Kildare County Council 1919-21
by Liam Kenny
Local historian Liam Kenny has sent us the following analysis of the political and administrative characteristics of the transition in allegiance from the British Local Government Board to the Dail Eireann Dept of Local Government as seen through the records of Kildare County Council 1919-21 and centred on the local government elections of June 1920. Liam has authored several publications on County Kildare during this revolutionary period, including 1899-2019: First Election And First Meeting of Kildare County Council. Our thanks to Liam for sending this in.
LOCAL government as the first and most local stage in a democratic system of government should normally be a sensitive barometer of political change and its impact on a locality.
A survey of local government over a specified period provides an opportunity to assess the impact of events and trends at national level on life at a local level. Set against the background of traumatic political upheaval such as that experienced during the period from 1916 to 1921 a survey of elements of the Irish local government system also allows examination of the extent to which the very tools of administration became a form of weapon in the nationalist struggle and were to prove as potent as the weapons of the military campaign, although the latter is the image which dominates.
The struggle between, on the one hand, the civil servants of the Local Government Board as they attempted to hold on to their controlling function over local authorities from their Customs House offices, and on the other, the revolutionaries turned administrators of the emerging and subversive Dail Eireann Government departments is echoed in the records of the local authorities and shows that the battle to determine the future administrations of the country went on in the dusty corridors of county halls as well as the hillsides where the flying columns marched.
Joseph Robins in his book Custom House People (Dublin, 1993), p.93, referring to the central role of the Custom House offices in the control of many facets of Irish life comments,
‘To the public in general it [the Custom House] was one of the main manifestations of British power in Ireland, responsible for directing a wide range of local services, and an important element in the machinery of public taxation. From 1918 on, Sinn Fein had succeeded in getting many local authorities to support the independence struggle by encouraging them to resist or ignore the authority of the Local Government Board.’
Basil Chubb writing in The Government and Politics of Ireland (2nd edition, London, 1982), p.293, describes the new councils set up under the reforming 1898 Local Government (Ireland) Act as being ‘centres of nationalism’ . He quotes French writer L. Paul-Dubois as commenting:
‘By providing the population with a lever against the Castle and at the same time a permanent local focus, it gave Ireland a new weapon to advance its claims.’
SOURCE MATERIAL FOR THIS STUDY
The survey is based on the original minute books of Kildare County Council and Naas Urban District Council. These give a first hand record of decisions and considerations by the local authorities which reflect the changing nature of the relationship between the Customs House and the country’s local government system.
It is true that the reports of local newspapers of the time would bring in a wider range of considerations because they report and comment on the political aspects of the councils’ deliberations and illustrate the passion and the colour which infused the debates. The minutes are written in a dry official hand which avoids reference to political sympathies.
However the present author proposes to concentrate on the minutes in their own right for this short study with the prospect of drawing in the other sources for the much more expanded work which such material would demand at a later stage.
A further reason for concentrating on the minutes is that it is seldom that the actual fabric of the record which the historian is dealing with itself suffers from the traumas of the time but this is the case with the local authority minutes with instances of the minute books being seized and, on one occasion, past entries being deleted from the record because they were not deemed ‘politically correct’ by later councils!
REMEMBERING THAT LIFE WENT ON
Before embarking on a commentary of how the local authorities in Kildare were affected by, or reacted to, the political developments of the time it has to be stressed that the vast share of their business was connected with the provision of local services and with managing the nuts and bolts of administration. Filling pot-holes and completing sheep-dip programmes were as important as expressing opinions about the major national issues of the time. No more than with a survey of national government activities it is easy to emphasise the spectacular and the evocative without realising that the headline-making activities went on against the background of the daily grind of keeping the system in operation.
1916-18 COUNCIL HAS MARKEDLY HOME RULE TONE
Even in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising Kildare County Council (KCC) had no difficulty in lending its support to local men fighting in British uniform. Witness a special meeting in November 1916 called to honour Lieut. John Holland of Athy whose exploits at the Front had earned him a Victoria Cross. The tone of the resolution might as well have been passed in Kent as in Co. Kildare.
