Offaly County Administration in 1920 and 1921 during the Military Regime. Specially Contributed

In the first issue of the Athlone-based Offaly Independent on 4 February 1922 (about fifteen months after the destruction of the newspaper by Crown forces) an article appeared setting out the changes in public health administration in County Offaly, settled in 1921. This involved the closure of the workhouses in Edenderry and Birr and the adaptation of that in Tullamore as ‘the County Home’ and Offaly County Hospital. The workhouse infirmary in Tullamore was re-named the County Hospital and the Tuberculosis dispensary and beds in the new (1915) building at the back of the old county infirmary in Church Street was to continue to operate there at least for a time. The closing of the county infirmary in Church Street, Tullamore in 1921 (first opened on that site in 1788) and having about thirty beds in use at any time, and a dispensary, did not even get a mention in the 1922 review. The change over in the administration involving the switch from Local Government Board to Dail funded management based on local rate collection was a remarkable achievement.

An immense amount of detail was published in the press about the county’s health service (and the controversies) in the next twenty years (1922-42). What is remarkable was the fact that such reformation could take place without much political flak. Sinn Féin dominated the political scene at national level since December 1918 and at local level from the county council elections in June 1920. Another ingredient that will be of interest was the role of women in the new governance of the workhouses in the aftermath of the local elections in June 1920 and their gradual disappearance from the main health committees of the council from early in 1922 (see our earlier blog on Mrs Wyer).

Important books on the period. All can be read at Offaly History Centre.

The late David Fitzpatrick had a chapter in his pathbreaking Politics and Irish Life, 1913-21 (Dublin, 1977) on the revolutionary administrators which includes a short piece on health administration in County Clare. D.M. Lucey has published a study of how the health changes impacted in Counties Kerry and Cork (The end of the Irish Poor Law?: welfare and healthcare reform in revolutionary and independent Ireland, Manchester, 2015). What needs to be probed was the attitude of the new Offaly councillors to the poor, the aged, the unmarried mother and the boarded-out child. The aged in the Birr workhouse in mid 1921, for example, were literally swept out ‘to their friends’, or if none could be found to the ‘new’ county home in Tullamore. These are all issues for another day. In the meantime it is worthwhile to take the document of 4 February 1922 and to listen to what the new administration had to say. No authorship of this article was attributed, but it may have been John Mahon who took over as county secretary on the dismissal of Charles Kingston (a Birr man) in early 1921. Before moving to the 1922 review mention should be made of Mary Daly’s superb article on local government in Offaly in 1920-21, based mainly on department sources (Offaly History and Society, Dublin, 1988, pp 831–53). Her work combined, as it now should be, with the local press and the surviving Offaly local government records, will make for interesting reading.

Solving a Financial Problem

The Amalgamation of Unions

A Great Achievement (from Offaly Independent, 4 Feb. 1922)

The year 1920 was a most eventful one in the history of the country. In that year the Sinn Fein movement reached the zenith of its power, capturing the administrative bodies everywhere. The Local Government elections took place in June. A month prior to the date of the elections the North Offaly Sinn Fein Executive met in Ballinagar Hall, under the presidency of Rev. Father Burbage, [Geashill] and at that meeting arrangements were made for the selection of candidates for the County and District Councils. A similar meeting was being held in the Birr end of the county for the same purpose. Subsequent meetings were held in Durrow and Ballinagar, and candidates were duly selected and approved of by the Executive. With a few exceptions, the men chosen to carry the Sinn Fein standard at the elections were all of new blood. The old members, many of whom had held office for years, gladly made way for them. Knowing that new men were required for the coming struggle Sinn Fein had been proclaimed by the British Government as a dangerous association, and its activities, were consequently somewhat restricted. Nevertheless, the several clubs throughout the country set themselves to work with real earnestness to carry the election, should opposition be forthcoming. A few candidates were nominated for the District Councils who were not on the Sinn Fein ticket, but those were still County Council divisions which also contacted the Sinn Fein candidates who had been nominated for the District Councils …………., giving the Sinn Fein or ………. Nominees a walk over. Contests at County Councils confers took place in the ………the Birr and Tullamore divisions, the elections being produced on the Proportional Representation system. The electors however had nailed their colours to the Sinn Fein mast, all the Sinn Fein nominees were returned in triumph.

[ Allegiance to Dáil Éireann from June 1920]

At the first meeting of the newly elected bodies allegiance to Dail Eireann was declared. The British Government immediately stopped the Grants in aid of local taxation, this being “a despairing attempt to bring the people back to the ways of slavery. The sudden withdrawal of these grants created copious problem for the Irish primary administrative bodies, but the newly-elected administrators faced the problem with a determination to solve it and to smash the British L.G.B. in its citadel, the Custom House. The moment had come to choose between a mean and tyrannical Government and the government of the people based on the will of the people. It was urged by Dail Eireann that Ireland, acting in union and discipline under its authority, would defeat the efforts of those opposing its will, and whom they said were now playing their last card in an attempt to create anarchy and chaos and obstruct the orderly functioning of the Government of the people. Dail Eireann consequently ordered that no public body in Ireland have any further communication on any matter whatever with the British L.G. Board in the Custom House. All supervision and authority in future was to be exercised by the L.G. Department of Dail Eireann, to whom all minutes of meetings and correspondence in connection with administration were directed to be forwarded in future.

