Local Government in Offaly: The county council and marking 120 years of local democracy. Michael Byrne


Poor Law Unions from 1838
The development of local government institutions in County Offaly can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century when poor law unions under boards of guardians were established at Roscrea, Birr, Mountmellick, Edenderry and Tullamore. Each union had its workhouse financed by the striking of a poor law rate. The board of guardians, most of whom were elected by the rate payers, were entrusted with the management of the workhouse, but subject to detailed control from a central authority, the poor law commissioners.

503 L050 Edenderry Town Hall & Fair Day

The Towns
This tightly regulated system of local government was in sharp contrast to the loose system of government that prevailed in the countries and towns. Birr elected its first body of town commissioners in 1852, albeit on a narrow franchise. Tullamore followed in 1860 while Roscrea failed to agree on the need for such a local authority, and has been discussing its merits for almost 100 years. Neither Birr nor Tullamore would have adopted local government institutions so quickly (and with it increased rates) were it not that the permission of a local authority was necessary for the laying of gas pipes for town lighting.

Birr provided itself with gas pipes in 1852 and Tullamore in 1860, as soon as the new commissioners were elected and granted the necessary permission in accordance with statutory requirements. Some years prior to the establishment of town commissioners at Birr and Tullamore both towns had been loosely administered by landlord-dominated manor courts. The boroughs of Philipstown (Daingean) and Banagher had vague oligarchic style government until the abolition of these boroughs with the passing of the Act of Union in 1800. Edenderry went on to provide itself with town commissioners.

Such was the extent of local government in the towns. Vague, uncertain and definitely oligarchic prior to the 1840s, thereafter it was reformed to fit the Victorian conception of a property owning democracy prepared to interfere on an increasing scale in what was hitherto the private domain, in the interest of public hygiene.

0.5 Prelims inside fromt flap Judge arrive for Kings County Azzises (11)
The arrival of the judges of the assize at Tullamore Courthuse, about 1900

The Grand Jury

The system of government at county level was based on the archaic grand jury until the passing of the Local Government (Ireland) Act in 1898. The history of the King’s County Grand Jury is difficult to document before the 1820s, but probably some kind of grand jury existed right back to the setting up of King’s County as an administrative unit in the latter half of the sixteenth century. The grand jury was comprised of the county’s leading landowners. Every year some two dozen gentlemen were selected by the high sheriff who was in turn appointed by the lord lieutenant.

The grand jury met twice a year at the assizes (now the High Court on circuit) for the purpose of passing presentments (voting money) for local government functions. The Grand Jury records in the form of presentment or ‘Jobs’ books survive in the County Library for the 1830s to the 1870s and in private collections. Offaly 100 Years Ago first published in 1890 has extracts from earlier minute books as does Grand Jury rooms to Aras an Chontae : local government in Offaly ( Murphy, Coughlan and Doran, 2003) . The council had responsibility for roads, the courthouse and jail. The road works described provide much local and family detail in terms of the description of contracts and deserve study.

The County Councils
The time for obituary writing for the grand jury came in 1898, when the new local government act established county councils and swept away the last ‘stranglehold of landlordism’. Following the 1898 Act counties such as Offaly and Tipperary had no less than four organs of local government. The county councils were responsible for administrative and financial affairs, rural and urban district councils for housing and public health, and boards of guardians for poor relief and medical charities. The act was an important modernising measure that laid the basis for a structure of local government that has survived more or less intact down to the present day. More importantly, it provided administrative experience for nationalists and helped prepare them for the responsibilities of self-government. The 1898 act has rightly been described as the ‘’legislative father of the Irish Free State’. It gave the vote to all male householders or occupiers. The democratic net had been considerably widened, but women were still excluded from the benefits of the franchise. By 1935 all restrictions on adult voting had been removed.