”We, . . .have learned with the greatest pride and admiration the great gallantry of our fellow countryman, Lieut. John Holland, who is the first Kildare man to win, during the present war, the highest distinction that can be awarded by the British Army.’
However identification with those perceived as heroes of the British War effort did not prevent the members of KCC from agreeing with a motion the same month from their urban colleagues in the Naas UDC urging the release of Co. Kildare men imprisoned following the Rising. This form of simultaneous adherence to seemingly conflicting sentiments is repeated many times during the following years.
The degree to which KCC was in sympathy with the war effort can be guaged by a return to the matter of Lt. Holland when some months later the council presented him with a commemorative scroll. Apart from the fact that the language of the citation would outstrip that of even the most jingoistic of the high war poets, the last clause is particularly revealing.
‘Weighing for a moment the higher issues and the spiritual interests that are at stake . . .that our own dear countrymen at the front . . . are unquestionably on the side of God. . .and may well take heart of grace and courage when they remember that they are fighting Ireland’s battle no less than England’s . . .’
That the political aspiration of local authorities in Kildare in the year following the Rising was unashamedly of the Home Rule variety can be gauged by a resolution passed by Naas UDC in June 1916 which read,
‘We, at this crisis in our country’s history, express our complete confidence in Mr. John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party, and place on record our strong conviction that the proposal suggested by Mr. LLoyd George, as outlined by Mr. Redmond . . . affords the basis for a provisional settlement of the Irish question which Irish Nationalists can accept without any sacrifice of principle . . .’
Four months later KCC was passing a motion calling on the British Government to release all the Irish political prisoners. Similarly the Naas UDC decided to send a large delegation to a convention in Dublin called for the purposes of establishing an All-Ireland amnesty association. Calls for the release of prisoners were a frequent item on the councils’ agendas through not only the war of independence but also the civil war. Urging the release of prisoners was an action more easily accommodated by the varying shades of opinion on the council than calls for more direct political action.
1918-20 ATTITUDE HARDENS
The emergence of an administrative network under Irish republican control which would offer an alternative to the British Local Government Board (LGB) is hinted when a letter dealing with the treatment of venereal disease is read to KCC in August 1918 from the Sinn Fein Director of Public Health. However this letter appears something of a stray find in the Council’s correspondence registers and it would be well into 1919 before letters from the departments set up under the First Dail began to feature in the Council’s correspondence.
Nonetheless the language of resistance was beginning to gain currency in the country’s council chambers and the members of KCC, if not taking the lead, at least gave a hearing to the more pointed political missives from their colleagues in other parts. For example, a letter read at KCC’s August 1918 meeting from Cork County Council referred to ‘a) Hypocrisy of English Statesmen and b) admission of Irish delegates to the Peace Conference (Versailles)’.
The developments in the independence movement at national level percolated through the business of the council only infrequently among the mass of local administrative detail but by September 1919 there are signs that the dual-track approach of councillors to current political developments at national level was hardening towards the nationalist direction. At a meeting that month the council passed a resolution congratulating ‘the Gaels in Co. Kildare on annexing the much coveted All Ireland Football Championship.’ At the same meeting the KCC declined a request made on behalf of the Earl of Drogheda to undertake the safe keeping of ‘War Trophies’.
One must be cautious in drawing conclusions about the political sympathies of council members solely on the basis of these motions. Congratulating a football team is hardly a defiant act of nationalism while the council may simply have not had a spare press in which to keep the war memorabilia _ but it might also suggest that the spoils of war won under the British flag were no longer quite as acceptable to councillors as had been Lt. Holland’s VC medal three years previously.
The outrages and reprisals of the war of independence which was becoming more bloody from 1919 into 1920 may well have contributed to this hardening of the previously ambivalent attitude among Kildare local authority members towards the independence movement. In March 1920 the members of Naas UDC issued a strong condemnation of the murder of Lord Mayor McCurtain in Cork ‘who was foully done to death because of his life’s work and continuous sacrifices on behalf of his country’s independence.’