The county infirmary in Church Street, Tullamore since 1788 was closed in 1921.

As a retort to the stoppage of Grants by the British Government, public bodies were directed to withhold principal and interest of all loans from the British Treasury, such sums withheld to be set off against the amount of the Grants withdrawn. As a means towards the economic expenditure of monies contributed by the ratepayers towards the carrying on of the administration, the Dail Commission recommended the pooling of the contracts of all Public Bodies in respect of certain classes of goods approved by the Dail. Payments of persons doing work for the British Government-such as court-keepers’ salaries and sheriffs’ expenses, for which the County Councils were liable – were ordered to be stopped.

In connection with the workhouse system, several recommendations were made by the commission with a view to greater economy.  The workhouse was regarded as an evil institution, and the Dail hinted at a scheme for the complete abolition, through amalgamation, of the 130 workhouses in Ireland.   It urged the closing down of these institutions without delay; the children inmates were recommended to be boarded out, and also the aged and feeble-minded inmates.  Safe epileptics, of which each workhouse had quite a number, were recommended to be boarded out in rural districts where suitable employment for them was procurable.  [OH emphasis] A Central Workhouse, or Home, to serve a county or a number of counties, was recommended numerous other recommendations were made, including the abolition of the office of relieving officer and the discontinuance of the custom of administering outdoor relief in the form of tickets or orders on particular shops.

With regard to the treatment of consumptives in workhouses, it was recommended that one workhouse, in an ordinary three-county area be retained and fitted up and staffed for the treatment of advanced cases.  The recommendations were of a far-reaching and sweeping character, and showed at a glance that if acted upon to the letter, the workhouse system could be dispensed with altogether with great advantage to the rate paying community.

The stoppage by the British Government of Grants to the Offaly County Council of about £25,000 created a very knotty problem for that body, as it did for all the others – it meant that many schemes, such as the main road scheme, had to be abandoned and drastic economy resorted to.  The Council had already decided, in common with the other public bodies throughout the country, not to submit their accounts for audit to the British L.G. Board’s Auditor.  The latter had, as usual, notified the Council of his intention to visit the offices and hold the audit, but when he arrived he was informed that the County Council had directed that the books were not to be submitted.

The old workhouse of 1841 in Tullamore was reshaped as the County Hospital and County Home to serve the entire county.

[County courthouse and offices taken over by the British military]

Following the Council’s refusal to submit their books for audit, proceedings were instituted by the British L.G.  Board in the British Law Courts in Dublin, and writs of mandamus were issued against the Chairman and members of the Council and Secretary, directing them to submit the books for audit forthwith.  The Council ignored the order of the British High Court, and in November 1920, Crown forces raided the offices of the Council, stealing a number of books and documents which they carried away with them.  Some days later a small I.R.A. force also visited the offices and annexed other books and documents, which apparently, the Crown Forces had overlooked or had been unable to locate.  These books and document were essential to the audit, while those which the Crown forces had carried away were worthless for the purpose.  All these books and documents have since been returned to the Secretary of the Council. 

The board room of the former Tullamore Union workhouse served as a venue for county council meetings in 1921.

Soon after the elections in June 1920, and owing to certain legislation which was in contemplation by the British Government “for the better Government in Ireland,” the County Council decided on transferring its account from the Banking Company which acted as Treasurer. Trustees were accordingly appointed to whom the custody of the county funds-amounting to about £8,000 was entrusted.  After the raid by Crown forces, the wisdom of this step became rather doubtful, and it was decided to relodge the money to the credit of the Council with the Banking Company which had been the treasurer.  The County Council had an overdraft, it is stated, of £12,000 with this bank, and when the £5,000 was lodged, the Council found themselves without a cent with which to meet their liabilities, the bank naturally reducing the amount of the overdraft to £4,000 by the lodgement.  The Council’s rate collectors, in consequence of the activities of the Crown Forces, found it difficult to collect the rates.  They were between two stools –  on one side they were ordered by the L.G. Department of Dail Eireann to proceed with the collection; on the other they were being threatened by the British L.G.B. with all sorts of penalties – they were told if they obeyed the orders of Dail Eireann their sureties would be held liable for the rates which they had collected, while the ratepayers had it conveyed to them that if they paid their rates under such circumstances they would have to pay them over again.  As a way out of the difficulty Dail Eireann issued an instruction to the Council to appoint a Banking Company treasurer, the rate collection to be proceeded with and the money received lodged in the bank.  Just then a new obstacle presented itself, in consequence of which the Council found themselves unable to carry out the Dail’s instructions.  A number of criminal injury decrees had been awarded by the British County Court Judges for the burning of police barracks, and the destruction of the police barrack furniture in 1920.  Special legislation was passed by the British Parliament to enable the holders of those decrees to obtain payment by the appropriation of the funds lodged to the credit of the County Councils in the banks.