114 King's County Council in 1908
The county council photographed in 1908. Henry Egan is to the centre.

First meeting of the county council in 1899
The Offaly County Council first met in April 1899 under the chairmanship of Henry Egan, a prominent Tullamore business man and moderate nationalist. The vice-chairman was John Powell, editor of the Midland Tribune. The council was predominantly nationalist in tone, but the unionist and protestant minority were well represented, some of whom were ex-officio. The first Councils, about 29 in number, were almost all home rulers. The unionist minded Grand Jury members polled badly. In Eglish, Edward Dooly was elected with 191 votes whereas Lord Rosse polled only 29. In Birr, John Powell, the editor of the Midland Tribune obtained 366 votes as against 116 of William Edward Woods. In Geashill, Joseph Ryan got 280, Reginald Digby 87. The story was the same throughout the county.

The new county council, town councils and rural district councils gave a platform for journalists to write about and in this John Powell, the editor of the Midland Tribune and then vice-chairman of the county council, was adept. Birr had erected a monument to the Manchester Martyrs in 1894 and O’Donovan Rossa was invited to do the honours. When the new county council met for the first time Rossa wrote to congratulate Powell on his election as the council vice-chair. The Tribune recorded that in the last issue of his journal, Rossa compliments John Powell in the following left handed manner: –

“When I was in Ireland in the year 1894, I was, for a few weeks, a guest at the home of John Powell, of Birr. I see by the Midland Tribune to hand this week, that he is now elected a County Councillor- whatever that means in the English government of Ireland. It cannot mean much; but as it means the honouring of John Powell by his townsmen, I am glad of it.” [Powell went on to write:]We thank the fiery old war-horse for his remembrance of us. It reminds us of a very happy epoch in the history of Birr, when the patriotic people of that town, shook off the shackles of slavery, and proclaimed their determination never again to submit to Castle dictation. If Rossa were in Ireland today, he would recognise that his sufferings have not been in vain. Small as the Local Government Act may appear in Rossa’s eyes, the realisation of the pleasure of being brought one step nearer to the goal for which so many have sacrificed themselves, is worth living for.
Powell did not long enjoy his new post and died in 1901. His many spells in prison over the previous twenty years greatly contributed to his early death. It was to be the same with some of the leading Gaelic Leaguers in Offaly including Harry Egan (d. 1907), William Bulfin (died 1910) and John Forrestal (died 1922), all of whom died young, thereby depriving the county of these early Irish Ireland cultural enthusiasts in the post-1922 period. Another great loss in 1920 was Sinn Féin activist and county councillor, T.M. Russell, who decided to leave Tullamore giving the reason he gave that notice to quit was served on him in respect of his tenancy at Ballyduff House on Clara Road, and the impossibility of getting another one to rent.

Adams v Daly
The contest for the Tullamore seat on the County Council was fought between Williams Adams and Bernard Daly. Adams had served on the Board of Guardians for 35 years and also as a Tullamore Town commissioner, and was well known as the man who had championed the building of rural cottages. Daly was a partner in the Tullamore distillery and spoke of the need for more employment. The farmers, he felt, should be busy improving output instead of getting involved in political issues. Daly’s Pragmatic approach has a modern ring about it, but was unsuited to a time when great national questions remained to be settled. He polled 206 as against 385 for Adams. It showed he remembered that aside from the southern unionists, very much a minority, all others were members of the Nationalist party or persuasion. A convention to select a candidate for Tullamore was held in St. Mary’s Hall, with the parish priest, Father Behan, in the chair. The meeting was a noisy one and at one stage the reverend gentleman had to leave his chair and go down the hall to quieten boisterous elements.

Policy making
The policy statement of William Adams is representative of the stand taken in this county and elsewhere. Adams read the following resolutions to the meeting; That this meeting is of opinion that no person should be selected as candidate for the office of County Councillor or District Councillor for the Tullamore division who is not prepared to support the demands of the Irish people on the following important questions – Home Rule; the providing of proper sanitary dwellings for the labourers and artisans; the establishment of a Catholic University in accordance with the demand of the Irish bishops, priests and people; the compulsory sale of land on equitable terms; the release of the remaining political prisoners. The resolutions were passed without dissent.