1920 ELECTIONS BRING NEW MILITANCY
If the support among the Kildare councils for the independence movement had been lukewarm this changed to a more militant strain in dramatic fashion. The members of the Kildare County Council referred to above had been elected in 1914 when Home Rule was the dominant policy. The local government elections of 1920, taking place against the background of the War of Independence were certain to bring in a council with a much sharper nationalist thrust.
The elections to the city and town local authorities in January 1920 had set the scene on a national basis with Sinn Fein gaining control of seventy-two out of 127 corporations and town councils. This trend was maintained in the county council elections of June of that year with Sinn Fein winning the majority on 28 of the 33 county authorities. The newly constituted councils considered themselves an integral part of the nationalist struggle. According to the First Report of the Department of Local Government the post-election councils ‘challenged the authority of the Imperial Parliament by refusing to recognise the control of the Local Government Board and by making declarations of allegiance to Dail Eireann.’
The situation in Kildare County Council reflected the national transformation in the balance of power on local government councils outside of Ulster. Out went names associated with the establishment – no matter how benevolently disposed towards Home Rule – such as of Lt. Col. Frederick Fitzgerald, George Wolfe, and Matthew Minch. In came activists of the independence struggle such as Eamonn O’Modhrain and Domhnall O’Buachalla whose use of the Irish forms of their names signalled also the intensity of their political convictions.
The new council lost no time in laying down the markers of its political sympathies and of its attitude to the British administration structure. The first business of the first meeting after the local government election was to elect Domhnall O’Buachalla of Maynooth as the council’s chairman – a figure with strong nationalist connections in North Kildare who was later to be appointed by Mr deValera as Ireland’s last Governor General.
The second item of business was to admit a deputation from the Gaelic League consisting of Arthur O’Connor, TD; a Dr Grogan, and a Fr O’Brien. Not alone did the councillors receive the deputation with alacrity but it took on board fully and enthusiastically its advocacy of the Irish language as a central part of the building of a new and independent Ireland.
The motion which the council passed embodying the deputation’s recommendations is worth quoting at length because it demonstrates the completely new outlook of the post 1920 election local authority.
‘a) An Irish speaker to be elected as chairman
b) All powers that the Council currently has in the area of education to be applied immediately to the furtherance of the teaching of Irish and Irish History
c) School Inspection Committees to be appointed for this purpose
d) Cheques, headings of papers and books to be in Irish alone, and minutes to be signed in Irish
e) That the Council give preference in advertising to papers that publish Irish speeches and remarks in Irish, and that give the language a fair show.’
Again emphasising the enthusiasm of the newly elected council the above passage was printed in the council minutes in the old-Irish typeface. Interestingly it was repeated in English with the addition of the words ‘(where possible)’ in parentheses after provision ‘(a)’ as if to provide an escape clause for those revolutionaries not quite up to standard as Gaeilge.
The pre-eminence given – at least symbolically – to the Irish language was backed up by an explicitly political motion which fired the opening shot in the struggle of transferring the Council’s loyalties from the Local Government Board to the Department of Local Government set up under Dail Eireann. This motion marked the entry of the Council as a full participant in the administrative battle running concurrently with the military conflict then at its height.
It read: ‘That this council . . . hereby acknowledges the authority of Dail Eireann as the duly elected Government of the Irish people and undertakes to give effect to all decrees duly promulgated by the said Dail Eireann in so far as same affect this Council.’
It is an interesting illustration of the far-reaching network of influence being created by the members of the fledgling Dail Eireann government that the KCC members felt it possible to give their motion an international airing, resolving that it should be forwarded to ‘the Republican Minister for Foreign Affairs for transmission to the Governments of Europe and to the President and Chairman of the Senate and the House of Representatives of the USA’ .
The Council’s determination to wield the tools of administration as part of the armoury of the nationalist struggle was signalled by another motion passed at that same meeting which ordered That every possible obstacle be placed in the way of the British Government in collecting taxes and otherwise . . . and specifically instructing the council’s officials not to let the lists of ratepayers or the Council’s staff records fall into British hands.