The Act provided that the decrees should be deposited with the Treasurers – which everywhere throughout Ireland were the Banking Companies – and that the claims were be spent from the monies lodged to the credit of the Councils.  A means was devised by Mr Mahon (who succeeded Mr. Kingston in that Secretaryship, working in conjunction with Mr T. J. Kelly, Clerk of the Tullamore Union, by which it was hoped to safeguard the county funds from confiscation or appropriation by the British Government authorities.  The plan – which it is unnecessary to disclose – was adopted and worked most successfully.  The council proceeded with the collection of the rates, and after a time the Council found themselves in a position to discharge their liabilities to most workmen and others.

In January 1921, the County Council were obliged to transfer their offices from the County Courthouse owing to the drastic action of the British Military authorities, who invaded the Court-House ordered the Council’s officials to “clear out” of the building within 24 hours.  The Court-house contained the offices of the Secretary and County Surveyor and of their respective clerical staff, while it also contained a number of British Government offices – the Office of the Clerk of the Crown and Peace and the Petty Sessions Clerk’s Office.  The latter also received peremptory orders from a military chief to evacuate, but declined to do so until provided with equivalent office accommodation, which was subsequently found in one of the prison cottages.  The County Council staff had no alternative but to comply with the military order, and the books etc., were removed to the Urban Hall and Technical Institute, where temporary offices were secured under the Courtesy of the Urban and Technical Authorities.  The military went into occupation on the building on January 12th, the jail adjoining being also occupied by a large body of troops.

[Meetings of the county council in the Tullamore Union workhouse]

Notwithstanding the ejection from the courthouse of the Council’s Office the administrative business of the County continued to be effectively carried out, the County Council meetings being held at various places, and usually in the Board Room of the Tullamore Workhouse. The Council had at this time under consideration the recommendations of the Dail Eireann Commission contained a circular of Sept., 1920, for the abolition of the workhouses.  The scheme was set in motion at a conference, comprising representatives of Birr and Tullamore Boards of Guardians, held in the Boardroom of the Tullamore Workhouse, on the 2nd November, 1920.  Four members of the Edenderry Board of Guardians had been deputed to attend the conference but were unable to reach Tullamore owing to activities of Crown forces at the time.  At that meeting, which was held in camera, it was suggested that Tullamore Union Workhouse be closed as such, and converted into a County Hospital. The workhouses at Birr and Edenderry, were also recommended to be closed and the aged and infirm inmates to be boarded out with their friends, or  transferred to Tullamore County Hospital where their maintenance would be charged at the average cost of maintenance in that union. The scheme submitted was practically in accordance with the recommendations made by the Da1 Commission for the abolition of the workhouses. Cottage hospitals were be retained at Birr and Edenderry if considered necessary and only one fever hospital to be maintained in the county. Tullamore being central was recommended as the seat of the County Hospital whither patients could be easily transferred by motor ambulance from the most remote parts of the county.

[The conferences on amalgamation of the health services]

A further conference was held in Kildare, which was attended by representatives from the several Unions in Offaly, Laois, Carlow and Kildare. The whole four-county area scheme was fully discussed but was found impracticable and a two county area scheme was also considered unworkable. The Conference however, recommended that one workhouse hospital and fever hospital for the counties of Offaly and Leix would be quite ample for the needs of the sick and destitute.  It also recommended, that four of the five workhouses in the two counties should be closed. Representatives from each of these five boards of guardians met in Mountmellick Workhouse Boardroom on Monday, 20th December, for the purpose of electing the workhouse to be retained as a county home and also be one that should be retained as a hospital for the area.  A representative in Dail Eireann was in attendance and pointed out that as each county was to be an administrative unit it would be necessary to select an hospital and home for each county.  Tullamore Workhouse which was up to date every respect was chosen as the Central Home and Hospital for Offaly, and Mountmellick workhouse was considered the more suitable for Leix. The Scheme as now drafted and which provided for cottage hospitals at Birr and Edenderry, was finally approved at a meeting held in Tullamore, on the 9th of March 1921.

The former infirmary at the Tullamore Union Workhouse became the county hospital from 1921 to 1942. The fountain to the front was brought from O’Connor Square in 1926. Now the site of the old offices of the Midland Health Board. It was under the charge of the Mercy Nuns of St Vincent’s Convent, Tullamore.

The workhouse system and the workhouse – The Bleak House of English misdoing in Ireland both were to disappear.  These institutions had cost the Irish ratepayers enormous sums to maintain: the system was a degrading as well as an expensive one, and the rate paying community welcomed any scheme by which it could be abolished.  In Offaly the cost of maintaining these institutions accumulated roughly £50,000 per annum being £10,000 more than the cost of maintenance of all the roads in the County.  Under the Amalgamation Scheme it is to effect a huge saving at the outset it is estimated a saving of £8,000 has been effected.  It would have been much greater but for the fact that provision had to be made for the superannuating of a number of retiring officials, and for the compensating of others whose services as officials under the old poor regime had to be dispensed with.