5 Tullamore 1910 Board of Guardian Local Government.. - Copy
William Adams Tullamore and E.J. Graham MP 1914-18.

Secretary Kingston
In 1900 the council elected its first secretary, Charles P. Kingston, a Birr man, and formerly editor of the short-lived Sligo Star. Kingston was appointed after a tight vote and with a salary of £250 per year. He later showed his skill as a property developer, building four houses at Clonminch and in 1911 published The book of the administration of King’s County – a handbook for members of the council. Kingston worked well under the moneyed parliamentary nationalist council which survived until the Sinn Fein victory in 1920.

Staff at the county council and urban councils had a high volume of work and few to help. Occasionally disputes arose about staff appointments and on one occasion P.F. Adams, by 1917 no longer on the council as a member, complained about what he saw as favouritism towards Birr (where Kingston had come from) and that there was jobbery in appointments made by the county council. ‘Of all the positions in the different departments of a permanent class, only one is held by a native of the northern end of the county. Yet their supporters talk of brains. The air at the southern end of the county has a wonderful effect on the brain development of its youth.’

The CEO was in fact C.P. Kingston, the county secretary and councillors appeared to be much more hands on with long meetings and heavy agendas, very different from the pre-1899 grand jury business. Only three of the old grand jury members were returned to the new council of 1899 and the clean-out was similar in 1920 with only two members of the old council returned to the June 1920 Sinn Féin dominated county council. Kingston was, apparently, unable to work with the new radical members and resigned a year later. He later successfully sued the council for arrears of salary and pension.

Press men of 1908 to the left and Perry Goodbody (centre right)

Eamon Bulfin, first chairman of Offaly County Council
The original members of the county council, though nationalists, were basically conservative. Many did not move with public opinion and the swing to Sinn Féin, and as a result lost their seats to poorer, but more republican elements. When the first republican council met in mid-1920 it elected Eamon Bulfin of Derrinlough as chairman. Bulfin was elected in his absence as he had been deported to Argentina. The Tricolour draped the Chairman’s seat and the members answered the roll call in Irish. Resolutions were passed acknowledging Dáil Eireann and changing the name of King’s County to Offaly and Philipstown to Daingean. An entry from Wiki notes that:

Despite the county’s name being upheld as Offaly through the 2001 Local Government Act, no legislation was ever enacted after independence explicitly changing the name from King’s County, the name formally established under the 1898 Local Government Act which continued to have legal effect. Legal transfers and assignments of land in the county still refer to it as “King’s County”.

That used to be the case but was amended by the Land Registry about 20 years ago.

The one-time principal partner in the mills, James Perry Goodbody, lost his wife in early 1918 and his council seat at the elections in 1920. Given his record in assisting county council projects he was a great loss, and perhaps with Michael H. White, also of Clara, he shared a sense of upset at how precious little thanks he received for his efforts. He was appointed to the vice chair of the county council in 1912, the Midland Tribune commenting that his dissent from a grand jury motion in 1895 against Home Rule was noted in his favour. Goodbody blamed the land agitation for the loss of his council seat but it was one of his own employees, Sean Robbins, who headed the poll for Sinn Féin, well ahead of everyone else, and defeated Goodbody in the 1920 county council election. Robbins had been jailed for four months with hard labour for illegal drilling in mid-1918.

The council went on to repudiate the authority of the Local Government Board, thus helping to undermine British rule in Ireland. To protect the council’s funds the Hibernian Bank (now part of the Bank of Ireland) was dismissed as the council’s bankers and trustees appointed. This highly irregular mover combined with the departure of the county secretary in 1921 created difficulties for the council in the management of county affairs and led to the dissolution of the council in 1924 (under a Free State government) and its replacement by a commissioner for four years.

The Management Act 1940
In the conflict between democracy and efficiency the new Free State Government found itself obliged to opt for efficiency. It has been said that the workings of Irish local government after the 1898 act was almost as corrupt as the old system. Not until 1926 was a Local Appointments Commission established and prior to that appointments were very much a question of wire pulling. The failure of the Free State government to clean up the mess and the obvious dissatisfaction of the ratepayers with cost and inefficiencies led to the passing of the County Management Act in 1940. This replaced rule by committee in favour of the conduct of services under an appointed official.