The process of transformation from the lukewarm Home Rule based pre 1920 council to the unashamedly national post 1920 membership was completed by rewriting the record to erase from the council’s minutes sentiments which were not acceptable to the strongly nationalist tone of the new council. It was agreed that ‘the resolution passed unanimously in May, 1916 condemning the rebellion of Easter Week be deleted from the minutes . . . the minute referred to in the resolution was thereupon deleted’.
The Council’s determination that urgent steps be taken to transfer the power of even the most routine aspects of local authority functions is illustrated by a resolution of August 1920 specifying that the operation of the weights & measures inspectorate be taken out of the hands of the RIC.
A secondary theme to the nationalist re-orientation of the council’s political sympathies and official functions was the increased status given to organised labour. A motion was passed in August 1920 directing that ‘only trade union labour be employed’ on the Council’s direct labour schemes. This preference towards the Trade Union movement was motivated, in the first instance, by a desire to reward the unions for their support of the nationalist struggle as another motion passed by the Council makes clear, ‘That we the members of the Kildare County Council in recognition of the good services rendered by Trade Union Labour hereby call on all Republican Employers in Co. Kildare to employ none other than Trade Union Labour.’ Almost certainly, it was also a reaction to the fact that the contract or presentment system of carrying out road repairs and other works which originated under the Council’s forerunners, the Grand Jury, had become despised for its abuses and jobbery and, similar to the workhouses, was seen as one of the objectionable remnants of the old regime which the new administration was anxious to root out.
1920 THE CUSTOMS HOUSE HITS BACK
Returning to the central issue of the Council’s transfer of loyalty to Dail Eireann the fight back from the Local Government Board was rapid and predictable. In August 1920 a letter was read to a KCC Finance Committee meeting from the Local Government Board backed by a similar communication from the Under Secretary in Dublin Castle threatening to with-hold grants from local authorities who refused to conform with its instructions. The KCC members were defiant the minute recording ‘it was decided to take no action in the matter’. However more than rhetoric was needed if the Council was to make effective its attempts to cut off links with the Customs House. The people who controlled the income and bank holdings of the Council were in a position to control all its activities. It was vital that the Council’s resources were not left vulnerable to being seized by the Local Government Board. On 1 September 1920 the Council held a special meeting in which it was resolved to make ‘such arrangements as are necessary in connection with the Treasurer-ship for protecting the finances of the Council.’ This was backed by another motion depriving the Hibernian Bank (Naas) of the Treasurer-ship. A special committee of the Council set to work immediately on emergency plans for keeping the Council’s assets out of British hands making arrangements so secret that they could not be detailed in the official minutes, a timely precaution as will be shown later. The committee ordered that all further payments to the council be directed to Mr. Patrick Field, the Council’s Accountant, ‘to whom the committee gave private and confidential instructions as to the disposal of the money.’ It added, ‘the question of appointing nominees was also considered and appointments duly made, which the Committee considered should be kept secret.’
The battle for control of the council’s finances continued. Dublin Castle hit back in November with a letter from the Chief Secretary’s Office ordering the witholding of grants payable to the Council from central funds. At a time when the collection of the poor law rate, the council’s main source of income, was made difficult by the disturbed circumstances of the country any cutback in the other sources of funding had serious repercussions for the Council.
The impact of the with-holding of funding soon became apparent. In November under a heading ‘Builders’ Labourers’ wages’ there is a report of public works in Newbridge being stopped ‘due to the impecunious condition of the Council’. However defiant the Kildare County Council might be on the question of taking control of its own funds and putting them outside Local Government Board reach it soon ran into a predicament which showed that its nationalist enthusiasms had to take second place to the realities of having the resources for its day to day functions as a local authority. Ironically this crux, centring on the key question of who held the Council’s financial assets, earned it a rebuke from the very Dail Eireann which it was at such pains to support. The Council found that it needed the borrowing and overdraft facilities accorded by the Hibernian Bank – a reality which prevented it from carrying through its early resolve to take its financial business out of the hands of the bank where they could easily be frozen by the authorities.
