Papers, this paper attempts to account for the role of martial law in the rebellion by comparing how the due process rights of defendants and the severity and certainty of punishment varied across the four provinces.  The findings suggest that martial law was implemented more punitively in counties where loyalists incurred greater damages from the rebellion and support an account of the rebellion as an unintended consequence of variation in enforcement by local officials.

I am a JD/PhD candidate in sociology and social policy at Harvard University. As a historical sociologist, I use mixed methods to study the origins of racial and economic inequality in the American criminal legal system. My dissertation, “Mad Laboratories of Empire: A Comparative Analysis of Criminal Procedure in Ireland, Jamaica, and Virginia, 1215 – 1688,” relies on original source materials to investigate how English common law — the legal foundation of the American system — has contributed to harsher and more unequal levels of punishment in the United States and other former British colonies, relative to levels in countries that base their systems on civil law. To examine these original sources in comparative perspective, the dissertation also draws on secondary literature on criminal procedure in the early modern French, Spanish, and Portuguese empires. The results of my research promise to contribute to historical scholarship on racism and English criminal law as well as to research in global and transnational sociology that has connected the legacies of slavery and colonialism to mass incarceration and police militarization in present-day societies.