The first taste of this style of local government in County Offaly came with the appointment of Commissioner David O’Keefe in September 1924 and the dissolution of the Offaly County Council. O’Keefe was appointed to sort out administrative problems that had their origins in the troubled years of 1919–1923.

An abnormal state of affairs had existed since June 1920 when the Council voted to recognise Dáil Eireann and repudiate the authority of the Local Government Board. The dismissal of the Hibernian Bank as council treasurer and the appointment of trustees completely upset the collection of the rates.

In November 1920 official books and accounts were seized both by the IRA and the RIC and retained for over fourteen months. The situation was further exacerbated in January 1921 when the British Army decided to occupy the courthouse and evicted the officials.

Courthouse Burned
The officials returned in March 1922 following the Treaty, but the courthouse was burned in July 1922 during the Civil War. Many of the Council’s documents were in fact saved and are now, some eighty years later, many have been catalogued by Offaly County Library and are housed in the Local History Section. After the burning of the courthouse the council offices were housed in Cormac Street and later at Kenny’s in High Street. In 1925 the offices were again moved this time to the old workhouse at Arden Road and back to the new courthouse in 1927.

Such movement was possible in the early 1920s as the staff consisted of only the secretary/accountant, county surveyor, clerks and a typist. The accountant, Sean Mahon, had taken over the secretary’s functions in addition to his own on the departure of C.P. Kingston in 1921. This was certainly a mistake as it was too heavy a work load for one man. Mahon resigned on the grounds of ill health in 1925, forced out one expects by the commissioner. However, the principal difficulty of the council was the failure to collect the rates. In 1923 rates had not been collected for a time to restore solvency to the county finances and see that public funds were used more efficiently.

117 Tullamore courthouse following the fire in 1922
The courthouse was destroyed during the Civil War in July 1922 and rebuilt in 1927.

Offaly Roads Improvement Association
Considerable pressure for the removal of the council and the appointment of a commissioner had come from a group of Offaly business and professional people – the Offaly Roads Improvement Association. In 1925 its chairman, J. A. Lumley of Tullamore, claimed that the association had done something towards bringing about an inquiry which led to the dissolution of the council ‘a body that ignored every representation made to it’. The association criticised the council’s direct labour scheme stating that it was costing Offaly £10,000 to £15,000 more than the contract system. At about the same time the association changed its name to the Offaly Civic Reform Association, presumably with the intention of broadening its base. In February 1926 it congratulated the Commissioner on reducing the rates and turning debit balances into credit balances, but the association was still critical of the way in which the money on the roads was spent.

Fomer County managers from 1968 to 2007

A County Manager now the Chief Executive
Offaly’s experiment with a commissioner lasted almost four years until a new county council was elected in mid-1928. Commissioner O’ Keefe had been popular in Offaly with the farming and business community. On his departure the press praised his ability as an administrator, remarking that a high standard was expected of the new council. His success was a harbinger of things to come. When a county manager was appointed in the early 1940s his appointment was naturally unpopular with the elected members, but when his role came up for review with the amendment of the County Management Act in 1954 his position was secure. At the time North Tipperary County Council did not consider that the act needed much amendment. It was an honest endeavour to strike a balance between two conflicting tendencies, democracy on the one side and efficiency on the other.

003 Launch of the Offaly Co. Council flag 20.06.88
A county Council of 1988 with Jim Flanagan in centre

The power and duties of the county council have been considerably expanded since the passing of the 1898 Act. Acting in accordance with Dáil Eireann policy Offaly was one of the first counties in Ireland to abolish the poor law system. The three boards of guardians in the county were dissolved in 1921 and their functions taken over by a committee of the county council. The Council continued to have health functions until the establishment of regional health boards in 1970. One of the four tiers of local government, the rural district council, was abolished in 1925 and its functions transferred to the county council. It is interesting to see that the 2009-14 discussions on local government reform, especially in the health services, led to the abolition of urban councils and the regional health boards. In 2016 the county had a population of 77, 961 and is only the 24th largest in terms of population and 18th in size of Ireland’s 32 counties. Tullamore, one in the top twenty towns in Ireland in size is now the 30th largest.