This crisis was illustrated in a long minute from a Finance Committee meeting of December 1920 when the council heard a letter from Dail Eireann which said that its action in reappointing the Hibernian Bank was an infringement of Dail instructions. An obviously embarassed Council instructed its Chairman to write back to the Dail explaining
‘That the Council’s action in reappointing the Hibernian Bank as Treasurer was occasioned in consequence of financial difficulties and that the Council’s action is not in any way to be regarded as a repudiation of the authority of Dail Eireann.’
The cat-and-mouse struggle for control of the local authorities being waged between the LGB and Dail Eireann is illustrated by the fact that just four days after the Dail Eireann letter the LGB wrote to KCC pointing out that only a Banking Company was permitted to act as Treasurer. It must have been a cause of embarrassment for the militantly nationalist council members to have to concede this point to the LGB.
The contest for control of local administration took other direct forms. The first entry in KCC’s ninth Minute book dated 22 November 1920 records the Secretary reporting that ‘a raid had been carried out by the RIC this morning on the Courthouse and the Council’s current minute book and letter book, also the abstracts of Collector’s lodgement’s and correspondence received from Dail Eireann, had been taken possession of by the raiding party’.
Raiding the offices of a body regarded as subversive is a common feature of the reaction by government authorities in order to glean information and frustrate the activities of the organisations which threatens their position. It is significant that among the documents seized were the Rate Collector’s lodgements which showed the source and destination of the council’s main source of income.
1921 WHICH PEN IS MIGHTIER?
The impact of the war of independence permeated the council’s normal business in various ways in the early months of 1921. A special meeting in January 1921 considered damage to bridges in the county _ six in the Celbridge area and one in the Naas area. The Council also sponsored the formation of a Co. Kildare Republican Relief Committee which was so closely linked with the authority that its minutes were pasted into the Council’s official minute books.
The conflict with the Local Government Board seems to have marked time in the early months of 1921 but the struggle between the rival systems continued. In May the Council’s secretary attempted to read a letter from the Local Government Board in connection with the Criminal Injuries code ‘but the Council refused to listen to the contents’. Letters from the rival administrations were considered one after the other at meetings. At the June 1921 meeting, in the middle of correspondence from the Dublin Castle or London departments such as the Ministry of Transport, LGB, and Treasury relating to normal requests for statistical returns, submissions of reports, etc., was a letter from Dail Eireann ‘prohibiting the making of Census returns’ which was read and approved.’
The very fact that the British correspondence was still getting a hearing at the Council in 1921 suggests that despite their resolutions the previous year which repudiated any role for the British departments in their affairs the previous year the Council did not want to break communication completely. It could be presumed that the Council wanted to continue taking advantage of the British administrative machinery for various schemes until the Dail Eireann departments, which of course were ‘still on the run’ prior to the Treaty, were sufficiently organised and resourced to administer the same benefits.
An amusing glance into the disturbed state of the country at the time with two administrations vying for the attention of the council _ the Dail Eireann one having to move its meagre office set-up from house to house so as to evade capture _ is given by a curious incident in which two letters were sent from the Dail Eireann Ministry of Trade purporting to prohibit the importation of tea and coffee from the UK and specifying the payment of an unemployment benefit of #2 per week to unemployed men. The Council had its suspicions and checked their authenticity with Dail Eireann. The reply confirmed that the letters were spurious!
The burning of the Custom House on 25 May 1921 which also destroyed the offices and records of the Local Government Board was a crippling blow to its attempts to keep the renegade local authorities under some rein. Certainly the LGB was powerless to stop a Dail Eireann scheme to get rid of the hated workhouses from being carried through by local authorities. In Kildare a conference in June 1921 between the KCC and the Poor Law Guardians agreed on the closure of the workhouses in or contiguous to the county and their conversion into hospitals. The Kildare conference concluded, ‘The Conference believes that the Workhouse system as at present administered is not a healthy factor in the life of the Irish Nation . . .’