120 Opening of the reconstructed Tullamore Courthouse in 1927
The opening of the new courthouse in 1927 was the first civic function in Tullamore in at least 80 years

Rising Expenditure
The cost of local government and the sourcing of funds has altered dramatically since the 1900s. In the early 1920s the county council was spending just over £100,000 on all its services, including health. Two-thirds of this amount was raised in the county and the balance came in government grants. Expenditure was about £150,000 by 1930 and £280,000 after Second World War. The rate struck in 1946 was 17s. in the £. In 1977 expenditure was almost £4m and by 1981 had doubled to almost £8m. The county rate in 1981 was £12 in the £, but this now provided less than 25 per cent of the council’s funds. The balance was obtained through receipts and government grants. Overall, local authority expenditure in County Offaly today including the county council and its committees of municipal councils is close to €60 million. Today the council is responsible for housing and community, roads and transportation, urban planning and development, amenity and culture and environment.

2019 OCC
The Offaly County Council members at their first meeting in June 2019 with CEO Anna-Maria Delaney and Frank Heslin

The new 2019 county council
On 24 May 2019 elections were held for the new county council comprising of nineteen members and of which two members are women. The new chairman, Peter Ormond, is one of eight Fianna Fáil members and was elected to the chair with the support of John Carroll and John Leahy, now both non-party. Fine Gael has four seats, Green Party 1 (for the first time), Social Democrats (1 for the first time), Irish Democratic Party 1 and Independents 5. The CEO of the council is Ms Anna-Marie Delaney.
A history of local government in the county might well be achieved in a book of essays on all aspects of local government.

114 King's County Council in 1908
The county council of 1908

Caption to 1908 picture
1. King’s County Council members and invited officers and journalists photographed at the courthouse, Tullamore in 1908. The council was established under the Local Government Act of 1898 and had its first meeting in 1899. This picture was taken by Simmons of Athlone on the occasion of a dinner in honour of Henry Egan, the chairman from 1898 to 1910.
Front row: l to r: William Adams, Tullamore; Charles Doorley, Meelaghans, Tullamore; William Hoolan, Roscrea; James Sullivan, Tullamore; William Corbett, Killeigh; Henry Egan, The Hall, Tullamore (chairman); James Ennis, Rhode; Michael J. Horan, Mile Tree, Birr; Charles Leonard, (journalist with the Tullamore and King’s County Independent ); Charles Kingston, Tullamore (secretary to the council).
Second row: l to r: Michael Reddy MP, Shannonharbour; John Mahon, Charleville Road, Tullamore (county accountant); William Scally, Cloneygowan. Third Row: Unknown , John Dunne, Barnaboy; William Grennan, Rahan; James Moran, Annabrack; Dennis Sheil, Edenderry; J. Perry Goodbody, Clara; William J Kinsella, Cloneygowan; Michael McDermott Hayes (editor of the Independent ); E.J. Delahunty, Tullamore (Secretary of County Technical Education Committee); E.J. Graham town clerk and secretary to the board of guardians, Tullamore.
Back Row: Unknown, Dan Egan, Ferbane; Owen Coughlan, Banagher; Tom Conway, Tullamore (the council solicitor in succession to Henry Egan ); John Dooly, Birr, (chairman, 1912-20 ); Frank Whitfield, Ferbane; Dennis Fay, Edenderry; Joe Ryan, auctioneer, Tullamore. At the dinner but not as yet identified in the photograph were T. Slattery, Midland Tribune; – Boshwell of the King’s County Chronicle; Michael Egan, Ballycumber, Michael Molloy, Belmont; James F. Egan, Kevin Egan, R.H. Moore of Banagher.
Courtesy of Offaly Archives.