1921 SHADOW OF THE GUN
It is noteworthy that during this time there were numerous resignations and co-options of Councillors. For example Eamonn O’Modhrain, Thomas Harris, and Francis Doran, tendered their resignations in May 1921. The attendance record of many councillors was also poor. Both facts suggest that there was a strong military undercurrent to the membership of the Council with some members on active service. Those perhaps not in a condition to join the flying columns and active service units carried on the struggle in the Council chambers.
A revealing glimpse of the real power behind the administrative machinery being taken over by the nationalist movement is seen in a letter from a Republican official described in the minutes as the ‘Liason Officer’ – Mr. Thomas Lawlor of Halverstown, Naas. In rather respectful tones the Council which had little in the way of office facilities to spare had no difficulty in acceding to his request for the use of a ‘typewriter during the continuance of the present truce and also the use of the Telephone in the Co. Secretary’s Office.’
The declaration of a Truce in late July allowed the military leaders of the movement such as the Kildare liaison officer to come out in the open. One wonders how much influence they had on bodies such as the Council in the preceding two years when all contact was clandestine and not recorded.
Shortly afterwards, a report from the County Surveyor expressing concern about trenches and trees on the roads was referred by the Council to the Liaison Officer – a response which suggests that the republican members on the local authority deferred to the military men during and in the immediate aftermath of hostilities. This deference had some unusual consequences for the Council’s own staff. In November 1921 an assistant county surveyor appealed to the members for help with travelling expenses ‘until his motorcycle is returned to him by the IRA’ – apparently the machine had been commandeered by the IRA the previous July . Although the war and terror had made inroads into the British administrative machinery and in the case of Local Government Board the burning of the Custom House had been an all but paralysing blow, Dublin Castle made great efforts to keep control of the system. At the last council meeting before the treaty in November 1921 there were seventeen items of official correspondence: ten from British departments and seven from the still unrecognised Dail Eireann departments.
1922 CONTROL TRANSFERRED
The signing of the Treaty in London led to much heart-searching in Ireland over the Christmas of 1921. The reaction of Kildare County Council was positive but the ominous tensions which were to lead to civil war were already apparent.
Kildare County Council called a special meeting on 30 December 1921 to dicuss the Peace Treaty. Tensions were obviously high because the first question that arose was whether the Press should be excluded. The Press stayed and heard a motion put to the meeting, ‘That we the Kildare County Council, are in favour of the ratification of the Treaty between Ireland and England and call upon the Deputies for Kildare and Wicklow to support it.’ The meeting further resolved to send a copy of the resolution to ‘the deputies for Kildare and Wicklow, and to Messrs. Griffith, De Valera, and Collins.’
The motion was carried with Eamonn O’Modhrain being the only dissenter and Thomas Harris not voting – two members who were already showing the direction they would take when the confusion of the post Treaty weeks gave way to the open divisions that triggered the Civil War.
With one war over another was on the horizon, one which would also have an impact on Kildare County Council. But the impact of the civil war would be concerned mainly with the political composition and attitude of the Council: the administration would now function under the Free State Dept. of Local Government.
At its first full meeting in 1922 Kildare County Council considered 15 official letters: all were from the new Dail Eireann departments. The battle for the control of local government had been well and truly won.
The period of the war of independence had brought the local authorities close to the front line in the independence struggle. As can be seen from the extracts in its own records the attitude of the members of Kildare County Council prior to 1920 reflected the less militant approach of the Home Rule movement which had been the dominant policy at the time of its election six years before.
This changed sharply with the June 1920 local government elections which brought in a new set of representatives who lost no time in converting the authority itself into another arm of the nationalist struggle.
The strains and stresses on central-local relations in the local government system were apparent as the remodelled Council set out to frustrate the efforts of the Local Government Board. The emergence of the Dail Eireann Dept. of Local Government and its success in implementing its own administrative structure in the face of its illegal status and meagre resources is well traced in the minutes.
Local authorities such as Kildare County Council may not have been in the front line of the nationalist military conflict but as can be seen from the foregoing their political aspect complemented the activities of the fighting forces of republicanism. In parallel, the local authorities as organisations in their own right were important supporting actors in the drama of pulling down the institutions of one regime and replacing it with those of a new government.